It is a warm summer day when I speak with Tianzhuo Chen about his multiversal artistic practice. Tianzhuo who is hiding out from the heat and street noises at a friend’s place in Beijing after recently opening his first substantial solo exhibition in Europe, accompanied by the phantamorgasmic performance ADAHA II held at Palais de Tokyo during the opening event. The enthusiasm and excitement that fuels this candid exchange is contagious. Often we both stop short, seeking the right words; the lagging line and some language barriers attempt to disrupt the conversation, yet there is an unstoppable energy underlining this first acquaintance that overrides any obstacle. Tianzhuo’s practice is impossible to box up in a single discipline, stepping into any kind of artistic output he feels necessary, yet it remains incredibly coherent in the imagery he creates. He has had his escapades with fashion collaborating with Ze Shagguan, creating exuberant outfits adorned with phalluses, skulls, dragon faces and weed symbols. His exhibitions take shape as room-filling installations with bright colors, sculptures of cartoonesque, an-thropomorphic figures and bongs. Or he might transform a gallery into an Acid Club as an alternative to the regime of regular ‘boring’ openings. His videos are equally at home in white cube gallery spaces or could easily feature in the highlights of Pitchfork.tv, alongside the likes of FKA twigs, Die Antwoord, or Grimes.
Currently he is consumed with the creation of a large-scale opera that is taking shape one episode at a time. The whole endeavor is of an unbelievable magnitude in and of itself. As the tales accumulate, the fictitious religion Tianzhuo is creating becomes ever more tangible, and perhaps real. We converse about his aesthetics, the influence of the London rave culture on his work, about living through chaos in order to find structure and clarity.
Nathalie Hartjes: I would like to practice a little mental exercise. Let’s see if we can imagine the experience of the visitors to your show in Paris on the opening day. From the images I am already familiar with your work I can tell it is quite psychedelic and crazy; let’s say I am one of the visitors and to get in the mood I smoke a joint or have a drink, entering Palais de Tokyo excited and a bit tipsy – would you be able to describe to me what I encounter in sensory terms? What is this trip you have in store for me?
Tianzhuo Chen: Ha ha… Oh, I am not sure if I can answer that for you. But what you are describing is actually exactly what I do before openings. This time I was really nervous. The performance ADAHA II would be a onetime thing only and we had been preparing for half a year. So the pressure was quite intense. All in all you anticipate this moment for six months and then you only have forty minutes and it is over. It just has to be right. Simultaneously, there is nothing more you can do, so I had lots of drinks and a joint before I saw the show myself.
The excitement of the show was really located within the moment of the performance. This does create the premise for an environment, a physical experience, as its remains will be visible throughout a longer duration that constitutes the exhibition, but the performance itself is really to me a crucial exposé of a larger body of work I am creating one step at a time and which is starting to lead its own life.
…There is no judgement in my work, it presents a chaos, which is sexual and provocative and one we all need to go through…
Nathalie: Okay, ha, well, then instead of ‘walking’ me through the physical show, could you please elaborate a bit about the narrative of this particular performance ADAHA II, perhaps by starting from the title.
Tianzhuo: ADAHA is simply the name of the God in my story and the focus of this insert of the larger narrative. The story I am developing is a religious one, or perhaps I am rather developing a narrative that can be experienced as a religion. I don’t see the particular instances as defined chapters or episodes. Rather, each instance or opportunity I have to present a part of the story at large allows me to further the develop the characters, and each has their background story and representation. They return in different presences and configurations, sometimes one character receives more attention than the other. I would like to see each performance rather as something like a ceremony, so maybe in that way the mode of storytelling itself does approach the way religions are constructed. Bit by bit, an amalgam of understanding and surrender. So accordingly it is difficult for me to transfer to you one clear-cut storyline of the larger narrative as it deepens and develops with each performance, but I will offer you the rough synopsis: it is a story of a girl living inside an old man’s body. He comes to realize this and learns that he is a prophet and predicts the future of the main character ADAHA who will turn into the one true god – against the backdrop of a world that worships 360 gods, almost one for each day. The story has a number of returning characters besides ADAHA and the prophet, such as the Dope Girls and A$IAN TWIN$. The open nature of the narrative’s approach allows me to interweave all kinds of symbolism and references freely, from antiquity to contemporary pop and hip hop culture as well as to involve collaborators from all over the place.
The unisex body is closer to a god, like Shiva…
Nathalie: Your visual language is very visceral. It’s extremely physical, a lot of touching and feeling, explicitly sexually and bright and colorful psychedelic images. In relation to your works I can imagine the notion of ‘ecstasy’ although your work definitely transgresses religion or sanctity in a more conservative or puritan sense. How do these very visceral and physical tropes become entangled with the sense of religion you are trying to convey?
