Chen Tianzhuo is riding the wave of an exciting time for the young contemporary art scene in China. Mixing various media, from traditional painting and video to installation and performance, he uses colourful, brash imagery to indiscriminately comment on controversial themes shared by a global youth culture. Charmingly zany and effortlessly chatty, with an ability to switch swiftly from topic to topic, Chen himself comes across as just as diverse as his art.
Despite telling Time Out in 2014 that he’d lost his passion for fashion, and wasn’t ‘going to do that again’, the Fine Art post-graduate begins by describing his new exhibition at Long March Space as similar to that of a fashion show layout, with a long runway as the central focus. Inspired by the low ceilings of the basement space, Chen says he wanted to give it a very claustrophobic feel. ‘I knew straight away I couldn’t treat it like a normal gallery space; when the dancers are on the stage performing, they put their hands above their heads and are almost touching the ceiling. I wanted it to feel like everything has been squeezed together in the space.’
Chen almost exclusively refers to his art as a ‘performance’ regardless of which aspect he is talking about. The performance that will open the exhibition is, he says, without a doubt the most important part of his new show. He explains that the opening will culminate in ‘absolute chaos’, and for the rest of the show visitors will have to walk onto the stage in order to view the installation pieces, ‘It’s very important for me that the audience feel like they are emotionally connected to the show. I am not about just hanging a nice piece on a white wall, or a nice sculpture on a clean, white floor – I want complete and utter disorder.’
Chen’s fascination with performance is a recurring theme in much of his work, and it is the fragility of the moment that attracts him to it time and time again. ‘With any performance there is only one chance for the audience to see the work. It is the intimacy of the music, performer and audience all working together to create something that even recording or videoing can’t capture. Even if they weren’t at the opening, I want visitors to the exhibition to feel like they are walking around trying to piece together the puzzle of something exciting that’s gone before.’ For Chen, art can’t be thought of as a separate entity to the audience, but as a physical manifestation of their own emotions being played back to them. Chen sees himself in many ways as the puppeteer of the audiences’ feelings, or as he would rather be known, ‘the DJ of the performance’. ‘I control the audience’s emotions, I can challenge and play with them, through the music and what they see in front of them.’
Despite calling himself ‘the DJ’, in a typically collaborative manner, he has brought a gang of musicians and artists with him for his upcoming endeavour. House of Drama, a Parisian collective of dancers, stylists, musicians and scenographers found in all of Chen’s performances and videos, fellow Paris-based artist Koo Des aka NS DOS, and experimental Chinese performers Beio & Yu Han are brought along for the ride. Musicians include Swiss electronic artist Aisha Devi, throwing bold electronic acrobatics over the top of Parisian Nodey’s hip-hop beats.
This eclectic mix of artists from both Europe and Asia, seems to expertly reflect Chen’s constant amalgamation of Eastern and Western influences in his art. Having grown up in Beijing and moved to London at the age of 19, Chen believes the dichotomy between East and West has no place in his work. ‘One of the things I love about art is that everything can be mixed in together. I first learnt and honed my craft in London; this is where I gained my art education. Consequently, I always approach my work with a perspective very much based in what was surrounding me at the time. All of my materials based in subcultures, for example, come from British subcultures, like the crazy London EDM, rave and club scene. However, I did grow up in Beijing, which is definitely where the traditional, religious influences come from.’
Those used to some of Chen’s provocative themes of drugs, disease, genetics and masturbation, might find it surprising that he insists that the heart of his work comes from religion. ‘As a Buddhist, my art is always a very spiritual creative process. I feel like that aspect of my work materialises very subconsciously. Ideas from Buddhism, like the idea of reincarnation, present themselves very naturally in my art. Religion is the biggest influence on the way I live my own life, so it is always present in everything I do.’ Chen has been recognised in the past for his shocking content, yet when asked how he feels about this, the artist replies that he doesn’t really think about it at all. ‘Some people love me and some people hate me. I love meeting people who hate my work. The worst thing for me would be if people felt in between about it; I really want them to feel like they are being forced to take one side or the other. It is all about sharing whatever I want with the audience and eliciting emotions in people. Shock is just one of the most extreme emotions out there.’
This clash of the spiritual with the obscene is a major influence on the audience’s interpretations of Chen’s work around the world. He believes the audience itself is perhaps the only difference between the Eastern and Western art worlds. ‘It goes back to what people are able to take and understand from the performance. If they take the Western subculture aspect and connect with that, that is what the art becomes about for them. Equally, if they are able to interact with the religious element, the art can take on a whole new meaning.’
In this upcoming show, Chen says the performance takes on the shape of a ritualistic ceremony, but previous works have taken on very different forms. He describes one particular show, held a couple of months ago at the renowned Berghain nightclub in Berlin, as ‘one, big, shocking party’ and explains that it is this audience reaction and interaction that he constantly strives to achieve. ‘I live to feed off my audiences. I don’t want a line of “art people” staring blankly at me and trying to think about the deeper meaning behind the art. For me, it is entirely about connecting emotionally with real people.’
As for his latest appearance in Beijing, Chen’s Long March opening this month will be followed by an afterparty at Lantern, featuring performances from his crew, and serving as a launch for his new ‘fashion, accessory and party’ label, Asian Dope Boys. If his own hype is anything to go by, we can expect it to be ‘super, super dope’.
Chen Tianzhuo’s Ishvara opens with an RSVP-only performance on on Wednesday 8; email firstname.lastname@example.org to register. The Asian Dope Boys afterparty at Lantern, also on Wednesday 8, will start at 10pm; entry is 80RMB. Afterwards, Ishvara will remain on view at Long March Space through July 10.