Chen Zhen, Serpentine Gallery
Chen Zhen, a conceptual artist who died last year, lived most of his life in China. Then, in 1986, he moved to Paris, “a spiritual run-away”, as he put it, from his native land. Once in the West, he abandoned painting in favour of conceptual sculpture, which he used to explore his experience as an individual displaced in another culture. Thankfully, most of his work avoids the glibness that lies in wait for art that deals with multiculturalism, but though it avoids cliché by being heavily idiosyncratic, it remains hit-and-miss.
The show’s centrepiece is Jue Chang (Fifty Strokes to Each), which you are likely to hear before you see. It’s a formation of massive wooden frames from which hang weird beds and chairs in serried ranks, each one turned into a drum with animal hide stretched over where the seats and mattresses should be.
Visitors are invited to bash away with drumsticks. It makes for an odd peace icon but that’s how it was conceived, commissioned by an Israeli gallery to promote peace in that fractious land — 50 strokes refers to a Buddhist method of conflict resolution. Most of the other pieces are just as obscure but less fun. Inner Body Landscapes, for example, are a number of vaguely organic structures constructed out of candles. Armed with the knowledge that Chen Zhen saw holiness in the ubiquity of candles and built collaborative sculptures of them with children from favellas in Brazil, then the pieces become endowed with a certain resonance. If viewed without this context in mind, they stand dumb and ugly.
It’s sometimes hard to take this old-school seriousness with a straight face. But push past the temptation to mock and we discover a body of work of serious intent and laudable integrity.
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