Tianzhuo: Well, I guess the use of the body is not an oddity within the spectrum of religion at all! The use of the body is an extremely important part of my idiom. I may apply the body in various ways, sometimes in a very carnivalesque way, like side- or freak shows and then I will just as easily move in to shapes that I consider sanctimonious or ceremonial. I believe it is about contrasts and development. I am trying to expose the process of darkness the main character goes through, needs to go through, to sacrifice himself to the truth. There is no judgement in my work, it presents a chaos, which is sexual and provocative and one we all need to go through. But not in the sense that by refusing this we can find exaltation, but as a fundamental part of the journey we go through, so living through it, rather than defying it. I think, or I would like to believe, I present a cleansing. But it is a cleansing by living the madness, rather than submitting to a strict regime.
Nathalie: Do you believe there is sensuality in this chaos?
Tianzhuo: Yes, there is absolutely sensuality in chaos! At the beginning of the show a yellow flag is raised. This, to me, represents the order that follows from chaos, and it flags the beginning of the journey. But there is no way to avoid the journey, to go around it, so it is definitely a celebration of chaos as well.
Nathalie: The emphasis on the body – as well as the out-there and over-the-top orgasmic visuals creates a suggestion of LGBTQ influences on your work; is that scene specifically influential to you?
Tianzhuo: Hmmm, I am not sure, I don’t think I particularly view my work as part of this or that scene or community. I take a lot away from the people I work with, and quite a few turn out to be gay and this is a visual language that excites me, it offers me a number of possibilities. I would not identify myself as being part of any particular scene. But sure, there is a specific kind of attraction to me about this body of the queer figure that may return in my work, which is between woman and man – unidentified and unfixed. The unisex body is closer to a god, like Shiva or Chinese gods. So using this body is much more closely related to historical references than it is contemporary. I think I always try to make my characters or performers resemble gods of some kind. Anthropomorphic and not of this world.
Nathalie: There is also something, well to put it frankly, a bit ugly about many of your characters. Not hideous, but something monstrous about a number of the figures; still, that also seems to become quite desirable. I mean, due to the fact they defy common beauty standards they gain a kind of aura.
Tianzhuo: Are you familiar with the Tibetan Thangka?
Nathalie: No, sorry I can’t say I am…
Tianzhuo: The Thangka are scrolls, paintings used in Tibetan Buddhism. They tell the stories of gods and sometimes of holy men, lamas. The scrolls help as a guide to enlightenment, and in that some believe they become deities in themselves.
In these scrolls we see many fairy tale-like figures, some are like devils, or monsters. These can have really ugly and evil faces and they do stand for an example of my characters. They are the starting point for my vision and are beautiful to me. They are demons, they are also from earth, but they have a kind of holiness inside of them. These Tibetan figures actually often mean something good. They look scary because they scare away evil forces. This act gives them beauty. It gives them a certain aura – a power. Most of the evil faces are actually the best faces to meet. They are the devils on your shoulder. I think all the creatures in, for instance, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights function similarly. They seduce but also guide you along a certain path.
Nathalie: I was particularly fascinated by the white-on-red polka dot balloon figure in your performance. Whereas all your characters present themselves as gods or demi-gods, she seems to come from a perverted toy story. Of course this is emphasized by the lyrics she sings ‘Pump the maddafuckin’ speakers / Let my butt plug sing for kilometers / Feel the ass twisting tit tweaking trolls / Bunnies in butcher armor take control / I vibrate from my head to my toe / As Pikachu comes up my hole.’ Could you tell me about her character and how you created her?
Tianzhuo: She is not my creation actually. She is one of my collaborators’: performance artist Grebnellaw aka Wallenberg (Paulina Wallenberg-Olsson). She works with various personas or alteregos, this figure Grebnellaw being the most prominent. She has created her own universe of sorts, which in itself is heavily layered with symbolism and references, from Matrioskas to Samurai, playing with fantasy, fairy tales and ceremonies. She often utilizes the phrase ‘red in the house of white’ for her character and which is a metaphor for being a stranger in a new landscape or situation. To me she is some kind of goddess already, and I brought her to my performance, but to act, sing and behave in her own style. The song she sings is her own. She makes this super dope music and one of the reasons why I really like her is that she is something between childlike and sexual at the same time, even in her off-stage personality. To me these attitudes are all part of the human brain and I do not see why they cannot be present at the same time. She is a creature which seamlessly fits within my universe; I do not have to define everything that happens in my work.
Nathalie: Would the same attitude characterize your collaboration with Brio, the Butoh dancer, who takes the role of the elderly man/prophet? Or let me put it differently, what do you ask of your dancers and performers to get what you want, to realize your vision?
Tianzhuo: I think more of myself as a director that creates a framework in which things are then allowed to happen. For instance, I am personally not much of a dancer and I am very indebted to the dancer’s own vision, knowledge and intuition they bring to the scenes. Just as I work with a screen writer. I work with a strong body of support to make this happen. I envision a role for my characters, but I always leave space for them to do whatever they want. I basically create a structure, but there is freedom – a lot of it is actually about freedom. So I will direct from a sensitivity, instruct the performer to take on the shape of a really holy figure, or a really dirty or evil figure. Every performer has a certain rule, they kind of live together. They are tied to one another, and their personas link the storylines. But I intentionally keep it very primitive – I want to evoke that sense of ancient religion, which melts into Western religion, such as this scene at the end where the protagonist is hanging upside down, which is a clear reference to the crucifixion. But I don’t dictate too much. I really want them to be in their own body, as professionals who think and feel through their movements.
