Invasive Species, Global Trade Routes: Chen Hangfeng in Conversation
This blog post is excerpted from an article published in 'The Art Life' on 25 June 2019, and is based on several conversations between the artist and White Rabbit Collection Manager of Research, Luise Guest, that took place in 2011, 2015 and 2019.
Chen Hangfeng’s witty LOGOMANIA series of papercuts and woven carpets featuring the all-too-recognisable visual branding of multinational corporations has been shown several times in Sydney at White Rabbit Gallery. Trained as a designer, LOGOMANIA was Chen’s first body of work as he began to position himself as a contemporary artist rather than as a designer; it reveals his continuing interest in how Chinese society has been transformed by the rule of new ‘emperors’ in the form of powerful global corporations whose brands have changed the face of Chinese cities and impacted the life of every citizen.
Chen describes them as a ‘kingdom of brands’ akin to the socialist propaganda of earlier times. He says they are ‘almost as powerful as political machines – maybe even more powerful!’ His work explores overconsumption, waste, greed and the power of advertising, as powerful in directing people’s behaviour and desires as the propaganda posters that glorified the revolution in the twentieth century. Chen’s papercuts at first resemble traditional intricate designs – until you look closely and see the Nike ‘swoosh’, the McDonalds ‘M’ and the logos of luxury brands from Puma and Adidas to Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Mercedes Benz.
Emerging out of this project, Chen’s fascination with the concept of ‘invasive species’, whether literal (he has worked on art projects about the Chinese carp, and Japanese knockweed) or metaphorical (the worldwide proliferation of American fast food) continues. Invasive Species: Vegetables(2010) is a witty installation of photographs on light boxes in which the characters of the mythological ‘Eight Immortals’ are played by vegetables engaged in a raunchy conversation in a Shanghai communal garden of the kind that city officials had declared to be illegal. Each box lights up in turn as the vegetables ‘speak’. Like many of Chen’s deceptively simple works, Invasive Species: Vegetables references ancient Chinese traditional tales, the bawdiness of Shanghainese theatrical traditions, and courageously stubborn acts of civil disobedience of in the face of officialdom.
In April this year I returned to Shanghai to speak with Chen Hangfeng about the latest developments in his practice and a new video work called Excited with No Reason (2018). Since we last met in 2015 Chen has established a studio in the Netherlands and now divides his time between Shanghai and Amsterdam. As a result, he has become fascinated by the history of transnational capital; colonial conquest; the travel of commodities such as porcelain and tea between China and Europe, and the impact of this trade on geopolitics. The animation Excited with No Reason delves into this territory with wit and visual acuity. Critic and curator Rebecca Catching described it as an ‘exploration of the modernist concept of time—bolstered by its henchmen of capital and scientific rationalism—which promises a harmonious trajectory from chaos to utopia.’
This jittery animated collage references ink painting, traditional gods and immortals, and traded commodities both ancient and modern, from porcelain and endangered bird species to cars and cosmetics. Recalling Dada collage, and most especially the witty juxtapositions of Hannah Höch, Excited with No Reason is a logical development in the work of an artist who moves between two worlds, now traversing the very same paths across the globe once dominated by the Dutch East India Company.
I asked Chen about the broadening of his focus from symbols and logos to cultural artefacts and their transformation. We spoke about paintings of naval battles and armadas he had seen in the Rijksmuseum, and of trans-cultural exchanges such as the Delft porcelain inspired by Ming blue-and-white ware from Jingdezhen, perhaps the world’s first global brand:
Luise Guest: your key ideas have revolved around globalised commerce, imperialism and what Rebecca Catching described as ‘the unintended consequences of our global interactions’, but this particular work goes further in its exploration of the modernist concept of time. I wondered what it was about time that interested you at this particular time and in this particular place of Shanghai: why were you particularly interested in exploring the difference between Western notions of time and Eastern notions of time?
Chen Hangfeng: it’s probably because of my own individual lifestyle: today’s technology has made our lives completely different. For example, now I am in Shanghai and I can just reach out and talk to somebody in the United States using WeChat or WhatsApp from here, then in two months I’ll fly to somewhere else. The modern technology has changed our perception of time, that’s quite important… And secondly, for me, narrative and time are the key elements when I explore video art. The narrative I used in this work was quite fragmented, which did not have a very clear timeline, but the elements somehow were related to each other in a back and forth way. It is almost like I was improvising my own timeline by intertwining the historical references, such as by using different cultural elements which represented a wide time span, but I improvised the order of the appearance of those elements. That is how the notions of time between West and East was created.
Chen juxtaposes the image of an actor playing the god Guan Yu with crowds in the subway, and a female warrior rides her horse in the opposite direction of the train, as symbols of the homogenising effect of globalisation on culture. Snippets of film recording ecstatic Red Guard rallies evoke the rapid changes in China since the artist’s youth (he was born in 1974). Chen was partly inspired by Antonioni’s famous 1972 documentary, ‘Cina’, which recorded the daily lives of ordinary working people during the Cultural Revolution, prompting him to think about the extraordinary rapidity of change in the last hundred years:
CH: [Cina] shocked me a lot because if you look at the people in this documentary, look at their faces, you’ll find totally different expressions from people today. That’s only maybe 40 years ago. And if you look at older images from, perhaps, the beginning of the last century, you will just wonder how could people look like that, how could people from the same country appear so different?
LG: So much of your work in the last several years has dealt with the idea of the invasive species, whether they be vegetables or the Chinese carp or cultural or corporate symbols – all of these could in some way be defined as invasive species. Could you tell me whether this idea also applies to the cultural exchange and traded commodities that we see in Excited with No Reason? Do you see that also as part of this back and forth invasion, re-invasion, colonisation process?
CH: Well, I feel [it is] a little difficult to answer this question, but I think this is definitely yes. The concept of porcelain is actually a good example. In the 17th century, Chinese porcelain began to mass disturbing in the west from the great voyage era… But I read a book by an archaeologist about how people from Persia brought the skill of pottery into China and Chinese porcelain became more delicate and beautiful than before. And of course the spice trade, the VOC [The Dutch East India Company, or the VOC - Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie] bought spices from Southeast Asia, bought silk and porcelain from China, then traded them back and forth for profit. In fact, different species, animal and plant species, began to migrate because of this kind of commercial behaviour - human migration brought the migration of species. Even though the concept of migration of this species is actually a relatively common phenomenon in evolution. But the speed of the great voyage era has changed the speed of migration; sailing allows species to reach another continent in a relatively fast time. This difference in time has caused species to have an incompatibility with certain environments. Some species will take time to adapt, some may become extinct, certain species become invasive species, which kills other species in order to survive.
See the whole article/interview in The Art Life HERE
About the artist: Born in Shanghai in 1974, Chen Hangfeng obtained his BA from the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University. He works across many media and expressive forms, from drawing & painting to paper-cuts, photo, video, installation and performance. His major themes are the impact of globalisation on Chinese art and culture, consumerism and cultural exchange, in playful works with serious underlying messages.
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