640Chen Tianzhuo’s solo exhibition “Landscape” at Oil Tank Art Center, 2023

“In nature, the wise find joy in water; the virtuous find joy in mountains. The wise are active; the virtuous are tranquil. The wise find joy; the virtuous find longevity.” The link between nature and humanity, the characteristics of mountains and water, as well as their reflection on human beings in classical Chinese philosophy, have been visually represented in traditional literati paintings. “Landscape” is far from an external scenery isolated from humans. On the contrary, it becomes a representation that transcends the opposition between nature and culture, material and thought, body and mind, signifying a discourse and spirit that expresses how all existences are manifested in the flow of intention. From this perspective, visitors will enter artist Chen Tianzhuo’s latest solo exhibition “Landscape” at Oil Tank Art Center, whose corresponding English title “Illuminated Spirits” further suggests its spiritual aspect.

Inside the huge cylindrical tank, the artist has designed the circular exhibition hall as a dazzling stage theater. A colorful carpet with tropical plant, whale, and bat ray patterns, a large inflatable water bear hanging high up (“Strolling in the Clouds,” 2023), a ladder made of wax bones that resembles a skeleton and leads straight to the ceiling (“A Wound in the Sky,” 2023), as well as turtle shell bamboo and palm leaves that will gradually wither over time, ripe to rotting bananas and custard apples, are all bathed in a blue fluorescent light. The three-channel video “Dust” (2021) is projected on one side of the exhibition hall, while a large screen standing in the center of the hall presents Chen Tianzhuo’s newly completed 48-minute video work “Sea Cage” (2023), and the two videos are played in a loop alternately. If this exhibition is regarded as an immersive theater, the scattered installations and ready-made objects are the stage sets and props, encompassing the elements of the two videos and connecting them with each other. The projection of “Dust” is the stage background (scaenae frons), while “Sea Cage” is the leading dancer that drives the narrative forward.

640-1Chen Tianzhuo’s Exhibition “Mountains and Waters” at the Oil Tank Art Center, 2023

From the Tibetan Plateau of the Himalayas to the intersection of the Pacific and Indian Oceans in Indonesia, Chen Tianzhuo visited the Sichuan-Tibet region and the Lamalera village in Lembata Island, Indonesia, respectively, in the three years after the outbreak of the pandemic. He completed two video works, “Dust” and “Sea Cage,” which respectively refer to the “mountains” and “waters” in the exhibition title.

The former presents a “dance” featuring high mountain scenery, man-made relics, and ritual objects. The artist’s lens switches from the water-powered prayer wheel in Cuogao Village, Tibet to the sky burial platform in Damu Temple. Through the recording of local ecological landscapes, agriculture, architecture, religious rituals, and cultural heritage, it presents a strange picture from the beginning of life, growth, to the remains of death. The latter revolves around the social and economic life of the villagers in Lamalera fishing village, their relationship with the ocean and whales, beliefs, food supply, and the spiritual and cultural crisis of the other in the post-colonial context. It shows how a certain perspective of the universe is mapped through narratives about ancestors, myths, and spirits.

Humans are placed under the cultural spotlight, while others are abandoned in the chaos of nature. Accompanied by chanting, horn blowing, and drumming, the music and images in “Dust” will take you on a journey into chaos that has retreated from the order of modern civilization. Offering the body to the eagles and vultures, and the soul never dies. The sky burial ceremony in Tibetan Buddhism separates the spirit from the flesh to deliver the dead, sacrificing oneself and giving the soul a chance to be reborn. Although no human figures appear in the film, human traces are everywhere, attached to the mountains and fields, under the gaze of the Buddha statues, in the bodies of vultures, and in every speck of dust, lingering in this plateau that nature has given them all day long.

