Chen Tianzhuo won’t show his art to his parents because he thinks they’ll worry about his mental health.
One look at his work, and it’s not hard to see why.
In Chen’s art, anything goes. Neon colors bombard the retinas. Ornate bongs rub up against religious iconography, and rave culture sits next to left-field Japanese dance forms. Chen’s live performances feature a cast of absurd characters engaging in acts that shock and confound the viewer. A discomfiting soundtrack of electronic music only adds to the feeling of unease.
Thirty and from Beijing, Chen is one of a new breed of Chinese artists who, over the past five years, have been creating self-assured works across a range of media that celebrate the extravagances of modern pop and internet culture.
After returning in 2012 from studying in London, Chen had a string of exhibitions in China that caused his reputation to grow. With Chen’s first-ever overseas exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris last year, there are signs that the world is beginning to take notice, too.
Chen Tianzhuo poses for a picture during the opening of his solo exhibition in Beijing, June 8, 2016. Zhuang Yan for Sixth Tone
Brash and comfortable in its skin, Chen’s art celebrates the excesses of the celebrity and global pop culture his generation has grown up with, while also recognizing its inherent absurdity. It is the face of Chinese art maturing and stamping its mark on the global culture that people here have been consuming for decades.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: How did you become interested in art?
Chen Tianzhuo: I began studying graphic design as an undergrad. By my second year I had started doing some oil painting in my free time, and I decided to pursue art because I realized I didn’t want to do design.
I prefer being able to express myself, rather than designing something for a purpose or to serve a greater whole.
Sixth Tone: You studied in London. What kind of impact did this have on you?
Chen Tianzhuo: Many of the themes in my works have been influenced by the culture I was exposed to there. When I first arrived in London I was only 19 or 20, and it was the first I had come into contact with rave culture. I was really enthusiastic about it, so I went out to party and to get to know some of the people involved in it to better understand the culture.
Sixth Tone: Why do you think this rave culture appealed to you?
Chen Tianzhuo: At its freest and most sensory level, it has the ability to be the most direct way of feeling a sense of release. I want my work to communicate a similar sensory feeling to the people who see it, so the influence of rave culture on my work is huge.
Sixth Tone: You returned from London in 2012. Do you feel like much has changed in China’s art world since then?
Chen Tianzhuo: I think the whole art scene has gotten younger and changed incredibly quickly. Right when I arrived back was a very special, interesting, and important time. It was not long after the financial crisis, and the scene in China was saturated with older artists. From that point onward, many young artists started getting attention, and galleries began seeking out youthful faces.
Another aspect is that a lot of these young artists have been eaten up already. Some of them were really popular a couple of years ago, but now we hear nothing from them. Over the past four years, the situation for our generation has been constantly changing.
Sixth Tone: What do ordinary people think of your work?
Chen Tianzhuo: Each generation is different. Those who are younger will probably have a stronger reaction, and I think many of them like it. This makes me happy. It’s important to me — I don’t need everyone to like my work. Those who are older, like my mother and father, don’t understand art, but it’s no big deal.
Sixth Tone: Have your parents attended any of your exhibitions?
Chen Tianzhuo: No, they haven’t, and I usually don’t invite them. If they saw one of my exhibitions, they’d get worried. They’d wonder if I had mental problems, and it would just be a huge hassle for me. They’d be very anxious. It’s better that they don’t see my art.
Sixth Tone: Is religion important to you?
Chen Tianzhuo: I’m a Buddhist. If you have a faith, then that faith is the most important thing to you. Your thinking and your attitude toward life are founded on Buddhist values. How you approach life and death, and other fundamental questions that everyone faces, will be based on Buddhist mores.
Sixth Tone: A lot of your art could be considered playful. Are there deeper levels to it?
Chen Tianzhuo: Just being playful isn’t reason enough to make art. I often look for fun possibilities, or things that people will find stimulating. It’s a way of presenting my work, a method. But within these playful-looking works are hidden problems that I worry about, and me pondering these things comes from my faith. This is the most important level of my work.
Sixth Tone: If religion were more common in China, would society be better?
Chen Tianzhuo: Of course it would, definitely. At the very least, people would be happier, if not necessarily better off materially. It’s a bit like parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region or India: Although there are many people who are very poor in those regions, you can’t say that they are unhappy or complain about life being difficult. In China this is incredibly evident — if you’re a poor person, then you are seen to lack dignity, becoming an object of pity.
A stage photo of performance piece ‘Ishvara’ during the opening of Chen Tianzhou’s solo exhibition in Beijing, June 8, 2016. Zhuang Yan for Sixth Tone
Sixth Tone: You often incorporate performing arts like opera or dance into your work — why?
Chen Tianzhuo: Today, China is occupied by the concept of new media. But even if you use new forms of media, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to create something new. I’m more captivated by traditional methods of close interaction among people. I like how the first time you see a performance will be different from the second time. Each performance has its time, and you have to be there to really feel a connection to it. At the same time, it combines music, the stage, costume, dance, performance, installation — I love all of these things.
Sixth Tone: Your work has been said to embrace LGBT themes. Was this deliberate?
Chen Tianzhuo: No, it wasn’t. The forms that I’ve chosen to use in my work blur the lines that distinguish gender. My work is related to religion. I take people from the world and, through performance, turn them into godlike forms. Gods in themselves do not have distinct genders: Whether they’re Buddhist gods or Hindu gods, they combine both male and female characteristics. I’m setting out to do this, rather than to embrace LGBT themes.
Sixth Tone: There are also drug references in your work, including a series of bongs you created yourself. Why did you decide to include this element in your work?
Chen Tianzhuo: Part of it comes from my personal experiences. Then there’s the fact that drugs are linked to religion. Hinduism and Buddhism, and other forms of religion, use these substances as a way to aid in meditation. When I incorporate these elements into my work, it doesn’t mean I’m trying to be provocative or to encourage their use. It’s because drug use is a phenomenon among younger generations, and because drugs also have a religious association.
Sixth Tone: In terms of your reception abroad, have you encountered people who have misunderstandings about China?
Chen Tianzhuo: Yes. Loads, actually. For example, there are some questions I am always asked. The most asked questions are all about censorship. Every Chinese artist will get asked about this. The second most asked questions are all about Ai Weiwei — I get asked about him so much it makes me want to cry. I don’t know what I should say, as I’ve never even met him. I think it’s ridiculous that some people think every Chinese artist should have their own opinion about him.
Sixth Tone: Do you have any advice for children who want to be artists?
Chen Tianzhuo: I’d tell them that art isn’t that important. Art isn’t as important as the idea that it projects to people. If you become an artist or gain success in art, it’s very easy to think that what you’re doing is incredibly important and full of value, but it isn’t. You’ve been brainwashed. There are many things you could pursue which are of more value than art.
(Header image: A stage photo of performance piece ‘Ishvara’ during the opening of Chen Tianzhou’s solo exhibition in Beijing, June 8, 2016. Zhuang Yan for Sixth Tone)