Nathalie: And in the case of Brio?
Tianzhuo: I am interested in Butoh dancing, a form of dance, that has been called anti-dance, and is characterized by resisting fixity. It comes from the period of the Second World War and started in Japan. It has been called ‘the dance of darkness.’ The early Butoh dancers in the 1950s weren’t afraid to touch on cultural taboos, such as homosexuality. The movements are very slow and controlled, but the expressions can be grotesque and morbid. In a way an anti-thesis to what was valued in Japanese culture. It is a very contemporary dance, but it appears to be very spiritual and ancient. In my opinion this dance is perhaps closer to meditation than an artistic form that is shaped for stage performance. Therefore it suits itself as a very powerful tool in my endeavor to create a performance which depicts and evokes a religious happening. It is simultaneously expressive but also introverted, something that happens from within, like a trance. Butoh is really the activity of a ceremony.
Nathalie: It seems that as much as your work is about movement and interaction, dynamics, there is also a strong sensibility for creating striking tableaus – one-second frames of scenes, that inscribe themselves on your retina. Butoh strikes me as a strong contribution to that?
Tianzhuo: For sure, but it is not the only thing. I mean I am equally including visual links to scenes from hip hop culture or the voguing scene. The latter has recently gone through a kind of revival after FKA twigs emphatically included a voguing routine in one of her recent gigs. Vogue may recall Madonna’s hit song from the 1980s, but not many are aware that voguing has had a vibrant underground scene from even before that. Personally I really love this freedom of self-expression and body expression, which is also why I like Butoh so much. The images, tableaus, you are referring to, are already ingrained in the wide variety of styles and artists, disciplines and subgenres I involve as collaborators, so yes it is me as director who creates the final image, but it is something that happens between people – in a community.
The club scene is about worship and transcendence, it creates a fictional ceremony
Nathalie: You’ve made your education in London and the club and rave culture are apparent in your work. I am curious to hear about how you relate this sense of clubbing, getting together and partying in relation to your work?
Tianzhuo: The most obvious example would of course be Tianzhuo Chen’s Acid Club which I hosted in Star Gallery in Beijing. For me this piece played out on various levels. Firstly it was just a literal response to the Chinese art and club scene, or in regard to the latter rather the lack thereof. It was brought about by a longing back to the scene in London. I mean, China’s club scene is really nothing compared to London. Simultaneously it is a reaction to the dominant contemporary art scene in China, which I feel to be very conceptual and dry, and frankly joyless. Openings are quite uptight and last from 6 to 8 and then it’s over. With the Acid Club I created an environment for people to gather, go crazy, not just show a piece of sculpture, but lay the foundations for an experience. We started at 10 pm and went on until way into the morning. We made sure the drinks were free and encouraged the audience to exchange bodily fluids. Advertising just happened through social media and people were excited. I even think a large number of the crowd did not realize that they were at an art show. Which I am just as happy about. It’s not about whether they know of the whole context of what they experience, but the experience itself. It is like a contemporary worship, which also brings it back to what I am currently doing with ADAHA. The club scene is about worship and transcendence, it creates a fictional ceremony. In Beijing this was really overwhelming. I think it is also about creating spontaneity, about creating the conditions for things to happen between people at a certain moment.
This might provocative, but it in the end it is more about generosity, about showing a different way of life
Nathalie: When you talk about Beijing, you depict it as quite dull, a desert. Do you feel that you are playing into the needs of a young crowd? Is there a want for another type of social gathering, a need to break out of a social constraints?
Tianzhuo: Well, it is already changing. I guess in the artistic scene there is a strong generational divide. I can also see amongst my contemporaries that we lean more toward creating something experiential instead of conceptual.
Nathalie: So do you think your work serves a function in the sense it creates release? That you are able to show an alternative reality, that can function as a parallel world, another option?
Tianzhuo: Yes, it is very relevant for my generation, which is really sort of lost. There is a form of social austerity in our generation. I mean, our situation is really good. We kind of have everything we want on one level, we connect with social media, and well, yeah, pretty much anything material. But we are kind of stuck, beyond these things, everything is kind of forbidden. So you interact, but there is not much intimacy. In China, you can’t imagine, there really are a lot of restrictions. Of course it happens, in private and secretly. It is a place which seems to have everything, but it is very limited in what you can do, in spiritual terms, in relationships. So even if it is very playful, this is an important thing for me. But I can organize a party and it can be crazy. [chuckles]. I do not think I can ever get it crazy enough!
Nathalie: So, how crazy was ADAHA?
Tianzhuo: Well… The Palais de Tokyo is one of the biggest events I have ever presented… beside this I was very much aware of the difference of the audience.
I expected a European audience to be more responsive. In China, the audience probably would have freaked out. The work is not only based on my own fascinations and life; I am also inviting people in. This might be provocative, but in the end it is more about generosity, about showing a different way of life.