Contextualizing CHEN Wenling
If one wants to understand CHEN Wenling’s work of art, one must take a deeper look at the environment and the context, in which his works were created and presented in China.
In this respect, a must see for culturally interested visitors of China is without doubt the famous 798 art zone in Beijing. “798” is more than a number. Located in the northeastern part of China`s capital in the Dashanzhi district, it is the site of a state-owned factory compound including factory 798. The venue experienced a unique development since the 1950s. Planned as a joint venture between the Soviet Union and the newly founded Public Republic of China, it was the German Democratic Republic (GDR) who eventually planned and constructed the industrial unit with the goal to produce electronic equipment for the Chinese military there. Former president ZHOU Enlai himself traveled to the GDR to seal the deal. This collaborative enterprise – the second largest in the history between China and Eastern Germany – was officially known as project 157. With the help of GDR architects and various other experts from different fields, the complex with its overdimensioned production halls, smokestacks and red brick walls was designed in Dessau after the Bauhaus principle “form follows function”.
Production lines soon flourished in the early 1960s, as up to 20.000 workers were accommodated in the Dashanzhi area. Only after chairman MAO Zedong`s death, and with the beginning of DENG Xiaoping’s open-door policies, the economic situation changed. The project gradually lost its attractivity in the 1980s and the district slowly began to decline. Companies relocated their production sites to other parts of the city; the halls were now rented for cheap price.
This is when artists and cultural organizations discovered the potential of the “off-space” 798. They began to rent, divide, and re-make the halls, transforming them into galleries, studios, art centers, design bureaus, offices, restaurants, cafés, and bars. The “off-space” turned into a cultural hotspot with a unique mixture of contemporary art, architecture, and urban lifestyle in a historically interesting location. “798” became a Soho-esque area, attracting visitors from all over the world with its loft living and international flair. In 2015, even the Goethe Institute China opened a dependance in one of the former factories and called it “Agora”, showing the potential of “798” as a place where cultural bridges are built and where international exchange takes place.
It was the perfect spot for artists like CHEN Wenling, who exhibited his works in “798” several times. On April 22nd, 2017, his large solo exhibition “Graces of my Heart” opened in “798” with FAN Di´an as artistic director and HE Guiyan as the curator. CHEN`s rather serious black and white drawings on the one hand and his ironic red pop art style sculptures on the other hand fit seamlessly into the complex environment. Countless other artists presented their works here over the years, but it was CHEN Wenling, who made a lasting impression and became famous over the borders of China.
Some of the sculptures and pictures challenged the early visitors of “798” with their oftentimes provocative language and seemingly superficial silliness. Other works would surprise them with their sincere depth and natural strength of expression. Among the recurring characters in CHEN`s work are animal-like figures, emaciated young boys, fantasy creatures, and heavy demons, deployed by the artist to create a biting social satire. His sculptures are surreal, oftentimes grotesque. In a way they deal with the development of Chinese society, with its overwhelming consumerism. But his works can also be understood with a twinkle in one´s eye, as they are full of humor and irony.
They reflect, how artists from China participate in an international, multilayered discourse on art and culture. Concerning CHEN Wenling, the discourse doesn`t stop at the borders of Beijing`s art galleries but continues in multifaceted areas like “798”, and even finds its way into distant places and cross-border contexts. What he exhibits all over the world, is the variety and plurality of China´s contemporary art today.
Dr. Hannes Jedeck, 2022
Director of Konfuzius Institute Bonn, Germany
Dr. Tayfun Belgin
Direktor, Osthaus Museum Hagen
Gesandter, Botschaftsrat für Kultur der chinesischen Botschaft, Berlin
Dr. Hannes Jedeck
Direktor, Konfuzius-Institut Bonn
Zur Ausstellung erschien eine Begleitpublikation.