Spiritual Intuition in the Drama of Life: the installation art and spiritual vision of Chen Qingqing
“You will never feel lonely again, for we are not ourselves.” *
* (A verse from Chen Qingqing’s “Clone Poem”, 2000) Women, life and death, the soul, as well as the loneliness of this life and the next, are the fundamental themes of installation art by Chen Qingqing
The late 1990s witnessed the rise of Chinese feminist art and Chen Qingqing is certainly considered one of the leading representatives of this group. She establishes a powerful individual style that embodies a linguistic system of spiritual intuition, a language that can address heavy themes with a delicacy and lightness. This facility is an exquisite and imposing characteristic of the feminist language. Displaying a sense of internal spirituality and a pressing feminist determination, Qingqing possesses a powerful imaginative language.
Chen Qingqing’s installation art establishes mysterious worlds, which occur within box-like forms. The scenes within are horrible, beautiful, ghastly, or even seem like a child’s fantasy. For example, a small dinosaur presses up against a terrified and panic-stricken little, tan-skinned blond girl; a group of angels composed of blond-haired, blue-eyed girls with dinosaur bodies hang from a tree merrily singing; a small child’s hand or two snakes stretch through holes in a hollowed television set; a small whimsical tree is stuck through the belly of a green-haired, child wearing a white coat; a small group of piglets crawl up towards the roof of a model of the Tiananmen gate, etc.
These miniature theatrical landscapes depict genuine scenes of life and death. Many of their original objects are extremely small and delicate, ready-made materials including plastic toy children, twigs, little dinosaurs, small shells, miniature shoes, etc. These props successfully create scenes resembling the still images in old viewing boxes, but the materials are from contemporary society, including television sets, window displays, toolboxes, clothing chests, jewelry or antique glass showcases, etc. The ready-made objects of these installations can be considered as from a different time and space, and possibly from another world. Each signifies different countries, societies, and symbols of gender—as well as the convergence of the worlds of life and death and the meeting of the worlds of yin and yang.
These allegorical installations display a constant cycle of reincarnation, while imposing a soul-stirring and morbid aura. From the modern conceptions of Western art, these common Chinese themes seem difficult to describe. While—on the surface—Qingqing’s ready-made objects and box forms possess a characteristic of Western conceptual art, within her technique and subject matter is an Eastern inspirational range of vision and aesthetics. This concept of spiritual intuition incorporates the meeting of yin and yang, the lives of past and present, fate and the natural disposition. Before the 19th century in China, themes of reincarnation from life and death, as well as the classic manifestations of yin and yang, were prevalent in popular drams, short fiction about gods and spirits, and the traditions of Buddhist culture, such as the novels Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio or Peony Pavilion.
Similar to the secular application of Zen Buddhism, Chen Qingqing’s installation art originates from the understanding and realization of her own personal story and experience. By no means does she attempt to completely follow the path modern art history; rather she regards art as means for achieving personal spiritual freedom. This touches upon two questions: First, what is her soul? And second, from what sort of vehicle does this spirit emerge? Moreover, how does the vehicle achieve its freedom and rebirth?
Chen Qingqing’s personal story in fact spans many journeys of reincarnation. As a young girl she was transferred from Beijing to the countryside; from a manual laborer to a doctor; from a China indoctrinated with the crazy ideology of Mao Zedong to a capitalistic Europe; from the death of close relatives to the diffusion of love and marriage; from being a senior employee in a Western company to returning the early capitalistic China. The span of Chen Qingqing’s life transcends the boundaries of her cultural experience and resembles that of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat or Korean artist Jin ShouZi, who were internationally recognized in the 1980s for their broad and vagrant-style feminist art backgrounds.
Her objects and materials are not limited to the feminist motifs of love, symbolic objects of life, and soft materials, but also include images of 9/11, clones, Tiananmen, and spare mechanical parts. Such an extensive scope of vision transcends any boundary of gender categorization.
Chen Qingqing’s ready-made object installations and her famous woven silk-hemp clothing works have recognized her as one of the few experimental linguistic avant-garde artists of the late 1990s.
Her woven silk-hemp clothing works have pioneered a significant position in the avant-garde movement through her development of a textile language. She also achieves a high degree of experimental language through her small dioramas of installation art. The language of these “micro-landscapes” possesses a style of otherworldly wisdom that reflects a sense of mysticism in Chinese contemporary art, which is seldom seen. Additionally, the interwoven themes of history, feminism and humanism communicate a desire to help us remain strong as we struggle in the present era.
