|Zhu Xian: In recent years, some of the projects you did in Asia—such as Celebrating the World, Game Table, Fu Dao/Fu Dao—Upside-down Buddha/Arrival at Good Fortune—bear a strong relationship to your above-mentioned ideas. My feeling is that these projects are half joyful and half sorrowful, making people not know whether to laugh or to cry. Ridicule is often contained in cheerfulness, and satire, in entertainment. Although your modeling techniques are still characterized by your boldness and uninhibitedness, yet the critical and mocking metaphorical language has become increasingly Asian.
Chen Zhen: It is no wonder that when I come back to Asia, there have been many occurrences of “short circuits.”
Chen Zhen, interviewed by Zhu Xian
Zhu Xian: In recent years, some of the projects you did in Asia—such as Celebrating the World, Game Table, Fu Dao/Fu Dao—Upside-down Buddha/Arrival at Good Fortune—bear a strong relationship to your above-mentioned ideas. My feeling is that these projects are half joyful and half sorrowful, making people not know whether to laugh or to cry. Ridicule is often contained in cheerfulness, and satire, in entertainment. Although your modeling techniques are still characterized by your boldness and uninhibitedness, yet the critical and mocking metaphorical language has become increasingly Asian.
Chen Zhen: It is no wonder that when I come back to Asia, there have been many occurrences of “short circuits.” But the key is, instead of shifting my strategies depending on “cards,” I insist on plunging into the thick of life, invariably attacking the social malaise of the day. I need to experience and investigate Asia by myself. We should realize that the major issue with Asia today lies not in the controversy or choice between “anti-tradition” and “anti-West.” The major issue lies in how to establish a “second tradition” of Asia’s own.
Zhu: A kind of renewal of the tradition?
Chen: No. It is the establishment of a new type of socio-economic structure and system—which serves as the foundation to create a total cultural renewal for Asia—a new “state of consciousness.” In Asia, we cannot talk about culture and art and tradition separately. Although the modernization of Asia has some unique characteristics; nevertheless, this type of modernization is brought about by overlapping foreign things over Asia’s own traditional culture, rather than being evolved purely from the internal logic of Asia’s own traditional culture. Therefore, the Westerners, or even the Orientals themselves call this modernization “Westernization.” This is a historical fact. But what I want to say here is how we can turn this strange “overlapping” phenomenon into a new “history,” a “second tradition,” that could run parallel with the “first tradition.” The “collage” feature of many Asian metropolises can be viewed as large-scale installation artworks, born out of cataclysmic changes and pasting assemblies of multilayers of “cultural time and space.” They often appear to be nondescript, but are very revealing of many things.
Zhu: Do you mean that Asians lack the sense of urban aesthetics?
Chen: Asians do not have time to pay attention to that sort of thing. Over time, a habit turns into a second nature. Wouldn’t it then become a type of urban aesthetics unique to Asia? Today, from certain perspective, Japan is now establishing, or has by and large established, such a “tradition.” Nowadays, if a Japanese artist creates works by using Sony televisions or other high-technology gadgets, few people would say this is the symbol of the Western culture. Rather, people would say, this is “typical of Japanese.” In this sense, “Sony” culture is a representative of the Japanese “second tradition.” But for a long, long period of time, Japan’s position in Asia was “isolated,” almost like that of a crane standing over a group of chickens, a “Western island” in Asia. The Chinese, in their turn, like to claim the status of a “big brother.” The poorer they are, the more they stick to that claim. Countries in the “Chinese language circle” have a tendency to be conservative. A more important thing to note is that Asian countries are used to the habit of “not having any contact with each other.” Hence the lack of any “intra-continent cultural characteristics.” Yet, in the days approaching the turn of the century, this vast territory is undergoing dramatic changes, particularly because of China’s awakening.
Zhu: You seem to be talking about “economic determinism.” Didn’t you just say that contemporary culture could not be bought by money?
Chen: What I meant was, economic modernization does not mean cultural modernization. Nevertheless, economy is the basic lever that conditions the development of culture. Furthermore, the very problem of how to develop Asia’s economy is also a cultural one. Unfortunately, this “cultural process” is often reduced in people’s minds to a “process of getting rich.” Does “being rich” have any identity features? No. Therefore, of course, money cannot buy contemporary culture!
Zhu: The problem with China is not simply an economic-cultural dialectical logic. It is far more complex than that.
Chen: China’s complexity is mainly due to political factors. Of course, the obstinacy of tradition in China is also something unparalleled elsewhere. But I believe that economic development will gradually cause an “evolution” in China’s politics, because economy is both the major element in modern society and the traditional characteristic of the Chinese “counting silver and weighing gold.” The economic prowess of overseas Chinese in the world poses a major challenge to the human kind. The inherent qualities of the Chinese have determined that China will not follow the footsteps of the former Soviet Union. What I am concerned is, for a considerable time to come, the development of China’s contemporary culture will suffer the dual pressures of politics and the “abacus.” Therefore, people of our generation, domestic and overseas, should pay more attention to the problems of Asia while facing the West. We should work to lay a solid foundation for the establishment of a “second tradition” in China and Asia.