640-2Chen Tianzhuo’s Exhibition “Landscape” at the Oil Tank Art Center, 2023

To the Tibetan residents, the plateau is like what the ocean is to the people of the village of Lamerlera. The last fishing village that relies on whaling for a living on a small Indonesian island, as depicted in “The Sea Cage,” has been using dried whale meat as currency for bartering with mountain tribes for bananas, coconuts, and other coastal crops that cannot be grown in the rocky soil of the highlands for several centuries. Thousands of villagers still rely on whaling for a living, and this is one of the few areas in the world where whaling is still allowed. When whales are spotted in the sea, the whalers board makeshift wooden boats with palm leaf sails and head towards their prey. The whalers crouch at the bow of the boat, waiting for the right moment to strike, and then leap into the water with their harpoons aimed at the whales.

Before the start of the whaling season each year, the shaman performs a fishing ceremony to summon the whales, and the fishermen sing fishing songs to call the whales. The fishermen believe that the ocean is a cage, and every fishing season, their ancestors open the ocean and release the prey as a gift to their descendants. The film documents this tradition and its unique way of life. Through a combination of documentary and fiction, an Indonesian dancer plays the roles of fisherman, shaman, and the local deity of the sun and moon, weaving together ancient ocean myths, colonial history, modern civilization, Christianity, and examining the relationships between humans and the environment, subject and object, civilization and barbarism, colonizers and the colonized, self and other, as well as the close relationships between different religions and beliefs that are neither absolute opposites nor completely integrated.

At the exhibition “Landscapes” by Chen Tianzhuo held at the Oil Tank Art Center in 2023, the Indonesian dancers in the film lead us into the fishing, hunting, and gathering scenes of the Ramaleran village, their rituals and holy meal scenes, and the unfathomable boundless sea with their ever-changing bodies and dance moves, based on interviews with the artist and the tribal villagers. At times, a brief “intermission” appears: a blue sea surface, rolling waves under the night sky, or red blood covering the entire screen. “It is the ultimate wilderness. The ocean used to be full of monsters, Leviathans, and pirates. It is an unjust and unkind mixture of fate, violent winds, and weather,” wrote John Durham Peters in “The Marvelous Clouds.” As an intermediary or medium, the ocean nurtures and shapes life while also devouring it. Its existence also anchors the existence of the whale and the tribal community that relies on the whale for survival. The bodies and thoughts of whales and humans reveal and give birth to each other.
Chen Tianzhuo’s solo exhibition “Landscape” at the Oil Tank Art Center in 2023 is depicted in the image above. If we understand this interdependent relationship as the relationship between a hunter and its prey, borrowing from anthropologist Philippe Descola’s worldview of multiple perspectives, we can better examine all “associated bodies.” In Descola’s field research and ethnographic analysis of Amazonian societies, he leans towards a thorough perspective-based ontology, where all perspectives are equal. The animal’s perspective of humans can be appropriately described as humans’ perspective of animals. Humans must learn to discover animals through their perspective, but hunters must also kill their prey through their own perspective, and the temporary continuity is revoked at this moment. The possibility of changing one’s perception by switching to another’s perspective is confirmed in the depths of shared intention, and this shared intention can be associated with dreams and myths. In “The Cage,” although the image of the sun and moon god played by the dancer is fictional, the sun and moon god truly exists in the creation myths of the Rama Rera and oceanic peoples. The god controls the mysterious power of time, seasons, light, and darkness, linking the body perception and soul existence of the ocean, whales, fishermen, and ancestors.

However, the arrival of colonizers in the early twentieth century led to the hybridization of their belief systems. Catholic priests appeared in shamanic fishing ceremonies, and Sunday became the Sabbath. The sounds of machines and motors, symbols of modern civilization, gradually drowned out the whale songs and fishermen’s calls, and the dance of the sun and moon god fell into madness. The intention of time, body, and spirit became elusive, and new structures emerged. Rather than fusion and symbiosis, it is more accurate to say that it is a question, confusion, pain, and ambiguous entanglement of how to maintain one’s subjectivity when facing mixed and ambiguous subject relationships. The leap from “Dust” to “The Cage” clearly shows Chen Tianzhuo’s further grasp of visual symbols and the core of his works. It is important to note that his “Landscape” theater is not a landscape devoid of humans or intended to remove humans, but rather arises from humans, tightly intertwined with human existence, yet an elusive landscape that cannot be constrained.

Written by Li Suchao.

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