Chen Qingqing’s installation language originates in her transformation of personal symbols. Therefore her language and her own biographical memory have direct correlations to her work, especially in her early period of installation art. For instance, her Coffin series from the end of the 1990s contemplates the doom of death and spiritual afterlife in a coffin created from firewood and silk-hemp fibers with interwoven dried rose stems. In this series, her two main themes focus on the older generations of Chinese women with bound feet and the continuous love relationship between men and women after death. These themes, which touch upon doom and the afterlife, can be found in many of Chen Qingqing’s later works. For example, her interwoven silk-hemp works, which achieve a bound, interlocked and gentle structural and material sexual distinction. Similarly, her use of the shoes worn by women with bound feet and her use of the coffin form respectively symbolizes Chinese history and alludes to death from a female perspective.
Nearly all feminine art begins from controversies over gender along with the tragedy and doomed position of the female in historical perspective. Moreover, it seeks a direct method to present specific characteristics of gender and material aesthetics, which can be regarded as the first phase of the feminist art process—a process that clarifies the state of one’s own affairs and recognizes a historical consciousness. Chen Qingqing’s experience in Vienna and her Chinese background play a role in influencing her installation art. Vienna is filled with melancholy and deep contemplations on the doom of an ancient culture, while the elegant yet fated Chinese traditions and collective unconsciousness, which implicitly acknowledge life after death, all may be complementary to Chen Qingqing’s individual visual style.
In Chen Qingqing's early and later artistic periods, despite having originated from the Western ready-made, her installation work focuses on creating an aesthetic space of one's fantasy. More importantly, her selection of ready-made materials involves themes of the journey and rebirth of the soul, as well as personal themes based on her biography. The former regards a subjective process, while the latter requires an aesthetic orientation. These means of selection unconsciously manifest the tradition of spiritual intuition of pre-19th century China. Although drama, fiction, and Buddhist legends are not able to continue to directly affect the evolution of language, in the arts they influence personal attraction to particular forms and themes, thus indirectly transforming their signification through the expressive medium of ready-made works.
Following the Coffin series, Chen Qingqing's Clone series begins to advance into the next phase of her personal language. Her woven silk-hemp works evolve into the form of people's clothing, both of past and present. From a mere craft to installation art, her work brings the imagination of avant-garde language to her clothing works. The year of 2001 is the transition period when Chen Qingqing began to experiment with various outer forms for her installations. From her Coffin series, "East-West/West-East--2001" evolves from simple symbolism to using various toy children with small props merging into a happy miniature confined space. From the Clone series, "Clone Factory #2," she employs the box-form a thin, flat toolbox, while "The Call Girl" utilizes a miniature three-dimensional stage. This miniature theater later becomes signature style of Chen Qingqing's installations.
Chen Qingqing also attempts to use the picture frame to present her installations, such as "Feast" (2002) where she gradually introduces more narrative elements and props. Objects resemble the zebra, the Barbie doll, the dinosaur, and amputated feet or many small children's arms. The dinosaurs and children's arms become commonly used elements of her artistic language. Chen Qingqing also uses the Chinese tabletop bonsai landscape setting such as that of "Clone Factory" (2002). And she uses glass curio containers, used for jewelry or antique utensils, as the form for "Cultural Ball" (2002), which later leads directly to the similar works of "Love Cover" (2003), "Evolutionary" (2003), and "Anonymous Person" (2003).
The form of "Love Cover” is similar to a miniature crystal coffin; in Chen Qingqing's eyes, the eternal and great presence of doom is continuously absent of the role of women. Within the exquisite and complex form of a coffin, lies an object in the shape of a boat. This inner object contains the dreadful sections of children's little arms, animal skeletons, blue-green colored fibers, five sets of decaying metal aristocrat female fingernails, as well as the lifeless sculptures of small shells and white coral. These horrible and terrifying components placed in this crystal box suddenly seem imbued with life. The crystal box is like a possessed body causing these lifeless objects within to suddenly achieve life and rebirth. Consequently these peaceful and beautiful things have the ability to cast off the eternal cycle of life of death.
Chen Qingqing also selects the interiors of discarded television sets as yet another box form. Use of this form enhances the signification of her miniature stage, since the disemboweled television set has an even more mysterious character. Her television works include “Amputated” (2003), “Unknown Number” (2003), and “Clone Love” (2004). Despite the fact that it is the space behind the television screen that becomes the stage for her works with different glowing lights, stretching out from the knobs of the TV are the familiar feet and arms of children, as well as a part of a snake. These scenes make the empty television sets seem like a mysterious vessel for rebirth.
In regards to the semantics and subjectivity of language, Chen Qingqing attempts to use her interpretation of traditional spiritual intuition to envision her own pictorial language. One cannot perceive or understand this picture without having experienced the spiritual landscape then one then able to fully visualize and grasp this understanding. This method allows Chen Qingqing to find a Chinese mode of transcendence within her own spiritual landscape.
