East is East and West is West, and the twain shall truly meet

When the recently deceased emigre Chinese artist Chen Zhen was once asked whether he considered the West or East to be his home, he replied that it was neither of the two, but instead it lay somewhere in between. Coming from an artist who has experienced both cultures, first in Asia and his native Shangai where he lived through the Cultural Revolution, and then in France where he moved in the mid-1980s, the response is hardly surprising. Groping with cultural diversity was, for Chen Zhen, a decisive life experience above all, not just an artistic choice. A cultural nomad, Chen Zhen traveled the world not only with the cosmopolitan spirit and the means of a Westerner but also with the spiritual mind-set of an Easterner, searching for the one uninterrupted essence of life everywhere he went. This holistic approach to the world, at least as understood in the West, sets the mood in «Metaphors of the Body,» Chen Zhen’s large one-man tribute at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. This is an exhibit in which the Western notions of cultural mobility and hybridization meet the Eastern view of the unity of life. It is not about cultural tensions and antithesis but about the power of the mind, meditation and man’s spiritual well-being. «Metaphors of the Body» is also about healing, a theme that the repeated references to Eastern medicine and purification rites put across quite overtly. Some works, such as the recent «Diagnostic Room» or «Obsession with Longevity» from some years earlier, actually seem like laboratories of alternative, Eastern medicine. Another work named «Zen Garden» brings together the divergent Western and Eastern medical practices to a Zen-like state of unity, the same unity that fuses the physical and spiritual. Chen Zhen believed that Chinese medicine was very close to art and applied the medical term synergy to both fields to show their common characteristics. The idea here is that, just as in medicine different organs of the body work together over a shared function or different chemicals combine to perform a single action, in art or life, divergent cultures or points of view can merge to produce new and creative ideas. The one work that best captures the connection between medicine and art is «Jue Chang / Fifty Strokes to Each,» a huge installation with an underlying political message that Chen Zhen made in 1998 as a way of addressing Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and whose presentation at the Venice Biennale the subsequent year was seen as conveying a pertinent political message on the war in Kosovo. Based on a Buddhist saying which recommends 50 blows to each party involved in a dispute for peace to be restored, the work is a collection of suspended old chairs stretched and tied together by animal hides which the viewers are invited to strike with the aid of wooden batons, and thus release all their energy and frustrations in the process. Functioning as a kind of huge percussion musical instrument, it is a kind of interactive work that provides an outlet for violence and through physical activity, helps heal the mind. Like most of the exhibit’s works, «Fifty Strokes to Each» is both monumental and rigorous, strangely evocative of what Westerners perceive as an Eastern mental discipline. What is also distinctive about Chen Zhen’s works is the way in which physicality and human beings are always strongly present although the human body is never actually depicted. As the exhibit’s title suggests, the human body is only depicted through metaphors – beds, surgical instruments, candles or abstract forms that suggest organs – but persistently left out in more literal visual ways. This is probably because Chen Zhen was more concerned with the life force itself rather than its more concrete forms. The artist’s interest in Feng Shui and his application of its principles to his multiple urban-planning projects, including the transformation of a number of Parisian quartiers, also stemmed from the belief that life is about energy, and that a sense of well-being depends on its being channeled rightly. Whether this preoccupation made Chen Zhen more of a Western or Eastern artist – or neither of the two – is perhaps secondary. For a contemporary Chinese artist living in China, he might have been a Western artist, but for a Westerner, he was merely a citizen of the world. Either way, Chen Zhen was one of the first generation of contemporary Chinese artists who became recognized in the West. This fact alone says much about the West’s capacity to distill and absorb non-Western art, and by doing so, making it Western. This raises the complex issue of multiculturalism, its meaning and impact on art and culture. Is it possible for cultural differences to be bridged through art? Chen Zhen would probably answer that it is. His art poses the question to the rest of us.

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