Cult of the Grotesque: Tianzhuo Chen at Palais de Tokyo

Exhibition view of Tianzhuo Chen, Palais de Tokyo, Bank Gallery (Shanghai), co-production K11 Art Foundation (KAF). Photo by André Morin. Courtesy of the artist

Entering the Tianzhuo Chen exhibition in Palais de Tokyo feels a little like crashing a spectacular party just a bit too late: the lights are still on but everyone has already left.

We first face a stage. Like a flat sculpture, emptied of presence, several vestiges of the opera-performance that occurred during the exhibition’s vernissage remain. Scattered on the floor are fragments of totem-sculptures, flamboyant shawls made of fur, clothing, wings, used props and accessories, flags, and graffiti. Trying to rebuild the event, we hesitate between a campy drag queen show and an occult danse macabre as several obscure symbols seem to suggest.

Behind the scene, the new video “19:53” gives us some clues. At once kitsch, violent and hallucinatory, the scene mimics the music video clip genre. Several characters, in a mixture of multiple identifiable styles, dance a lascivious choreography while licking and kissing creatures, from lizards to dead chickens.

We continue our walk, accompanied by our growing disorientation. A huge viewing partition separates the room into two parts, displaying an impressive collection of marijuana bongs, which constitute the sign of our hallucinatory tour.

This show in Palais de Tokyo, which can be seen as Tianzhuo Chen’s first retrospective, resists a classical exhibition format to produce an overall environment; which is itself an installation, albeit containing his previous works. In 2013, he turned the Star Gallery space in Beijing into the Acid Star Club – at once an exhibition and a temporary nightclub. Thus, this chaotic, sonorous and visually appealing scenery perfectly befits the large rooms of the Palais de Tokyo; the size of the space often requires a treatment more akin to an amusement park than an art centre.

Exhibition view of Tianzhuo Chen, Palais de Tokyo, courtesy the artist, Bank Gallery (Shanghai), coproduction K11 Art Foundation (KAF), photo by André Morin
Exhibition view of Tianzhuo Chen, Palais de Tokyo, Bank Gallery (Shanghai), coproduction K11 Art Foundation (KAF). Photo by André Morin. Courtesy of the artist

In one corner of the room, split across two screens, the video “Paradise Bitch” (2014) shows the Asians twins – two people of short stature – performing a rap whilst mimicking hip-hop aesthetic clichés. Gold necklaces, tattoos, rings, marijuana leaves and US dollars symbols turn the shirtless figures into a burlesque mockery.

Following our path we end up in an open space where a large video triptych hangs almost on the ceiling, a placement that reinforces the iconic status of the piece itself, entitled “Picnic” (2014).

The video, an astounding assembly of the artist’s obsessions, opens with a slow-motion sequence; an androgynous character lights up and smokes a bong, provoking a hallucinatory vision in which a familiar creature, with pony-tails and a mask, begins a Butoh-like dance. The final scene in “Picnic” casts an uncanny Pieta: the divine creature lies on the knees of a pop-cosmonaut, flanked by two small figures wearing shark jaws.

Tianzhuo Chen was born in 1985 and lived in Beijing after completing his studies at St Martins College, London. The few texts written about his work methodically follow long enumerations, attempting to decipher the complex assembly of references, which includes, among others, Butoh dance, science-fiction, cartoon, manga, rave culture, S/M fetishism, queer culture, voguing, dope culture, kitsch, Buddhism and hip-hop.

This vast array of influences can be identified through numerous symbols in his videos, performances, sculptures and exhibition environments. The body always takes the central position in his mise-en-scène, becoming a site for experimentation where determined categories – be it sex, gender, race, geography – collapse. Exaggeration is employed as a strategy to undo these categories; this “too much”, which could be described within Susan Sontag’s notion of “campy”, contains a certain aggressiveness towards binary systems: being-able or being-white.

Exhibition view of Tianzhuo Chen, Palais de Tokyo, Bank Gallery (Shanghai), coproduction K11 Art Foundation (KAF). Photo by André Morin. Courtesy of the artist

Chen’s symbolic vocabulary resonates with communication strategies and rituals used in several cults and religions. Borrowed iconography, divinities and ceremonies lead us to the reconstituted font in the centre of the show. By mixing up all of these, he creates what we could call a “cult of the grotesque”, where baroque profusion incites Craig Owens’ command to “undermine all belief, dislodge all certainty, discredit all dogma” in his book “Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture” (1992).

Theories of the grotesque body, (notably analysed by Mikhail Bakhtin in his “Rabelais and his world” (1965) give us surprisingly efficient tools and vocabulary to decipher Tianzhuo Chen’s contemporary work, allowing for an analysis of the strategies at work rather than an inventory of all the references the artist reenacts. After all, “grotesque bodies are hybrid bodies: mixtures of animals, objects, plants, and human beings” explains Sara Cohen in the gender studies journal, “Grotesque Bodies: A Response to Disembodied Cyborgs” (2006).

Each period has its grotesqueries – what was once deemed grotesque could be seen as commonplace today. In our times of globalised digital technologies, the grotesque finds a powerful resurgence. While Pop culture creates icons where religion and mythology once did, Tianzhuo Chen feeds his grotesque imagery, challenging normative structures without anachronism.

Text by Gauthier Lesturgie

Tianzhuo Chen is showing at Palais de Tokyo, Paris, until 13 September 2015

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