Reviewing What You Have Learned and Learning Anew – Chen Hangfeng’s Visual Presentation

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by Gu Ling

Proof reading by Sonja Kielty

The politics textbook in junior high school told us “history is moving forward in a spiral, zigzag way”. However, with the globalization and the increasing expansion and penetration of social media, we cannot stop feeling that a more accurate way to say this sentence might be: the history is repeating in a spiral way, and stuck still in a zigzag way.

Chen Hangfeng first came to Bradfordin 2009. As an invited artist for the 1mile2 event, he joined a three-person team with a British ecologist and a British artist, performing studies on biodiversity. During the three-month visit, Chen made friends with some local artists and scientists, and in 2010 completed his work, “Invasive species -The vegetables”, which is displayed in “Unnatural Selection’ in Cartwright Hall. In the 160m2 exhibition space, a dozen of his works, created between 2006 and 2011 covering multiple series, themes, and media are arranged. The title “Unnatural Selection” originates from the host’s preference for his early work, “Logomania”, and less attention to his recent works. However, the exhibition is still reflects his creation and thinking on art over the last six years.

Logomania

In 1978, the second year after the Cultural Revolution, the Third Plenum of the Eleventh CCP Congress was held to bring chaos back to order, when reform and opening-up and socialist modernization were initiated. In the same year, four-year old Chen was sent by his parents to learn traditional Chinese painting. Chinese literati’s elegant interest in painting is an ironic contrast to the drastic changes in the time when Chen grew up. Twenty years later, Chen graduated from Oil Painting major, Institute of Fine Arts of Shanghai University. This temporary abandonment of Chinese painting was a result of China’s elementary education system “leaning toward the West”, in which art is no exception. It must be oil painting when talking about painting; the traditional painting and calligraphy art education becomes trivial. The uniform and repetitive training on Soviet Brush-stroke style techniques and the restriction on expression of concept in the university made Chen feel frustrated about being a painter. When showing me his works as a student, he mentioned the special influence of Wang Jieyin on him: “Professor Wang never teaches techniques, we just talk. We drew a painting and took it to him. He could always talk about topics beyond the painting. These talks benefited me a lot”. Chen came into contact with fresh computer graphics software, with which he had a new tool and method to express images. Learning graphic design by himself, he has worked in a number of AD and magazine companies. He met a variety of firms and brands, and designed a variety of well-known trademarks, logos, which serve as an accumulation for his subsequent Logomania series.

In 2005, Chen began to play with the logos of worldwide well-known brands he had been serving for years. By combining with the traditional Chinese paper-cutting patterns, he created his first Logomania piece through graphic design and plain advertisement language. From a design perspective, he replaced the traditional symbolic elements in paper-cutting (such as dragon, phoenix, bird, flower, folk customs, etc.) with similarly looking logos (LV, Nike, Shell, etc.), attempting to dissolve the meaning of logos and investigate the failure of modern society to digest traditional culture whilst reviving daily life scenes in paper-cutting, animals and plants for the craftsmen but advertising and brands for modern people. The series, as a representative of Chen’s early works, is created in the form of initial traditional manual paper-cut, rice paper, then extended to synthetic glass, kraft paper, tattoo, screen (furniture), print, carpet, wallpaper and acrylic. The labour behind the works and the persistent admiration for paper cutting are very beautiful and appealing. The repeated simple symmetrical patterns created with scissors produce a magic feeling the moment they are opened. This series has been described as “witty, subtle, aesthetic and attractive.”

Just Poo It in 2007 and The Last Supper: Fast Food in 2008 continued to tease brands, externalizing the subtle humor in the Logomania series. The screenshot of Just Poo It still holds a graphic design composition, it looks like a Nike commercial, which can even be extracted as the slogan as “love it, wear it, and become it”. Chen made a highly realistic poo in the shape of Nike logo using plasticene and dye, and put it in the toilet as a piece of excrement from a young man who wears a Nike suit. The Last Supper: Fast food also tells a story. The static picture in a grid arrangement shows the process of several chickens eating up the figure of Colonel Sanders, the KFC logo made of rice on the floor. Chickens, often the consumed, consume the authority created by their consumers (people), and this reverse turns around and satirizes fast food and the consumption system it is in. What’s more ironic is that these chickens are still facing the fate of being eaten by the artists after the meal. The title The Last Supper is true. This work, created during his stay in Braziers Artists Residency Program, originates from the artists’ hungry for meat when they became tired of eating organic vegetables grown locally; the chickens in the farm where the residency house is located came into Chen’s camera frame, and he arranged an almost three-hour long feast out of the idea that “death penalty criminals are to have a good meal before being executed”—apparently chickens are better at eating slowly, it’s not at all “fastfood-ing” .

