Chen Zhen (born 1955, Shanghai – 2000, Paris) is counted among those eminent pioneering artists of the Chinese avant-garde. Chen’s career marks the important beginning of the artistic evolution that initiated the establishment of a thriving and multi-faceted art scene in China, now more than 30 years after the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao Zedong. After becoming disenchanted with Maoist reform policies and leaving China in 1986, Chen arrived to Paris conditioned by the isolation, censorship and continual repression that were being enacted by the Chinese Communist Party. Upon his arrival in Paris and his enrollment in the Ecole Nationale SUperieure des Beaux-Arts and the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques, Chen was faced with contradictory cultural realities. The new and foreign environment in Europe challenged Chen to fundamentally reexamine his conceptions of identity and ethnicity. In the following years, Chen created projects that both initiated and relied upon cultural fusion, and were in search of new passageways between elements of traditional and Maoist China, and the formal canon of Western avant-garde.
Though he was originally trained as a painter, Chen soon turned to installation and sculpture in order to explore the relationships between the corporeal and the spiritual, the collective and the individual, and the inside and outside. Chen’s installations are site-specific, yet also transcend the site altogether, endowing it with a spiritual, universal dimension. Chen’s works operate within his principle of transexpérience – a concept that weaves the past, present, and future into permanently oscillating relational fabrics, and views symbolic attributions not as fixed, but as fluid. Chen died of leukemia in December, 2000. His understanding of his disease had a decisive impact on his work as an artist, and his later works were sometimes characterized as merging his art, life and body into one.
Following Chen’s death, his work was exhibited in tributes in Greece, Italy, and the United States. Throughout the past decade, his work has been presented at venues throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America. Included were group exhibitions such as Heart of Darkness, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands; First Shanghai Biennial, Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai; Hong Kong, Etc., Second Johannesburg Biennial, South Africa; and Aperto Overall, 48th Venice Biennale. Solo exhibitions have been presented at, among others, Centre International d'Art Contemporain in Montréal, Canada; Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan; Deitch Projects, New York; National Maritime Museum, Stockholm, Sweden; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; MOCA Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, Croatia; Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy; and ADDC—Espace Culturel François Mitterand, Prigueux.