Between Dog and Wolf: Chen Zhe on Twilight Perception

Allen Young
May 2018

Towards Evening: Six Chapters is Beijing-based artist Chen Zhe's exploration of a personal obsession: the sense of dread she experiences with the arrival of evening. Begun in 2012 and now perhaps only half-complete, the project has been continuously refined and expanded over the course of several exhibitions, most recently at OCAT in Xi’an, and last fall at Bank Gallery in Shanghai. Chen’s patience is evident in the each of the items that make up the show - photographs, texts, sculptures, and archival images - all clearly the product of long and careful meditation.

Chen’s first two projects, Bees and The Bearable, published together as a photobook in 2016 to critical acclaim, documented self-harm and psychological distress in unsparing detail. Towards Evenings is both more ambitious and more idiosyncratic, and it’s cementing Chen’s reputation as one of China’s major young artists.

I have always had symptoms of ‘evening uneasiness,’ and it’s not uncommon if you search for it online,” Chen explains. Finding no diagnosis or explanation for the condition, she eventually began to look for ways to make sense of it through her art. The ambiguity of twilight - the time the French call entre chien et loup, “between dog and wolf” - itself provided a clue. “How to ask an ambiguous question? Perhaps the way it’s asked must itself be ambiguous,” she says. “It can be neither too scientific nor too lyrical - it needs to be something in the middle.” Her answer is a series of images, texts, installations and objects that evoke or reflect evening and its accompanying disquiet.

It’s tempting to view “evening uneasiness” as a metaphor for a fear of mortality, or the anxiety that can accompany any sort of ending. But Chen’s work avoids easy symbols, and instead relies on a series of indeterminate juxtapositions. This is the case of the “sun clock” that hangs at the opening of the show and charts the project’s progress: as each chapter is completed, another section of the clock lights up. A shining sun is a curious reversal for a show about nightfall. Does it suggest that the completed project will banish evening’s anxieties, or that darkness itself is a form of illumination?

One of the most unsettling pieces in the show is a photograph of a spiderweb silhouetted against the afternoon sun, covered in hundreds of spiders. The spiders arouse feelings of revulsion or danger, in stark contrast to the carefree summer day that the rest of the photograph conveys. Yet they are also, in their eerie way, beautiful. The photo thus creates a sort of double juxtaposition: on one hand, the beauty of the sunlight against the dread evoked by the spiders; on the other, the dread evoked by the spiders against the beauty they also possess.

A different kind of juxtaposition appears in a triptych entitled A Study of a Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. The piece combines text - a blending of different English translations of Rilke’s poem “Evening” (“Abend”)- with drawing and photography. It invites the viewer to see parallels across media, to view the text as an image or read the image as a literary text.

Even beyond the poem by Rilke, Towards Evenings is a distinctly literary project. It includes long passages from E. M. Cioran and Claude Lévi-Strauss, as well as a series of photographs based on Kobo Abe’s The Red Cocoon. The project’s title is itself a reference to two separate poems: Austrian expressionist Georg Trakl’s Toward Evening, My Heart (Zu Abend mein Herz) and Tang dynasty poet Li Shangyin’s Toward Evening My Mind Is Not at Ease. “Visual expression and literary expression are both a sort of translation of reality and experience. But in every translation there’s a loss,” says Chen. “When making art, what I think about most, when faced with a sort of twilight reality or twilight perception, is what mode of expression can minimize this loss, while preserving, to the extent possible, the elusive quality of the subject itself.”

One of the strangest and most intriguing pieces is a large leather-bound book entitled 891 Dusks: An Encyclopedia of Psychological Experiences. It contains, in index-like fashion, a mysterious list of symptoms. An entry for “delirium” is typical. Under the heading, we read:

       bed and escapes, springs up
              suddenly from
       business, talks of
              himself, to
        persecution in d., delusions of
       sepsis, from
       sleep, falling asleep, on
       sleeplessness, and
       trembling, with

The awkward entries, with the pseudo-exactness of their organization, read like an avant-garde poem. Chen took the text from the New Comprehensive Homeopathic Materia Medica of Mind, a compendium of symptoms that various homeopathic remedies are intended to treat. “I scanned every page of the book, erased the parts that were not quite relevant, and changed the names of the 891 types of herbs to the experience of encountering dusk in 891 times,” she explains. She also redesigned the book to give it an almost biblical look. “If you look carefully, you can see the original title embossed on the cover, while the new title is printed in gold ink.” In an accompanying video, voices read selected entries aloud in English and Chinese.

Towards Evenings began an as attempt to shed light, if only obliquely, on a peculiar dread of the coming of night. Neither clinical nor cathartic, the project does not explain or dispel that dread. But it does perhaps offer a brief sort of clarity, a fleeting revelation of the hidden ties between sensations, images, objects, and words. “For me, making art means solving one riddle while posing another, answering one question while asking another,” concludes Chen. “The riddles and questions vary with the circumstances of each artist, but the experience of grappling with them remains, and becomes a source of insight.”

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