Essay for the Solo Show at Plug In ICA

Nasrin Himada
January 2020

All briefly towards night.  
(Theresa Hak Kyung Cha)

To think of dusk is to think of the liminal and transitional, the state of change that activates transformation. Chen Zhe’s Towards Evenings: Six Chapters is an expansive, multidisciplinary series that examines the contradictory tensions inherent in this light of near night. Chen’s exploration into the complex and transient experiences of dusk stems from her previous research and artwork in Bees & The Bearable, where the invisible, unspoken, most private and intimate formations of selfhood and pain are given form, space, and language. In Towards Evenings, Chen’s persistent desire to create systems of knowledge for the inarticulable moments of unease and disturbances, as they come up in the body’s experience of time and its impact on our emotional landscape, journeys into the realm of disquiet.

891 Dusks: an Encyclopedia of Psychological Experiences is a subchapter of the second chapter in a six-chapter series. It presents the artist’s rigorous research on widespread symptoms of “evening uneasiness” in an encyclopedic structure mimicking that of the bible, categorizing and conceptualizing “disquiet” through hundreds of “psycho-poetic” entries. The book functions as an index for that nebulous space that unsettles and enlivens the tensions between that of the known and unknown, of being and becoming, of day and night. The types of poetic arrangements that mark meaning with wonder expand on Chen’s vision of materializing embodied knowledge, inundating the audience with textual material that give substance to experiences borne of this time. We are invited to read through this eclectic book as it sits on a stand, as well as to reach for the headphones nearby where an audio recording of Chen reading a poem plays on. Across the way, three framed pieces hang, the first one is of a poem by Rilke, Evening, is displayed with some words underlined. A second frame displays an illustration of a constellation, and the third image of a star with stones. The dissection of the poem is exposed to us, letting us know of a thought process mired in the solving of a puzzle. One line stands out: “one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.” For Chen, the triptych presents the moment of reveal, the mystery disclosed in three stages: “the collation of the text, the moment of comprehension, and the discovery of the image.”

Chen’s practice honours the intricacies, rigour and commitment required for deep constructive research, one that manifests into a multi-layered immersive environment that conditions the affective relationship between sound, image and text. Towards Evenings gestures toward the power of the word, of what materializes into utterance and qualification, the power of writing as a way out of the tense unease of changing daylight, and into the transformative and generative ways of constituting expression into knowledge systems. 891 Dusks unearths new ways of thinking through night, that open up the image of night, in order to change our relation to the celestial. There’s more to dusk than sky. Our body’s relation to the elements is key in understanding the complexity of light and its effects on our psyche. Chen mobilizes the durational aspect of dusk as one inseparable from the process of uncovering thought—thought as embodied conceptualization.    

Chen’s experience of dusk foregrounds the possibility of articulation when we’re faced with the intermediary state of being. The knowledge that stems from what is perceived as the veil of light, becomes a space in which unspeakable and unseeable formations are activated. Dusk, as the time between sunset and moonlight, is the instantaneous moment where secrets might be uttered, the mysteries beholden to us might be revealed. There, in between, so much can be said, so much can happen that is yet to become. Dusk here is artful. It’s an ecology of intimacies, driven by the quest to capture the ambiguous link between “visual representations and language,” between poetry and art.

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