Working primarily with video and photography, and occasionally with painting, sculpture and installation, Chen Xiaoyun's (陈晓云) artworks are characterised by their poeticism and absurd, fragmented imagery. Loaded with tension, Chen's representations of everyday objects, human behaviours, or social groups are interlaced with several layers of metaphors and metonyms, speaking to complex psychological states in contemporary China.Read More
Early video works established Chen's reputation as a maker of poetic films. Several Moments Extending to a Night (2002) and Several Moments Extending to a Night—II (2004), for example, were an early exploration of the relationship between video and abstraction. Opening with a shot of a roof on a drizzling night, the non-linear progression of Several Moments Extending to a Night mimics the flows of the unconscious, memory, and dreams. On the other hand, Several Moments Extending to a Night—II is imbued with vague sentimentality; in the multi-screen installation, footage of a roaring train is screened simultaneously with imagery of individuals struggling to move forward. Made in 2004, Chen's film Queen LiLi's Garden consists of multiple small chapters and sections, each of which unfolds with a title, subtitle, or passage delivered by an anonymous narrator. The film aims to portray the loneliness and the sense of loss felt by urban dwellers, its non-linear progression mimicking the characters' psychological conditions.
It was also around 2004 that the artist began to turn away from the slow movement and illusiveness that previously underpinned his works in search of a more powerful and succinct language. The 2004 film Lash exemplifies this intensity in its use of stroboscopic effect accompanied by the throbbing whip crack sounds to depict a young man dragging a dead tree. Similarly centring on the simplicity of an exaggerated body movement, Drag (2006) features a man dragging a rope that connects to some invisible power on the other end. FIRE—3000KG (2009), on the other hand, features a group of obstreperous students burning a truck of books, while Night/2.4KM (2009) shows a team of migrant workers who march silently in the wild with shovels and cudgels in their hands. By engaging socio-political conditions, these latter two provocative videos marked Chen's transition from the focus on personal introspection to an interest in the collective state of being.
In 2013, the exhibition Hysteria, Metaphorical and Metonymical Life-World at the A4 Contemporary Arts Centre in Chengdu brought together the artist's photographs, videos, sketches, and writings in an attempt to re-examine and unpack the 'hysterical' qualities of his work. As curator Bao Dong explained, 'hysteria' proliferates throughout the fragments of the images and texts, because the artist 'tried to achieve the extreme intensity of affect in his work in endeavour to resist the "hysterical quality" that he experienced in real life.' The three-channel video Why Life (2010), for instance, depicts wildly uncontrolled emotions and violent behaviours, such as a nipple being twisted by 360 degrees, or a man thrown to the ground before a footsteps on his face. Prompting the viewer to reflect upon the reality in contemporary China, the video's combination of fragmented slogan-like texts and visually stimulating images forces the audience to oscillate between a passive mode of watching and an active mode of reading.
Chen's photography is similar to his films in terms of the peculiar relationship between image and text. The titles of the photographs often function as annotations of the images—the poeticism exists in the gap between the text and image. In his 'Zhuiku Tablet' Annotation exhibition at ShanghART Beijing in 2012, a photo of a person walking barefoot on a dead branch is titled Give My Future to a Snake. Chen's installations and sculptures are also related to poetry that engages mythology, fables, metaphors, and the imaginary; his 'Emerald Tablet' sculpture series (2009), for example, is an imaginative interpretation of an ancient text with 13 proverbs that are reputed to reveal the secret of the prima material and its transmutation, purportedly authored by Hermes Trismegistus.
Born in Hubei, Chen graduated from the China Academy of Art and started his career with his participation in the exhibition Art for Sale in Shanghai in 1999. He was the recipient of the New Photography of the Year prize of Lianzhou Foto 2012. He has participated in exhibitions at Beijing Minsheng Art Museum; Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston; and Kunsthalle Bern. He has also exhibited at the Havana Biennial; Busan Biennale; Yokohama Triennale; Biennale of Sydney; and the Torino Triennale.
Sophie Guo | Ocula | 2019