Chen Qiulin

New York

at Max Protetch



Born in 1975, one year before the death of Mao, Chen Qiulin seems fated to personally channel the shocks of China’s relentless social metamorphosis. Five years ago, the artist, trained in printmaking at the famed Sichuan Academy, saw her hometown near the Yangtze River wiped out by the rising waters of the Three Gorges Dam. Her efforts to commemorate this loss have included carving 100 common Chinese family names in tofu and displaying the characters along a roadside, as well as having several abandoned buildings reconstructed, brick by brick, inside the Long March exhibition space in Beijing. But her most widely known riposte comprises richly colored videos and photographs in which she and a few accomplices, ornately costumed and made up as traditional Beijing Opera players, cavort amid demolition rubble with new high-rises soaring around them like unnatural cliffs.

Last year, Chen went to the Sichuan countryside in search of a suitable spot for her wedding. What she found instead was an area still devastated by the May 2008 earthquake, despite government reports of massive reconstruction programs and soaring morale. Chen addresses the region’s continuing trauma—and her own—in her current New York show, which consists of a new signature-style video and six large photographs along with a dozen papier-mâché human figures in various distressed postures scattered about the floor and suspended by wires.

The life-size sculptures, some molded from the body of the diminutive artist herself, immediately bring to mind the eerie casts of human beings killed at Pompeii, as well as the dangling figures by contemporary artists like Britain’s Antony Gormley and China’s Zhang Dali. Chen’s quake victims seem to be caught in the act of running, falling, drowning or grieving. Beside this forest of heartbreaking forms, the video shows local residents struggling with day-to-day tasks amid lingering debris, while the artist in her wedding dress and a groom surrogate in a tux wander forlornly about wrecked streets and derelict industrial sites like ghosts of a forestalled future.

The photographs echo this bridal imagery or revert to Chen’s established iconography of brightly robed, long-sleeved opera characters displaced in time. While the marriage scenes owe something to the love-among-the-ruins vignettes of Rong Rong and Inri, they substitute frustration for the Beijing photographer-couple’s elemental bliss. One work, Winter, a kind of photographic horizontal scroll peopled with gorgeously attired “moderns” and “ancients,” seems to summon up the entire history of China’s endless oscillations between unsurpassed refinement and crippling, inhuman disaster. Like the show as a whole, it might stand as a thematic summa of this young artist’s esthetic endeavors to date.