Essay for the Asia Pacific Triennial 9 (APT9)Reuben Keehan
Chen Zhe’s finely realised photographic imagery explores what she describes as ‘the ambiguous meeting point between visual representations and language’. Chen first attracted attention – and some notoriety – for her photo series and artist books Bees (2010-12) and The Bearable (2007-10), which contained unflinching though uniquely measured contextualisation of communities of self-abusers she met in internet forums. She documented with unusual frankness and sensitivity the relationship of wounded personalities to their physical bodies through a collection of correspondence, diary entries, online chats and imagery that is at once sumptuous and challenging.
Since 2012, Chen has been engaged in a long-term investigation of visual and linguistic representations of dusk. Working under the title Towards Evening: Six Chapters, Chen uses six conceptual ‘filters’ to explore human responses to the twilight hour, with a particular focus on the psychological space the gathering of darkness creates. So absorbed has the artist become in the project that she has been driven to schedule annual exhibitions of her accumulating archive – ‘reconstructions’ as she describes them – as a means of marking time.
Towards Evening has a deeply literary aspect. Chen includes her own writing and extracts from a wide range of sources alongside her evocative photographs as she experiments with modes of display. Entries in the series include a suite of images inspired by the short story The Red Cocoon by Japanese absurdist Kobo Abe, notes on a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, and a reference book cataloguing and categorising types of ‘evening uneasiness’, with an accompanying video and sound piece. Appropriately, the project is organised into ‘chapters’ that consist of several ‘sections’, while its overall title is drawn from a celebrated quatrain by Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin:
Towards evening my soul was disquieted;
And I urged my carriage up to this ancient plateau.
The setting sun has a boundless beauty;
Only the yellow dusk is so near.
With this disquiet in mind, The Only Question is How to Endure, constituting Section II of the first chapter of Chen’s undertaking, is composed of four large black cabinets that frame a body of images and documents. Each represents a different approach to the problem of how to spend the hour of dusk, a choice of waiting for darkness (Immersing); feeling the weight of time’s passing (Resisting); savouring the sunset and the promise of night (Seizing the moment); or contemplating its profundities (Understanding eternity).
Chen’s evocative photographs depict the unmistakable tonal shift as late afternoon light gives way to darkness and skies redden then fade, from the intimacy of a pile of bedsheets against a last burst of golden sun to the gossamer wonder of a spider colony and arcs of candle flame. These are grouped aside illustrations from Chen’s study – phases of the moon, visions of the cosmos, scientific imagery and religious iconography – and quotations from a wide range of literary sources: Van Gogh, Edgar Allan Poe, Simone de Beauvoir, exiled artist Gao Er-Tai, decadent novelist Sakaguchi Ango, the philosophical pessimism of Emil Cioran.
Chen’s archive creates a play of possible reading between image and text, photographic representation and poetic language. As illuminating as her selection is, it also leaves space for interpretative slippages – she quotes John Berger on the inseparability of meaning and mystery – which is entirely appropriate to the enigma of the evening disquiet.