In late June, Chen Qiulin (b. 1975) flew to New York to prepare for her second solo show in one of the most important galleries in New York, Max Protetch Gallery. On view for the first time was a series of new photographs and videos document rituals being carried out by two couples, and more importantly,
perhaps, is a series of new figurative papier mache sculptures that Chen has been developing over the past two years. On the occasion of her show, we talked to Chen Qiulin about personal history and social changes.
Selina Ting, July 2009
Selina Ting [ST]: Can you start by telling us about your exhibition in the Max Protetch Gallery that is on show right now?
Chen Qiulin [CQL]: My work has always been focusing on the changes of urban landscape, of time and of people. In exploring the changes and the implication of these processes, I am trying to record the world today through a very personal attitude and approach. The show in Max Protetch is a continuation of my methodology. The sculptures made of papers found after the earthquake in Sichuan is an extension of my feelings towards cities. In terms of material, for example, they look as heavy as cement but in fact they are very light. Whereas the sculptures, photos and videos, they are intrinsically related to each other, contradiction and harmony co-existed inside and between them. Even though they were set against the backdrop of the aftermath, the content is less about the earthquake itself. I am still interpreting, from a very personal point of view, the city and its dwellers in the aftermath of changes.
ST: In the previous years, you work mainly with installation, video and performance. When and why did you start exploring the papier mache sculpture? How do you find it?
CQL: I’ve confined myself in terms of material. I tried many other forms, such as music, dance, painting, writing, etc. The papier mache sculpture started two years ago.
ST: How do you find it? Will you continue in this direction?
CQL: When I decide which form or material to use, the only main consideration is which is the best way to express and to present the idea. If papier mache fits any idea or issue that I want to address in the future, I would still use it. Perhaps not necessarily a sculpture.
ST: You were born and grew up in Wanzhou, one of the villages that was demolished and sank underwater because of the Three Gorges Dam project. Having part of your memory taken away, you started investigating the themes of violence and destruction, migration and disappearance, alienation and memory. Your series of four haunting videos, Rhapsody on Farewell (2002), River, River (2005), Colour Lines (2006) and Garden (2007), which combine documentary footage and dreamlike sequences amid sites of demolition and construction along the Yangzi River, becomes the most direct personal accounts of this lost. You’ve said before that “to record is to indulge in the disappearing”, a tender and exquisite attachment to the past prevails your work. This leads us to several questions. First of all, how do you understand the relationship between personal feelings and irrevocable external changes? Do personal feelings have to scarify for the changes?
CQL: I’ve also said that I learnt and grew in the process of making works as well. From Rhapsody to Garden, my perspective changed as well. It took me five years to grow from a sentimental approach to a rational analysis and record of what happened and still happening in our society today. To explore and expand the context of urbanization through individual affection is a very common approach; the whole concept becomes a microcosm of many Chinese cities. What I learnt from the process is that, artists are problem-identifiers, but never the problem-solvers and even less the arbitrators of social problems.
ST: Last November you participated in Displacement –Three Gorges Dam and Contemporary Chinese Art, alongside with three other artists, Ji Yun-Fei, Liu Xiao-Dong and Zhuang Hui, in Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago. How does your perspective of articulating the issue differ from the three artists? Is gender an issue here?
CQL: Everybody has a very distinct personal point of view and understanding. I don’t think my work bears a strong gender imprint when compared to theirs. On the contrary, some of their works is more delicate in terms of presentation and technique. But this maybe a feature of my work at this stage as well. I mean my work is more about “rough lines, rough pixels”. I am constantly in the process of perfecting my art.
ST: The female figures in your videos, be it a celestial woman, a phantom, a bride, a forgotten angel, or an abused silent beauty, why are they always so helpless? They seem to be so different from your personality.
CQL: There are male in my work as well, such as in Garden or The Dream of Xu Zhao-Hua, etc. Nothing can really be judged by their sex. I never reject my female gender. It is just a social construction. I think it’s not a particular issue in the process of creation. The sense of helpless that you have pointed out is a image projected from our habitual understand. In fact, most of the time, the audience did not image my work to be done by a female artist.
ST: How do you see yourself as a female artist?
CQL: The relationship between a female artist and her work seems to be a file that would never be closed. I guess I rarely think of myself as a woman when I create my work. I think this would not help anything in any sense. At least I believe so.
ST: Agree. Let’s move on to another interesting project you have done in 2004, Bean Curd of 14 February.This project combines sculpture, installation, performance, video and photography, and it lasted for several days, right? Can you tell us more about it?
CQL: On 14 February 2004, I hosted a party in Blue Roof Art District in Chengdu, called Bean Curd of 14 February. The subjects are the 100 pieces of bean curds sculpted with the 100 Chinese family names. We had a traditional Sichuanese hotpot dinner, and we ate the 100 bean curd happily together. There were pretty waitress distributing the bean curds and people taking photos and videos of the party, mainly friends in conversation. These images were projected on a huge screen. There was live music as well. The atmosphere was really great. Among the guests were cultural workers, artists, and some village people joined in as well. Lots of people there, and we had a great time eating the family name bean curds with beer.
ST: Is there any political quest in the sculpting the Chinese family names with one of the most common ingredients in Chinese cooking?
CQL: Not really. I came across a modern route which intersects a small path in Mianyang. I always wanted to find a similar scene, so I put the bean curds there and record the project.
ST: You once said that 2004 is a turning point in your artistic career that you almost gave up. What happened at that time and how do you see your career now?
CQL: It’s a common thing for almost all young artists. Fortunately, a British institute brought 4 pictures from me that money. So, with the money I have, I managed to continue. I am still the same person as I always am. I will continue as far as I can.
ST: You will have a solo show in Hammer Museum in Los Angeles this autumn. How’s the preparation? What are you planning to show there?
CQL: I am still in the preparatory process. I will probably show 4 to 5 videos. But I still haven’t decided exactly what to show.
ST: Thank you very much and good luck for the show.
About the Artist
Chen Qiu-Lin was born in 1975 in Hebei Province, China. She currently lives and works in Chengdu, China.Chen graduated from the printmaking department of the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 2000.Her selected solo exhibitions include Chen Qiulin: Recent Work, University Art Museum,University of Albany, New York (2007);Garden, Max Protetch Gallery, New York (2007); Migration, Long March Space, Beijing, China (2006); Big Factory, Shanghai, China (2005); The Tofu of February 14th, Chengdu, China (2004). Selected group exhibitions include Red Hot: Asian Art Today from the Chaney Family Collection, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas (2007); Women in a Society of Dual Sexuality: The Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Female Artists, Tang Gallery in Silom Galleria, Bangkok, Thailand (2006); Ruins: New Video and Photography from China, Inova at UWM Peck School of the Arts, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (2005); Internal Injuries, Marella Gallery, Milan, Italy (2005).