Dec 01 2016

Chen Shaoxiong (1962–2016)

by The Editors

Artist Chen Shaoxiong passed away on November 26, 2016. Photo from Xijing Art Summit video.

Chinese artist Chen Shaoxiong died on November 26 at age 54. Born in Shantou, a town in China’s Guangdong province, Chen graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1984. Though trained in ink art, Chen reconfigured his art practice with experimental expressions. Chen was chiefly known as a founding member of the artist group Big Tail Elephants, formed with three other artists who were active in Guangzhou in the 1990s—Liang Juhui, Xu Tan and Lin Yilin. In the early days of their collaborative practice, the group lacked official endorsements, so they staged performances and exhibitions in bars, basements and temporary outdoor venues with the assistance of local artists, as well as critic and curator Hou Hanru. They tackled nervous developments in Chinese life in those decades—Southeast China was experiencing rapid commercial development, and the standard of life was improving, but the transition from Mao’s policies to an emphasis on urbanization and economic growth left the artists, and many others, feeling unsettled.

On a chilly November night in 1993, Chen staged Five Hours, a performance in which he planned to remain stationary from 9:30 pm to 2:30 am, seated before an arrangement of neon fluorescent lights. An electric meter dangled from his neck, meant to keep track of the electricity used during those five hours. The performance was terminated prematurely as soon as police arrived. Even in the relatively liberal southeastern region of the country, Chen and his contemporaries could not avoid confrontation with the authorities. Between 1991 and 1994, Chen and the other three Elephants staged four underground shows in Guangzhou; a year later, Chen’s artwork was finally exhibited overseas in Vienna, at “Cities on the Move” (1997), curated by Hou Hanru and Hans Ulrich Obrist. In 1998, the Big Tail Elephants reconvened at Kunsthalle, Bern for a group show, and then its members focused on their solo practices.

In an email to ArtAsiaPacific, the director of Pékin Fine Arts, Meg Maggio, said she first met Chen during one of the basement shows organized by the Big Tail Elephants. While the Chinese art scene was the first to hear of his passing, the international art world mourns for Chen: “I have lost a close personal friend and mentor first and foremost, and secondly, we have also lost a great artist-friend of Pékin Fine Arts. The greater art world—reaching far beyond the Chinese art scene—has lost an inspiring independent artist, whose wit and native wisdom gained the attention and respect of curators and critics around the world.”

Still from video documentation of XIJING MEN’s (Chen Shaoxiong, Tsuyoshi Ozawa and Gim Hongsok) performance Xijing Olympics (2008). 

It was also remarkable that Chen formed another artist group called Xijing Men with Japan’s Tsuyoshi Ozawa and Korea’s Gim Hongsok; the three met when they took part in the “Under Construction” exhibitions backed by the Japan Foundation between 2001 and 2003. A linguistic barrier existed between members, so they communicated with written Chinese characters shared in all three languages or even by sketching their thoughts. Again, Hou Hanru supported Chen and his new group, an invited them to participate in the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003, “ZOU – Zone of Urgency.”

Chen spent time in Hong Kong as a visiting fellow at the Asia Art Archive, and also in the United States at the University of Kansas in a similar capacity. Regarding his own practice, Chen once said, “In many conditions, humor shows us alternate realities, or creates a dream that is closer to our wishes.”

After Pékin Fine Arts in Hong Kong showed Chen’s “Ink History” ink paintings (2008–2010) as part of the group exhibition “War Room” (2014), overseas curators became interested in his work. This culminated in his 2014 solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, “Ink. History. Media.”

Deteriorating health did not keep Chen from engaging the art world. In 2015, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul staged “World of Xijing,” a retrospective exhibition for Xijing Men. A year later, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa hosted another retrospective, “Xijing Is Not Xijing, Therefore Xijing Is Xijing” (2016). Chen was unable to attend the openings himself, but Meg Maggio was present as his representative. She said, “From his hospital bed, Chen’s art world activity was astoundingly productive. Chen stayed very active in and engaged with the art world, up until days before his death. While he was sick and in and out of hospital, we worked together on exhibitions in the USA, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and other venues. I would bring my laptop to the hospital and we would continue working, joking, story-telling, strategizing, and planning his next projects.”

Chen’s recent exhibitions attested to his determination to remain a vital player in the art world. This year, Guangzhou’s Times Museum held a retrospective exhibition for the Big Tail Elephants, “Operation PRD – Big Tail Elephants: One Hour, No Room, Five Shows,” which featured documentary photos and videos of Chen’s early performances. Shanghai’s Power Station of Art exhibited his largest solo show ever, “Prepared.” Chen’s death coincided with the finals days of “The Views,” an exhibition of new work at Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing.

Chen Shaoxiong’s artwork has also been exhibited at MoMA PS1, the International Center of Photography in New York, Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin and the Tate Liverpool. His creations are in the permanent collections of M+ in Hong Kong, MoMA in New York, the Seattle Art Museum, Switzerland’s Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation and more.

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