Bees & The Bearable

He Yining
June 2019

Whenever I think of the early spring afternoon when I saw the work of Chinese artist Chen Zhe for the first time, at the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre back in 2011, images depicting the reality of self-injury for the artist herself and others would resurface in my mind one by one, fragile like the fallen petals of cherry blossoms on the lawn in front of the art centre that day.

Tangled strands of hair scattered on the white ceramic tiles of the bathroom floor, blood oozing from cutting wounds on someone’s delicate skin, scars of healed cuts on the arm, bed sheets soiled with cigarette ash and blood…in two of Chen Zhe’s earlier projects, The Bearable and Bees, traces left on bodies and objects produce such powerful bursts of expressive energy that, in the form of a strictly visual presentation, they have led me directly into the world of self-injurers and allowed me to understand the inner struggles that would have remained private and inexpressible otherwise.

How to present her photos along with the process of creation and personal experience has become the question at the core of Chen Zhe’s creative practice, and it has occupied her thoughts ever since. In 2014, the artist decided to collaborate with Guang Yu, a graphic designer from Beijing, in order to turn her early projects into a photobook. After extensive discussions on the presentation of photographs on paper, the relationship between text and images, as well as the overall visual design, a book titled Bees & The Bearable (2007-2012) was published by Jiazazhi Press. Combining the series The Bearable (2007-2010) and Bees (2010-2012), the photo book not only contains images that document the artist’s five-year history of self-injury and stories of others like her, but also includes a collection of quotes, diary entries, online chat histories and letters exchanged between Chen Zhe and her subjects over a two-year period.

The design of the book is divided into two parts: whereas textual materials are printed on skin-coloured paper in monochromatic black, images are printed on coated paper using the four-color process for more accurate presentation. In appearance, Bees & The Bearable gives the impression of two books intertwined with each other; readers even have the option to take them apart and collect the textual materials and images separately. The book unfolds in the form of a multifunctional notebook: as readers’ eyes move back and forth between text and images, the artist’s practice is restored to a process of continuous exploration, discovery and research, which eventually leads us to some of the most fundamental questions of life: “What happens when actions that can jeopardize one's existence, such as hurting one's own body, in return serve the purpose of understanding the existence itself? Should we see it as a fluky escape, or a relief from the weight of modern life?”

With 75 colour plates and 40 grayscale journals & letters, Bees & The Bearable was published by Jiazazhi Press with a total print run of 800 copies in spring 2016 and received the Photobook Award at Fotobook festival Kassel in the same year. The first edition was sold out within a few months. Two and a half years later, Jiazazhi Press announced the second edition of Bees & The Bearable. The quality of printing is enhanced in the new edition, which comes in a specially-designed translucent envelope, while all the design elements from the original edition are kept intact.

As a photo book, Bees & The Bearable not only brings together two different series ingeniously, but also bears witness to the personal journey of the artist as a self-injurer who is able to communicate her experience to the audience through her work; the book is both a memento of youth and a revelation of the process of self-healing through art. In the artist’s own words, “my life experience is recovered by the replacement of photography; I can objectify these pains and make them less personal. In a certain sense, it’s like what Deleuze said: ‘Artistic expression is a curative process.’”

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