Past, Present And Future Time

Luise Guest

When yin and yang go wrong, heaven and earth are hugely disturbed.
— Zhuangzi


Chen Zhe’s Embodied Knowledge

Best known for two photographic series, Bees (2010–2012) and The Bearable (2007–2010), which, the artist says, portray “the disquieted souls, the wounded bodies, and the elusive link between the two”, Beijing-based Chen Zhe examines the indivisible connection between mind and body, and between the individual and the collective.

Researching literary and scientific texts, divination, alchemy, and shamanism in her continuing exploration of bodily experience, Chen says in a recent email interview, “What’s beyond this life could be death or samsara, what’s beyond a modern Homo Sapiens body could be the intricately designed structure of a jelly fish, what’s beyond our consciousness could be our wild and free dreams which often defy language and reasoning.”

Chen dwells in the liminal and the in-between. Towards Evening: Six Chapters (2012– ) is Chen’s ongoing study of dusk, that nebulous and melancholy hour—“entre chien et loup” (between dog and wolf) as the French expression goes. From this examination of ambiguity, she developed You Are a Circle, Expanding (As Above) and You Are a Circle, Expanding (So Below) (both 2021), a lyrical two-part installation whose title comes from “As Above, So Below”, the second verse of ancient Hermetic text Emerald Tablet. An outstretched finger points at a softly pulsing circular form that initially suggests the moon but gradually reveals itself as a trembling pool of water. Mesmerising concentric ripples evoke the expansion and contraction of the universe.

The body, in Chen’s work, is paradoxically both fragile and resilient. Chen proposes that two maps chart our journey through this world. One is the constellation under which we are born; the other is created by the two fissures on our skulls that gradually fuse the parietal and frontal bones in adulthood. Invisible beneath the layers of muscle and skin that separate us from others, the Coronal and Sagittal Sutures are like a concealed map made of bone. “…But still you know them like knowing one’s body under the skin, or an unknown ancestor, or knowledge that one gains in a dream,” Chen says. Photographs in the “Eternal Ephemera” series suggest skulls fissured with river-like indentations, veinous optic nerves, or passages of constellations through the cosmos.

In Reading Old Dreams: Next to You (2020) a resin skull lit from within sits on a block of roughly carved marble. It glows like a lantern in front of a large tapestry with a design based on photographs of the sutures on animal skulls. In this work and others in “A Slow Remembering of a Long Forgetting”, a solo exhibition at Shanghai’s BANK in 2021, Chen suggests that skull sutures, like charts studied by astrologers looking for signs determining human destiny, are texts that may be read. Their meanings, however, remain elusive. The installation charts a passage between birth and death, and between the self and the other. Chen says her aim as an artist is, “…to be with the uncertainty, to connect with the most transitory and the most eternal and the endless moments in between.”

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