From her Coffin series to each of her box installations, Chen Qingqing has for all intents and purposes established a unique language system. The space established within these ready-made box works are a kind of site for language to develop. The various ready-made objects entering this site are invigorated with life and create a narrative approaching a language of sorts. This change of linguistic signifiers and their relation in time and space is like the mystical transformation of alchemy.
Ready-made objects are integrated into the sites of the personal language created by Chen Qingqing. These sites are not simplified into single symbolic objects. Rather, their meaning is construed from within these reincarnated worlds as a whole. From a certain standpoint, significance of the site embodies the Chinese concepts of wizardry and alchemy.
The box-forms and miniature theaters are by no means sufficient to transmit the true power of language alone. The real power of language is dependent on the transmission of its subject matter. From the beginning of the Clone series in 2002, Chen Qingqing devotes herself to finding ready-made objects suited to the language of her boxes, or spends time looking for the outer form in which to place her props. Through this search process, she actually accomplishes her own transformation. From her early phase of the Coffin series, where she cultivates a feminist consciousness and begins a soul-searching process, she gradually progresses towards a personally significant loneliness and contemplates the greater theme of life and death.
This kind of transformation resembles Chen Qingqing's own words written in her "Clone Poem" (2002), "You will never feel lonely again, for we are not ourselves." This idea comes from her mysterious and sudden enlightenment upon meeting an old friend who had not been seen in many years. This friend is engaged in the clone science industry, and in this experience Chen Qingqing realizes that the original body of her friend has transformed over many years. She then becomes curiously suspicious as to whether or not the soul has been distorted as well.
After the Clone series, Chen Qingqing's installations no longer have such strong personal mediations and melancholic attitudes towards the tragedy of death. Rather she tries her best to structure spaces featuring dramas about life and death or allegorical plays. Within these miniature theaters, the boundaries between time and space, life and death, yin and yang, humans, animals, and objects, as well as between ethnic groups and countries are removed. Where these scenes may depict the co-existence of living creatures, they do not portray idealistic happiness, or realistic suffering. Despite the pervasive concepts of wisdom and the forces of evil, her works are nevertheless aesthetically pleasing. Chen Qingqing's creations depicting the transformations of spiritual reincarnation and rebirth are a super-experience. This is the main reason that Chen Qingqing's theaters may be physically small and delicate yet can become grand and magnificent. From feminism to spiritual reincarnation, Chen Qingqing's ultimate super-experience incorporates contemporary images, such as 9/11, toy dinosaurs, clones, or symbols of China's frenzy for material wealth. Everything in her installations summons an enjoyable and pleasant atmosphere filled with the wise, the bizarre, and the on-going miniature performance.
Chen Qingqing's recent box landscapes employ many backdrop photographs contributing even more to her epic visual language. In her work titled "WaWa's Dream", the image depicts a cat-eyed butterfly hovering in the thick haze of ghostly ancient city. In contrast, "Prosperity Year After Year" features a more supernatural experience and symbolism. Without any regard for gravity, crowds of little red pigs crawl on the floor, the walls and the roof circulating around the whole scene. There are even six red piglets climbing over the roof of the Tiananmen gate, and coins are produced one after the other from their behinds. A small golden trumpet points towards the open sky as a red-haired, tan-skinned child sways in the air against a backdrop of a huge 100 RMB note. By invoking this bizarre style of spiritual reincarnation into these later pieces, Chen Qingqing begins to add a form of satire to her expression, which in turn allows her language to become more succinct and powerful.
From the critical perspective of the feminist language, Chen Qingqing's installation art progresses to the boundary of death, and the afterlife of the soul. Using the backdrop and philosophy of this spiritual theme, she generates the components of her personal language. In essence, the composition of these elements portrays an aesthetic site of ready-made objects with an intuitively spiritual vision. Chen Qingqing locates the boundaries of this means of expression from the subjectivity of her own personal background, which then informs the basic language motifs in her installation art. Although this linguistic method is inspired by the pre-19th century Chinese spiritual intuition and aesthetic mystical process, Chen Qingqing's use of language offers her an outlet towards for her own spiritual freedom. In transgressing this outlet, she not only achieves a cycle of life and death, but also an imaginary rebirth. On a linguistic level, through this cycle she achieves a reverse transformation of one's complete life experience.
Chen Qingqing succeeds in experiencing lifetimes of a woman's consciousness, therefore engaging in the drama of mortality through the continuous spiritually intuitive experience of renewal and rebirth. This demonstrates one's ability to achieve the final triumph, albeit a symbolic transcendence.
By Zhu Qi
(Translated by Katherine Don)