Chen Shaoxiong is known for his combination of traditional Chinese ink painting techniques with contemporary technology and subject matter. With a formal background in printmaking, he further worked in a variety of media including photography, performance and installation. Chen is also remembered for his role as a founding member of two seminal art collectives, the Big Tail Elephant Working Group and Xijing Men.Read More
The Big Tail Elephant Working Group, which Chen established with artists Lin Yilin, Liang Juhui and Xu Tan in the 1990s, was based in Guangzhou and became known for their public performances and interventions in response to the rapid urbanisation of the Pearl River Delta region in southern China. While the group did not make collaborative works, the artists consistently exchanged ideas and exhibited together. Active between 1991 and 1998, the group challenged the state-run art system by exhibiting in alternative spaces such as private homes, local bars and basements. The group held six shows between 1991 and 1997; in 1998 they had a retrospective at the Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland, which was both their first exhibition in a Western art institute and their last as a collective.
Chen's early works from the Big Tail Elephant period are titled after the duration for which they existed or were designed to exist. For Five Hours, a performance in 1993, Chen planned to remain still from 9:30 pm to 2:30 am at an entrance to a bar. The police, however, halted the performance after only two and a half hours. In an interview with Pauline J Yao in the catalogue Chen Shaoxiong, published by Blue Kingfisher, the artist explained that his use of units of time in titles served to 'take the concept of "reality" out of temporality'.
Founded in 2006, Xijing Men was a collective of three East Asian artists: Chen Shaoxiong (China), Gimhongsok (South Korea) and Tsuyoshi Ozawa (Japan). Given that the members spoke different languages, they communicated through drawings and written Chinese characters shared by all three countries. Employing absurdity, humour, sarcasm and satire, the three artists collaborated on projects that explored Xijing or 'Western Capital', a fictitious city they had fabricated to mirror the world they live in. In Xijing Olympics (2008), for example, the artists cast themselves as athletes and their family and friends as audience and staged an Olympics-style game of their own design. Using watermelons in lieu of soccer balls and loaves of bread for guns, the performance satirised state pomp and ceremony in relation to the Olympics, then taking place in Beijing, China.
Tirelessly exploring new media and technology, Chen began working with video in 1994 and combining video and ink painting in 2005. Works such as Ink City (2005), Ink History (2010) and Ink Media (2011–13) typically have their roots in the images found in mass and social media, which the artist recaptured in ink and pieced together into videos. For Ink City, Chen based his ink paintings on photographs and images of city scenes. Incorporating about 300 ink paintings, the three-minute video presents memories of urbanisation and development. Ink History, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on the history of China from 1909 to 2009. Chen chose iconic images that were familiar not only to Chinese people but also to the rest of the world, such as the picture of Mao Zedong with Stalin. In Ink Media he returned to the images of unrest, using moments of protest movements around the globe in the last three decades. By collapsing protests that occurred in different times and places, Chen sought to delineate the idea of protest as a shared means of political expression and of the human body as 'a medium for anti-war protest'.
Chen's interest in shared experiences and memories is also apparent in 'Collective Memory' (2006–16), a project that has had various iterations. Replicating the images of public cultural institutions such as the Louvre and the British Museum, Chen explored their contradictory status as both elite-oriented sites and visual markers of ultimately public spaces. For the iteration in 2016, the artist invited ordinary people to replace the pixels of the photographs with their fingerprints, creating a portrait of shared environments.
Chen graduated from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1984. As a solo artist, he exhibited widely in major cities around the world including Shanghai, New York, Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong, London, Paris and Seoul. He also participated in several international exhibitions, including the Gwangju Biennale (2012, 2008, 2002), Lyon Biennale (2009), Guangzhou Triennial (2005), Venice Biennale (2003) and Shanghai Biennale (2002). Shortly before his death in 2016, Chen worked with long-time colleague and curator Hou Hanru to organise the retrospective exhibition Chen Shaoxiong: Prepared at Power Station of Art, Shanghai.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2018