Artist Chen Xinpeng describes his work as the creation of “small innovations.” The works in Chen’s solo show at C5 Gallery include his early photo and video works through to his latest experiments with blow up structures and game play, giving some clues as to what these innovations might be. But all the while the show displays the artist’s self-deprecating humour and his reticence towards overstating the meaning and significance of these “innovations.”
Chen’s presence is a strong feature of his early works. Ants, Latin Girl, Mexico Cook – Bad English Story (2004) fills the screen with Chen’s as he tells his stories. This piece was made during the period when Chen was learning English and these made-up stories were a means to practice.
Several of these early works include the action of smoking cigarettes, the puffing of which into a scene seems to be used by the artist to make the atmosphere visible and tangible. In Glass House (2007) the artist builds the titular enclosure, in which he sits working his way through packets of cigarettes. Over the period of the video he fills the room, eventually obscuring himself form view and creating a milky-white solid block of smoke. In the photographic series Smoke (2007) he holds objects in front of the camera while appearing in the background blowing the smoke from the cigarette he holds in his other hand around them. Again, this set up partially obscures the forms of the objects. In another piece (not included in this show) Chen creates the form of a lotus flower out of clear, flexible plastic, and then sits in the gallery inflating it with cigarette smoke.
Since giving up smoking six months ago, Chen has developed the concern with inflation of objects in recent works. Taking the smoke out of the equation has removed the connections of smoke, especially cigarette smoke, with health issues, but has allowed the artist to focus on ephemeral effects of his working with the atmosphere as an object and develop this concern into broader areas of life.
This is most notable with the giant, golden-arched tubes of Make Do (2009) that Chen used to house art shows on two occasions in 2009. In a similar way to smoke, the tangible material existence of the material is very slight, but once inflated can create a massive effect. This emphasis on the ephemeral is a by-product of the work with smoke. Make Do is a general-purpose structure that is physically versatile and can prove useful in other circumstances – it is conceptually versatile. The piece can be seen as an art project and as a housing for art, but can exist outside of this realm as a general “useful” structure.
Chen also works as part of an informal artist group called DiaoDui (with Liang Shuo, Zhan Yang, Shao Kang, Zhang Zhaohong, Zhou Yi). They have a rather formalistic approach to art-making, each proposing tasks, choosing the best ones through discussions and undertaking them together, the results often reflecting the playfulness seen in Chen’s other works. In this show the works Temple (2011) and Sleep Temples (2011) are included as products of this process. Sleep Temples is the documentation of the group’s visits to temples in the Beijing area, their task to take a nap in each one. The photographs look down towards their upturned feet while they lie inside small tents made of mosquito netting. In the gallery in front of the photos, the tent sits rather forlornly as a remnant of this activity.
As with the blow-up structures, Sleep Temples inserts the activity temporarily into a situation to create a disturbance with minimal affect on the long-term context. The work Temple demonstrates a form of this intervention into social roles, as a recreation in plastic of a small temple for farmers, as with Make Do, designed to be erected anywhere and easily transported by the user.
It seems to me that akin to classic conceptual work, what is really at stake in Chen Xinpeng’s pieces is the use to which they are put. Within the gallery we are left with the residues or elements of the pieces, but these are half-finished, awaiting or remaining after their moments of life. A good example is the new game created by the artist that involves throwing a leather pouch from the centre of a set of rings, while the two teams work strategically to thwart or allow the throw through. In the gallery this is presented simply as a large wall painting of the pitch markings and rules, and a metal cage filled with the pouches.
Chen expresses his ideas about the innovations very simply: “I have some ideas, and people can use them.” While this may actually seem somewhat unaccommodating (as if the artist simply lays out the ideas and you can take them or leave them), the practical side of these innovations comes through in the works. What this show suggests is that Chen’s relationship with the art system is becoming more and more tenuous as the work progresses. Once the pieces are realised in the gallery, they seem to automatically take on an aspect of humour that verges on the surreal; as if the artist knows well enough that this is a stop-gap solution and the real meaning of the works lies in their realisation elsewhere.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of C5 Art and the artist.)