the chinese artist turning 'south park' and rap into religion

Tianzhuo Chen was discovered by Palais de Tokyo curators on the internet. We speak to the pop-culture obsessed artist about Cartman, Lana Del Rey and partying in Beijing.

by Sarah Moroz
02 September 2015, 2:45pm

"In terms of aesthetics, his is quite different from Chinese artists," notes curator Khairuddin Bin Hori of Tianzhuo Chen's work. That's somewhat of an understatement: Chen's response to pop culture and his integration of the familiar is larger-than-life, a combination of fantastical and nightmarish. For Chen, pop culture is a full-on belief system: the ethos of rap is treated like something sacred, and religious totems like Adaha (an androgynous symbol from Buddhism) mix with commercially made dragon bongs, freemason eyes and the innards of inflatable animals. At the artist's show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris — his first solo exhibition in Europe — viewers can spot pendants that state "Jerk Off in Peace," tread on an oversized Eric Cartman-shaped carpet fashioned out of New Zealand wool, watch midgets with fake tattoos and gold teeth lip synch to Cantonese rap, and witness performances and video collaborations with out-there collectives like House of Drama as well as Chinese pop stars. Formally trained at art school in the UK, Chen has since forged his own path and his own aesthetic from the margins of the underground scene, not only portraying constant transformation but living it himself.

ADAHA II (Trailer) Performance Live @Palais De Tokyo

Curator Khairuddin Bin Hori told me you two met online. How much does the online community foster your art and relationships?
The Internet seems to be the main arena for young artists my age worldwide. We are all influenced by the Internet and its unique aesthetic—we make art out of it, and then show it on Internet, like a circulatory system. Internet and social media are the most efficient way ever to spread art. This is also how the Europeans approach me; it's how they come across my work.

Can you talk about your upbringing and how it influenced you?
My parents don't practice any religion; they are like most Chinese people from their time. I grew up without religion. I think that is one of the reasons I have this longing to believe.

Performance in collaboration with Beio, House of Drama and Grebnellaw

Pop culture is everywhere in your work: from Eric Cartman and Michael Jordan on a rug, to rap music symbols like gold chain and gold teeth. How would you describe your relationship to pop culture?
My work is based on my personal interests and experiences in those pop-culture or sub-culture scenes—both in urban China and in the UK, through all the events and parties I was involved in. I was keen on making my work reflect our generation's life, and share the same experience with them. I took characters from cartoons or pop culture iconography that I liked, and absorbed them into my new cult symbol system. I'm trying to create a tension between pop culture and religion. For example, I used one of Lana Del Rey's songs in my performance.I try to create another interpretation when I put it into the context of a religious story. When an upside-down crucified figure sings the song, it becomes like a sacrifice.

How do drugs infuse your work? There are the multicolor bongs in your "Pilot" piece, and I heard you gave drugs to all the members in your audience in preparation for a performance.
I'm not encouraging the use of drugs. Some parts of my work are very personal, but at the same time there are audiences who share the same experience. There is social anxiety in my generation in China, where everything is so sick and poisonous—drugs are the antidote.

I guess you are referring to "Tianzhuo's Acid Club," my solo show in 2013—I turned the gallery space into a rave party. There were about 500 people that came, they smoked weed and took LSD there the whole night. That was very dope; one of the best parties in Beijing. But I didn't give them drugs, I'm not a dealer or anything. I would never do that. It just happened like this. I'm glad that everyone enjoyed the party. The party itself is the most important piece of the show.

You make repeated references to freemasonry and Eastern religions. What does adding these belief systems and symbols into your work bring?
My fictional religion is a hybrid of various religions. I take ideas and symbols from many other religions, and generate more contemporary meanings in mine. It is very common; religions absorb each other, like Buddhism took form from Hinduism.

You have worked with the fashion line, Sankuanzwhich was shown in both China and the UK during fashion weeks. How does creating for the body differ from creating for a space?
I just collaborated with a fashion designer and made a few collections. I don't see the fashion collection as something else; I still think that is part of my work. Images on clothes were taken from my work. It is an extension from sculptural space onto the human body.

Performance in collaboration with Beio, House of Drama and Grebnellaw

You studied graphic design and fine arts, but are self-taught with your videos. How have your decisions about which media to use evolve over time?
I guess I just lose my passion too easily to keep doing the same thing. I need to switch between media to maintain my motivation. Performance is the main media I'm working on right now.

You're part of a more underground scene in China, and haven't had any censorship problems thusfar, but how much does this risk weigh on you? 
I don't know. I haven't been concerned by this problem so far. How could I make work if I was concerned by this every day? I hope that it is not a problem forever.

There's a very exaggerated quality to your work—in content, color, scale. Yet you're known as quite quiet in real life, according to Khairuddin Bin Hori!
I'm not that quiet, I'm just a bit shy; Asian people are shy. I can be quite crazy when I'm partying. Khai never parties with me, ha.

Photography Zhuang Yan

The show is in collaboration with K11, which run malls in China. Where you see the line between art and consumerism, if you think there is one at all?
I think they are basically parasitic.

This solo exhibition is your first in Europe. How does a Paris context differ from Shanghai or Beijing?
I don't think my work has strong geographical character or territorialism, so I don't really consider that aspect. I didn't change my work in different cities, though the reception from audiences can be very different.

What artists do you admire, and/or which ones influence you?
Paul McCarthy, David Lynch, Leigh Bowery, Jan Fabre.

Tianzhuo Chen is on view at Palais de Tokyo through September 13th, 2015. 


Text Sarah Moroz
All images, courtesy the artist and Palais de Tokyo

Palais de Tokyo
tianzhuo chen