CHEN QIULIN, The Garden No. 2, 2007, C-print, 100 × 82 cm. Courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu. 

One Hundred Names

Chen Qiulin

4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art
Australia China

Chen Qiulin is a video, photography and performance artist who lives and works in Chengdu, in China’s Sichuan province, and who has over the past 15 years established an international reputation for work that explores themes of enforced migration and displacement. Having experienced first hand the deleterious effects of China’s rampant development—when her native city of Wanzhou became partially submerged in water due to the controversial construction of the Three Gorges Dam—the artist is well equipped to examine, without any maudlin sense of nostalgia, how social dislocation is the inevitable consequence of progress. For her latest project, Chen is presenting her first Australian solo show, “One Hundred Names,” at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney.

On the international art stage, Chen has participated in numerous group shows in the United States, Europe and Asia, including the 7th Gwangju Biennale in Korea. Now at 41 years of age, she has well and truly emerged as an artist with a refined sensibility and a prodigious imagination whose work, even though dealing with somewhat parochial issues, has become increasingly globally relevant.

China’s rapid development since the Deng Xiaoping era has allowed millions to climb out of poverty, but it has also led to a fractured society where extreme financial disparity and avarice are seen as the norm. It is a leitmotif with which we, as outsiders, have become familiar through the work of so many other Chinese artists who explore a similar artistic terrain. However, Chen explores such tropes with a subtlety and sense of storytelling that many other of her contemporaries lack.

CHEN QIULIN, City Manager, 2015, still from single-channel HD video: 9 min. Courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

“One Hundred Names” is a tight, all-too-brief survey of Chen’s works ranging from the “Ellipses” series (2001)—which comprise contrived and theatrical photographs of the artist sitting at a dressing table on a construction site surrounded by burly workers—through to “The Garden” (2007), which features delicate allusions to the fragility of beauty set against a changing urban landscape. In “The Garden,” photographs show Chinese men carrying bloated vases of magenta peonies through a city disrupted by construction and decay.

Upstairs at the gallery, ten large photographs cover Chen’s 15 years of practice, displayed in a semi-darkened space. Also shown here is her most recent single-channel video work, City Manager (2015), a roughly nine-minute piece, which unfortunately struggles to arrest the viewer’s attention in a space where light from inadequately covered windows bleeds in. Filmed in slow motion and in a documentary style, City Manager focuses on three Chengdu apparatchiks—the city manager, a policeman and a property developer—and the roles they play in refashioning the land-locked city, which has received billions of central government funds in recent years and has become a magnet for millions of rural workers from Sichuan looking to better their lives. But in the film, Chen’s characters seem little more than tongue-in-cheek pejorative extras in a 21st-century melodrama that is overlaid with soaring classical music. Displayed alongside Chen’s earlier photographs, City Manager appears tentative and inconclusive.

In contrast, the 25-channel video installation One Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong (2015)—shown on a dozen or more ancient cathode-ray television screens—succeeds in being a much more confident work. At its conceptual core, the work is an attempt to create “psychic connections” between migrant families in Chengdu with those in Sydney who share the same surnames. It may sound pretentious—and to a certain extent, it is—but its minimalist conceptual framework lends the project an alluring presence, which is given an additional dimension by a huge mural that Chen has painted on one wall of the gallery, locating the television screens firmly within the confined space of the tiny ground floor. The mural features the families’ names depicted among a utopian landscape and references Chen’s early years as a sign writer.

CHEN QIULINA Hundred Surnames in Tofu (detail), 2010, video installation. Courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

CHEN QIULINA Hundred Surnames in Tofu (detail), 2010, video installation. Courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

In the videos comprising One Hundred Surnames in Tofu (2004– ), the various Mandarin characters that make up the featured families’ names have been carved out of blocks of tofu, which were filmed as they rotted away—an apt metaphor for how cultural assimilation can have deleterious effects. The work also commemorates the Kwong Wah Chong shop front in Sydney’s Dixon Street, located a short distance from the gallery. It is the oldest remaining shop front in the city’s Chinatown, established in 1912 after the Australian Government allowed Chinese immigrants to purchase property in Sydney. The work presents an unintended irony when one considers the fact that, in recent years, restrictions have been introduced to curb overseas investors from purchasing property in Australia.

“One Hundred Names” is an engaging exhibition that is bold in concept and ideas, but deficient in presentation. It lacks cohesion and finesse, which one suspects is as much to do with the exhibition’s staging as anything else—a fault which seems to plague the recent programming at the 4A Centre.

“Chen Qiulin: One Hundred Names” is on view at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, until February 27, 2016.