Bees In the Body Temple

Jean Loh
August 2011

Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's.
(1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

“Brought up in Beijing, China, Chen Zhe is photo-based artist currently living in Los Angeles. In the past four years, Zhe has created a series of projects focusing on body modification, human hair, identity confusion, post-traumatic stress disorder, and memory. Zhe’s winning project is a document of self-mortification among a community of disaffected Chinese. The difficult nature of her subject is made more complex by Chen’s lyrical approach, identifying the physical self-destruction of her subjects as an act of spiritual cleansing.” That is how in some sixty words the Inge Morath Foundation and the Magnum Foundation have summarized the essence of Chen’s young masterpiece Bees in their introduction to the 2011 Award attributed to her.

Chen Zhe’s earlier photographs, a series of self-portraits called The Bearable, which received the Three Shadows Award, were first displayed at Caochangdi PhotoSpring Festival in April 2011. Pinned to one wall were pieces of a puzzle depicting painful memories. When I encountered at last the photographer in person, I was immediately attracted by Zhe's darkness and surprising self-awareness in spite of her young age. More specifically that her creation was uniquely based on her own experiences touched me profoundly. There is something in her secret yet exhibitionistic nature that convinced me she was of the caliber of an “author photographer”.

Chen Zhe started hurting herself seven years ago. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates believed that bloodletting a patient to health acted like the process of menstruation, because menstruation functioned “to purge women of bad humors”. In modern day there are people, especially young women suffering from depression and/or inability for social adaptation, who tend to fall into a pattern of cutting or lacerating parts of their bodies as a way to “survive”. One of the most haunting pictures of Jane Evelyn Atwood’s monumental work on women in prison shows a display of lacerated forearms with ugly and badly stitched wounds lined up side by side, punctuated by marks of cigarette burns. Those scars are from four suicidal women cellmates of Pardubice Detention Center in the Czech Republic in 1992.

As a way to better understand herself and to further her photographic art, Zhe has embarked on a project consisting of extending her self-portraits by finding and photographing people who share the similar suffering with her. From the simple act of tattooing one’s skin to the more serious acts of auto-mutilations and body modification, Zhe found those who she calls “bees” by showing them first her own scars. Leonard Cohen wrote in Favorite Game: “Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.” “Photographing the bruised body is the perfect way to evacuate the unspeakable suffering in a tangible form”, said Zhe.

There are people who are afraid of pain and others who relish pain. Humanity seems to be made of those who inflict wounds and pains on others and those who self inflict sufferings. From the ancient age, conquerors, dictators and slave masters have used physical tortures and punishments to impose physical and psychological dominance. And since Jesus Christ’s passion, fanatical religious followers have practiced self-harm and self-flagellate in their monastery cells and in public procession as a means to experience divinity. By marking stigmata on their bodies, which resembled the wounds of Christ’s crucified body, they intend to purge their imaginary or collective sins. For this body temple, they believe, is also home to the devil. In Tuol Sleng, the Museum of Genocide in Cambodia, the horror photographs are fading with time, but one icon in the history of photography stands out, sadly, and painfully vivid in the minds of viewers. A young boy, dazed and shirtless, staring at the camera expressionless, eyes vaguely lowered. Because he wore no cloth when arrested, the executioners had fixed a pin directly onto his skin, bearing the number 17, in the inventory of the tortured victims. Today's stigmata have been deviated from an act of religious devotion or spiritual salvation into a form of body art or eroticism. Beyond tattoo and piercing there are all sorts of scarifications and microdermal implants inflicted on any parts of the body, some leaving artistic scars or marks through painful and quasi surgical procedures.

In a way, at the very origin, we all share one common experience of pain: our belly button is here to testify to our coming to life through an injury. This universal scar of ours gives all its sense to Cohen's “word made flesh”. Beyond nationality, religious and cultural differences, what cuts into our skin - the envelope of our body temple - is the same universal pain. This initial pain is perhaps the reason why the only goal we pursue in life is happiness.

It is the physical “sting”” of Chen Zhe's Bees that leads to our emotional disturbance. It is this pain that makes us realize how much we are physically and emotionally alive. Not only Zhe reveals to us a world which we are totally unfamiliar of, but also this is an incomprehensible world she drops into our lap. What the innocent blue angel in her swimsuit is hiding is the detail that pierces the surface of apparent tranquility. It is a Diane Arbus secret. Suffice not just to locate and identify the telltale scars on her skin, but why and how and who she is, who they are, anyway, all of them? The self-mutilation adepts who thrill at the sight of blood, the body modification artists who find salvation suspended by their skin, the young and beautiful S&M practitioners, the sufferers of eating disorders and the people with Hikikomori syndrome who only find comfort in their secret hide-out. The troubling questions they arose are like storms in our brains. We shall leave them to specialists and experts in all fields: medicine, psychotherapy, sociology, politics, philosophy or theology. What we can only say is that they are powerful but at the same time lyrical, indeed, photographs.

Unlike the physically obvious freaks, Chen's subjects' aristocracy remains indefinable, true to their own secret ritual they would only share with Zhe, in a more subdued and inward-looking way than the victims of obsession and dependency captured by the blatant flash of Nan Goldin. Not content to hang around or accompanying them to the hospital, Zhe convinced her subjects to pose in the nude by removing herself her clothes to reveal her scars first. This empathy helps explain the total self-abandon displayed by her subjects, in a way only offered to someone who is a member of the same club, a la Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki.

Chen’s poetry and lyricism also lie in her exploration of the different genres, from portraits, landscape to still-life, with a treatment akin to an instinctive deep breath after you're nearly drown. Her camera points down, shoots up, lies in bed, gets wet in the shower, blurs as the subject breathes out into the lens. The composition in Zhe' work recalls the creativity and freedom of experimentation which were the signature of the tragic genius in photography, Francesca Woodman(1958-1981). The photograph of the bloody bandage wrapped around the wrist of one of the “bees” strangely echoes that of Francesca Woodman wearing tree barks on her arms. And how to explain the fascination exercised by the portrait of that chubby girl in her blue swimsuit? One can interpret Bees according to one's own sense and sensibility; but there is no rationale beside the esthetic quality when we gaze at the awkward smile on her face and the tiny marks on her forearms, left by an imaginary baby shark.

We come out of the screening of Bees as if we had taken a shower, feeling fresh and alive, ready to face up to whatever that may come.

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