Luxurious Riffraff

The discussion on globalization, international trade, brand consumption and similar themes starts with Just Poo It and explores in other media such as video, sculpture, installation which give Chen more freedom and possibilities, The media themselves also offer him a different perspective to look at and deal with these topics.

In his trip to Wenzhouin 2007, he witnessed an epitome of Chinaas a world factory. Once a green and now a contaminated village is the place where the half the world’s Christmas gifts are produced. Christmas for people in Christian countries and regions means family reunification and happy moments, but for the more than 11,000 craftsmen here, it may be only a reason to earn a living. This place is once famous for carved pictures on bamboo shutters, which, when pulled, form two paintings at both sides, making it more scenic inside and outside the window. But it’s now like other villages in China, falling to a labor-intensive production line, dreaming about the so-called urban life in days and nights, painting Christmas balls and weaving ribbons. Chen spent three days as a stranger without understanding the Wenzhoudialect, trying to find a comfort from the wisdom and delicacy maintained in the bones of these home workshops. “They put strings of plastic balls on bamboo stick on foam like dry foods, and wait for them to dry, but what they do has nothing to do with their ancestors’ stuff.”

This documentary short video (Santa’s Little Helpers) gives birth to another series parallel to the Logomania. From 2007 to 2011, the Christmas-themed video installations and acrylic Christmas tree sculptures extended Chen’s thinking of and satire on Christmas consumption system. The pleasant light from hollow patterns (still brand logos) on the Christmas tree illuminates the underlying economic logic, and witnesses the financial peak and bubble in 2007, the subsequent crisis, bubble burst in 2008, and now the slowly recovering but seemingly “forgetful” economic system.

His new work “Artificial Snowflakes” can be regarded as a combined expression of patterns and products. The mirror installation reflects kaleidoscope paper-cutting patterns, which are actually fast-selling products when given a close look. This installation is both a brief review to paper-cutting and pattern creation and an attempt to achieve different visual presentations through multi media.

Wind from West

Continuously thinking about the blind pursuit of the so-called commerce brands and fast consumption, Chen made experiments in expressive methods, media and theme concurrently with the Logomania series. These experiments are no longer mere extension in media, but an enhancement in vision and sight. Starting from the Christmas series, his works developed from the presentation of conflict between tradition and modern times and focus on interaction between the West and the East to the understanding and investigation of “identity” in the global context.

Also inspired during the residency in Bradford, in 2010 Chen created “Invasive Species: The Vegetables”. From this more technically complex work, we can see Chen’s skilled control and use of multimedia devices. This work is created based on the planting of vegetables in public fields in the residential compound where Chen’s parents live. These organically planted vegetables contain more nutrients than sold vegetables and are more beneficial for health; but the occupation of public green fields caused lots of trouble between the neighbors and the compound management. Chen made up a series of fictive conversations in between the vegetables. The conversation was shown on a big screen under the guise of a scientific log, i.e., the conversations from the vegetables were captured by a “high-tech device” which analyzed their “biological signals.” The title “Invasive Species” is originated from the story about knotweed which Chen knew from the friends inBradford, in Chen’s opinion it is a satire on the colonist being colonized by the plants in the colony. These vegetables and the knotweed and other “invasive species” are the same, all brought to places where they should not be, the causes and consequences both being thought-provoking.

While creating video, Chen has long been attracted by a special medium: plastic bags. The notorious product in environment protection is always accumulated and waiting to be recycled by him. It is a typical representative of fast consumption, with an always short and weak storage function. However, it can be endowed with a poetic temperament, just like the posture of dancing with wind, floating, and bending but going nowhere, as in the film American Beauty. This poetic romance was emerging from the Wind Blow from West series in 2010.

Wind Blow from West is a version of replica paintings made from plastic bags for plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemums selected from the book Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden. Chen cut plastic bags into the shapes of elements in those traditional literati paintings (such as bamboo, petals) and pinned them onto a wooden board inlaid into the wooden frame. Two PC cooling fans were mounted in the wooden frame to the left of the board, causing a periodic rustling of the plastic pieces. Yet when the timer goes off and the fans stop blowing, the pieces always return to their original positions. For Chen, every detail in this series has a meaning, for example: nailing the pins to the board signifies that traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy have actually become the specimen; the artificial wind is arranged to blow from the left side, or the west, symbolizing how traditional Chinese cultural values are affected by Western civilization. Because of this, the original becomes even more valuable – after the wind stops, they take their original shape. These explanations sound a little stiff, but plastic bags really have a complete chance in his hands to sparkle. Relocating an existing medium to a conflicting context (like paper cutting for brand, and plastic for painting) to trigger issues and investigations is routine practice for Chen. “Currently for me, content might not be so important as the way my work is presented, to tryout, explore and pursue more media forms,” says Chen.

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