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Chen Tianzhuo's Picnic
Stoned astronauts, neon lights and religious iconography combine in this artist's striking works, on display now in Shanghai
by Alessandro De Toni
on 27 August 2014
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An indolent psychonaut walks onto a stage in a brightly colored outfit and loads his bong with the ritual gestures of a tea master. He puts on a helmet—complete with a weed leaf-shaped halo—and as the bowl burns, a cloud of thick smoke fills the headgear. He sits between two flags, between two philosophical mantras: the Latin motto, “Ordo ab chao” (meaning order from chaos) and the more subversive, “Jerk off in peace."

This is just the introduction to artist Chen Tianzhuo’s performance piece called "PicNic," one of the incredible works showcased at his latest solo show at Shanghai's BANK Gallery. At the venue, the artist shocks viewers with a range of bold and sometimes confrontational sights—a recent performance saw a dancer crawling on the floor while wearing a butt plug shaped like a pink ponytail.

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Born in Beijing in 1985 and trained at London’s Central Saint Martins, Chen is one the most promising young artists in China. His art is a unique blend that combines elements of pop culture, religious symbolism, sacred rituals and self-deprecation. Chen’s repertoire is an encyclopedia of global subculture—everything from pot, drag queens, Eric Cartman, hip-hop culture, voguing, butoh (a Japanese avant-guard form of dance from the '60s) and a lot more is tapped in his striking artworks. "Art transcends borders, we can’t talk about Chinese art and foreign art. As a young artist, I choose my palette from a globalized world—elements from everyday life I share with artists of my age all around the world,” Chen tells CH.

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I don’t like to take it too seriously. My goal is rather to stimulate the audience—bring them in a world of colors and emotions.

Aside from flashy images and bright lights, religion is an integral part of Chen’s creations. In all his works there’s an extensive use of symbols from the holy cross to Buddhist swastikas and elements from freemasonry. His performances are often choreographed as a religious ceremony, almost an initiation into a kind of ecstatic cult. "Since I can recall, I’ve always been interested in religion and art. Both have to deal with life and death, art connects to the very essence of life as well as religion does. At the same time, I don’t want to express any deep philosophical thought in my work, I don’t like to take it too seriously. My goal is rather to stimulate the audience—bring them in a world of colors and emotions—that’s also one of the reasons why I’m more and more interested in live performances instead of installations,” Chen says.

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"PicNic," along with other works including "Paradise Bitch" (a piece which features two little people in golden chains rapping on the notes of Cantonese rapper KidGod) are destined to influence Chen’s next big accomplishment: an opera whose topic still remains a secret.

Chen's work are currently on show at Shanghai's BANK Gallery (Second Floor, 59, Xianggang Lu, near Huqiu Lu, Huangpu district) until 31 August 2014, with a few selected pieces also displayed at Destination—one of Beijing’s hotspots for queer culture. Among his side projects is a collaboration with fashion designer SANKUANZ, for whom Chen designed the graphic patterns of the last two collections.

Images courtesy of Chen Tianzhuo

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