The Beijing Artist Staging Wild Operas That Blend Religion and Rave Culture

Josh Feola
Aug 9, 2019 3:32PM

Chen Tianzhou, An Atypical Brain Damage, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Beijing-born artist Chen Tianzhuo has dabbled in so many fields over such a short sprint of time, it’s hard to define his work today. The young artist, born in 1985, has largely leaned away from traditional visual art forms, in favor of performance and music. And in recent years, his novel, multidisciplinary practice has landed him on prominent art-world stages—from Beijing’s Faurschou Foundation to London’s Barbican Centre, L.A.’s The Broad to the Venice Biennale.

For his recent pop opera “An Atypical Brain Damage,” which was staged in Leeds, Hamburg, and Utrecht, Chen was not just director, but also dramaturg, choreographer, and stage designer. Like much of Chen’s output over the last few years, this traveling show fell somewhere between an absurdist stage play and a demented club night. Regular collaborators China Yu and butoh dancer Beio enacted a cryptic plot onstage to a soundtrack composed by New Jersey-born club producer Dis Fig. But his work is only fully understood when paying equal attention to such complex, operatic performances and extracurricular projects like Asian Dope Boys—Chen’s take on organizing a club night, combining DJs and live music performances with retina-popping visuals and occasional audience-engaging performance art interventions.

Chen Tianzhou, An Atypical Brain Damage , 2019. Courtesy of the artist.


From his breakout 2016 opera Ishvara to Asian Dope Boys third anniversary party this past May, Chen’s overarching practice persists as “something in between religion and rave, between club culture and religion,” the artist recently mused. “Those are the main things that inspire me.” And the art world is taking note.

At the opening of Faurschou Foundation’s current Venice exhibition “Entropy,” Chen put on a show-stealing performance called “Ksana II.” The piece is a follow-up to “Ksana I,” the performance he staged at the 2018 opening of “Entropy” in Faurschou’s Beijing space. The work mixes ritualized dance, ostentatious demi-religious installation design, and a hypnotic drone-metal soundtrack from guitarist Felix-Florian Todtloff.

Asian Dope Boys launched in 2016 as a club night. “In the beginning we were trying to do a lot of things—fashion, music, performance,” Chen explained. “Right now, I’m digging more into the music itself. It doesn’t matter if the artists look cool,” he said referring to the musicians and DJs who perform, but their music must be “radical—something special.”

Portrait of Chen Tianzhuo. Photo by Feng Yu. © Faurschou Foundation.

Installation shot of Chen Tianzhou, Ksana , 2019, in "Entropy", at the Faurschou Foundation, Venice, 2019. © Chen Tianzhuo and Long March Space. Photo by Davide Carrer. © Faurschou Foundation.

“Radical” and “special” are adequate descriptors of Chen’s output to date. Now in his mid-thirties he’s among the first generation of artists to reach creative maturity within a China that’s economically open enough to provide job prospects that would have been unthinkable a decade earlier. And importantly, a society that’s culturally flexible enough to allow for bold, transgressive work.

After graduating from high school, Chen relocated to London in 2007, where he earned a BA in graphic design from Central Saint Martins and an MA in Fine Arts from Chelsea College of Arts. He exhibited at nonprofit spaces in Peckham and Shoreditch and absorbed rave culture along the way. After returning to Beijing in late 2011, he racked up successes in the fashion world—a collaboration with hip Chinese label Sankuanz and appearances at Fashion Weeks in Shanghai and London—before exiting the field. “I don’t have the energy to put work into fashion,” he reflected. “I like making weird clothes that I like, but men in China don’t wear what we’re wearing.” An impulse to prioritize personal taste over that of the market has driven Chen’s work ever since.

Installation shot of Chen Tianzhou, Ksana, 2019, in "Entropy", at the Faurschou Foundation, Venice, 2019. © Chen Tianzhuo and Long March Space. Photo by Davide Carrer. © Faurschou Foundation.

One early turning point came in 2013, with his debut Beijing solo show, “Tianzhuo’s Acid Club” at Star Gallery. He filled the exhibition with floor-to-ceiling textiles covered in abstract psycho-sexual sigils; and semi-organic sculptures that would look equally appropriate in an Eyes Wide Shut-style orgy or a feverish cult initiation. The show opened with an all-night rave that attracted 500 people in various states of inebriation.

While Chen initially channeled his design, painting, and sculpture skills into installation, over the next few years, he made his first forays into video, staging his first performance soon after in 2014 at Shanghai’s Bank Gallery. This transition culminated in the video for the 2015 song “Mazdâ” by Swiss-Tibetan-Nepalese artist Aïsha Devi; the piece articulates Chen’s ongoing obsession with pan-religious iconography and club culture rituals of sex, drugs, and music.

Installation shot of Chen Tianzhou, Ksana , 2019, in "Entropy", at the Faurschou Foundation, Venice, 2019. © Chen Tianzhuo and Long March Space. Photo by Davide Carrer. © Faurschou Foundation.

Religion and raves are two cultural phenomena foreign to Chen’s parents’ generation, and increasingly distant even to the new guard of Chinese youth born after 1990. In Chen’s telling, individuality is the defining trait of his 1980s-born cohort: “I think my generation of artists is more individual…We are more free to deal with different topics, and more brave to be individual.” He remarked that there are hardly any similarities among the practices of his peers showing abroad today; and they’re likely to be found in group shows with artists from around the world, rather than just Chinese artists. “I think that’s progress,” Chen added.

This situation is being eroded, however, as the political and social atmosphere slips backward into a state of cultural homogenization. “I thought the younger generation was going to be really exciting, because they’re younger, they have more access, they learn things faster,” Chen said of the generation following his. “But I’ve found that in recent years, there are fewer interesting artists coming up.” He reckons that while the “most explosive” art was emerging around four or five years ago, “there’s not so much individuality right now.”

This constriction might be attributed to an increased government attention on club culture and the fringe art spaces that were critical in cultivating Chen’s early work. As his star has risen, Chinese authorities have launched a steady extirpation of art spaces along Beijing’s suburban edges, and local police departments have intensified an anti-drug crackdown affecting clubs in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Shenzhen. At the same time, Chen asserts, artists born in the ’90s have fallen into a pattern of internet-mediated similitude. “The visuals you’re seeing, all these 3D-rendered party posters, look almost the same,” he said. “All this Instagram aesthetic, 3D stuff, looks like it’s made by the same designer.”

Installation shot of Chen Tianzhou, Ksana , 2019, in "Entropy", at the Faurschou Foundation, Venice, 2019. © Chen Tianzhuo and Long March Space. Photo by Davide Carrer. © Faurschou Foundation.

It’s a bit better when it comes to music, Chen added. And he’s maintaining the club as a central space for development.This month, he’ll co-host (with Shanghai label SVBKVLT) a China tour for Indonesian noise-electronic group Gabber Modus Operandi. And in October, he’ll extend his dramaturgical boundaries with a three-day performance at Beijing’s MWOODS museum, including three continuous 12-hour components.

“I’m working with a fresh crew, so there are a lot of things I’m going to deal with when you’re not working with people you’re familiar with,” Chen said of this upcoming gambit, which he’s given the working title “Trance.” “I’m thinking about how the audience can stay there longer, how we’re going to deal with this time stretch.”

In addition to this 36-hour endurance feat—which is a demo version for a performance that will premiere next year in Hamburg—Chen is also preparing a commission for an exhibition in 2020 at the Shanghai Museum of Glass, a chance to work with a new medium. As always, Chen’s work is a continuous, multidimensional push against the parameters given.

Josh Feola