Beijing-based multimedia artist Chen Zhe gained international recognition with her deeply personal project “The Bearable & Bees,” 2007–2012, comprised of two related series of photographs and texts. “The Bearable” documents her own years-long practice of self-harm, while “Bees” explores the experiences of other self-harmers. Zhe explains that capturing her own self-harm in photographs was an intrinsic part of her ritual, and that she never intended to show these images to anyone. An unintentional crack into her secret appeared, however, when one day she failed to prepare an assignment for her class at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, where she was studying at the time, and at the last minute pulled two of her portraits from the personal folder. Although the images are not explicit, they are impressed with a powerful, conflicting desire to simultaneously conceal and reveal. Zhe admits the terror she felt in the face of the possibility of being discovered when her professor, to whom she showed the images, asked her to stay after class. Free from judgment, they discussed her photographs on a purely aesthetic level, which had a liberating effect on Zhe, possibly providing the distance that helped her make sense of her experiences. “I don’t know if it’s morally correct,” she recounts, “but that was really healing for me at that time.”
Though Zhe is a trained photographer, she thinks of her art as writing and understands all artistic media as language, as crucial tools for the extraction of meaning. Attention to structural rules thus decisively informs her work, whether in terms of a symbolism of the image, an intertextuality of installations, or in her common practice of translating between different languages. She seems to be less interested in the production of completed artworks than in the complicated process of building maps of unmarked territory. Consequently, her projects are often durational, involve multiple stages and stretch over several years. Zhe’s artistic process frequently begins in an undefined liminality, which she feels compelled to explore in search of clarity and simplicity.
In the ongoing project “Towards Evenings: Six Chapters,” Zhe confronts her obscure, lifelong discomfort with dusk, an ambiguous feeling that she describes as eluding definition and lacking scientific confirmation, despite being quite common. Following the model of a book, the project is outlined in six “chapters,” each of which the artist plans to realize as an artwork or series of artworks. “891 Dusks: An Encyclopaedia of Psychological Experiences,” recently exhibited at Plug In ICA, realizes the first section of the second chapter of her multimedia “manuscript.” The installation takes off from an existing book entitled New Comprehensive Homeopathic Materia Medica of Mind, which Zhe deconstructs and re-edits into a new work that shares the name of the exhibit. The original homeopathic encyclopedia, which Zhe discovered deep in the Google results of an online search for “twilight unease,” lists 891 herbal remedies for different manifestations of psychological distress. Zhe was especially struck by the book’s explicit effort to adopt scientific language, given that homeopathy in China (just like in the West) is officially considered to be a pseudoscience. She thus deemed it appropriate to conscript the book as a tool to explore the similarly undefined phenomenon of “twilight unease.”
Zhe arrived at her own manuscript by systematically removing redundancies from the original book that distract from the text’s long lists of psychological sensations, all of which she believes can appear in the unsettling experience of dusk. This way, the artist was able to extract many poetic passages that possess deep aesthetic and experiential significance: “darkness, in/ diverted from thoughts of him–/ self, desire to be.” Set on a raised elliptical platform, the installation includes a series of pages showing the stages of Zhe’s deconstructive editing process, placed next to the finished, transformed book. Meanwhile, a low-hanging, dimly lit elliptical roof hovers above the platform, and visitors are invited to listen to a hypnotic soundtrack, streamed by wireless headphones, that consists of the artist’s bilingual reading from the book over softly pulsating music. The resonating sound and light envelop the visitor in a dusky atmosphere, and invite them to experience the more material components of the exhibit as mere fragments of a much larger, essentially elusive phenomenon.
On a wall nearby, another section of the second chapter, “Study of a Poem by Maria Rilke,” represents three stages of the artist’s impressions while exploring Rilke’s poem “Evening.” In an effort to grasp the poem’s mysterious message, Zhe again removes “redundancies” in the text, extracting key terms responsible for producing the tension in the poem. Though Rilke predominantly focuses on the alternation of opposing states (“one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star,” the poem concludes), Zhe collapses the seemingly conflicting concepts, and ends with stark simplicity, implying that a stone is a star and a star is a stone.
Her work strongly suggests that end results can never be contemplated in isolation from processes, and are in many ways intimately entangled with the unutterable. The troublesome question of completion, therefore, strongly permeates Zhe’s practice. The artist acutely remembers the moment when she took the last photo for “The Bearable” series, her forearm covered at length with parallel linear cuts, droplets of blood collecting at the edges. Interestingly, the precise lines recall the marks carved by our ancient ancestors on bones or sticks as first attempts at symbolic abstraction from an overwhelming reality. It was in the moment of taking this picture that Zhe realized she was finished with self-harm. To say anything more, to make another mark on her body, or to shoot another image, would have been redundant. In this sense, Zhe does not so much search for clarification through systematization and language but rather considers meaning to be born in a zone of indeterminacy. She possesses the patience of a writer, and she understands that the manifestations within the process can’t be forced. When she is done, she will know she is done. It is all about finding that magical balance of connections, within which things reveal themselves in their utter simplicity.
“Chen Zhe: Towards Evenings: 891 Dusks: An Encyclopaedia of Psychological Experiences” was exhibited at Plug In ICA, Winnipeg, from January 24 to March 22, 2020.
Monika Vrečar is a media theorist living in Winnipeg