Over the past seven or eight years, Chen Yujun has honed the complex visual and sociological narratives that define his work: namely, internal migration and the resulting homeland diaspora within China, and how this impacts millions of families throughout the nation. Born in 1976 in the southern Fujian Province along the Taiwan Strait, Chen is well versed in the social and economic histories of his birthplace: of people leaving their homes and rural villages for larger urban centres. Parents seeking work and higher income jobs leave children to be raised by grandparents or other family members as aggressive urbanization and hyperactive economic development has brought seismic shifts to the stability of traditional family life.
These two collaborative, interdependent solo exhibitions – ‘The House Cannot Forget’ at BANK and ‘The River Never Remembers’ at Arario Gallery – were aptly timed to coincide with the first month of the Lunar New Year, when families return to their to homes after the Spring Festival holidays. Descending the stairway into ‘The House Cannot Forget’, viewers are required to pass through a walk-in diorama constructed of recycled floorboards, wooden columns and discarded old doors, with tattered newspapers providing makeshift wallpaper. The installation introduces the exhibition’s storyline, leading seamlessly into paintings, smaller installations and works on paper presented in the main gallery space. Exiting this piece by way of an elevated catwalk, we encounter Temporary Constructions (2016), a dilapidated model home, slightly larger than a dollhouse, of crudely painted wood and fragments of glass. Void of walls and skeleton, the work is suspended from the ceiling and is tethered to a tree trunk by a long thick rope.
Two large paintings – 502 room sofa No. 2 (2015) and Banquet No.1 (2016), both acrylic on canvas – ground opposite ends of the presentation. 502 room sofa No. 2 depicts an overstuffed armchair in sepia tones, while in Banquet No. 1 a cluttered landscape of fishbones and broken wine glasses emerges from the turbulent brushwork in a limited palette of black, brown and white. 502 room sofa No 2 embodies a sense of loneliness and melancholy, the ghostly stillness of an abandoned house with its monumental empty chair signifying the interminable wait for returning inhabitants. Banquet No. 1, by contrast, is a noisy post-Bacchanalian ruckus, an unconscious nod to Jackson Pollock and mid-century modernism.
A series of handmade paper, ink and mixed-media works of arched windows, also titled Temporary Constructions (2013–14), seems devotional or sacred, taking the viewer beyond the confines of Chen’s metaphors for habitation. However, unlike the ramshackle sculpture of the same name, these windows are graphically refined, unified pictorial tropes as portals to another realm and, for Chen, an external reality or higher consciousness.
In ‘The River Never Remembers’ at Arario, Chen returns to the theme of the Mulan or Magnolia River, which flows through his native Fujian Province and has been central to his work since 2008. The exhibition’s focus is the 12 dark, monochromatic ink and mixed-media drawings of Mulan River No.1 (2013), which are displayed in dimly lit rooms on the gallery’s first and second floors. Although the lighting seems overly dramatic, the drawings appear to have touches of silver and a luminous sheen that draws attention to their nearly imperceptible details. It takes a minute to realize that you are peering down through the water and the detritus that lies below the surface to the Mulan riverbed. For Chen, the river is a symbol of impermanence, flowing freely, yet indifferent to the currents of economic change, social history and politics. The river remembers nothing.
On the gallery’s third floor, the works circle back to ideas of domestic dwellings and rural sustenance. An audio recording of flowing water plays from within the disorienting black interior of Wooden House No. 160318 (2016) – a small cabin-like structure, just wide enough to hold one or two visitors. The cabin serves as a supporting structure for four enormous, vertical, black and white works on paper that combine to form a colossal window on the cabin’s extended exterior wall. A giant tree with various tree-dwelling inhabitants (a monkey, sloth and cat) completes the scene. A new work, The Origin of Food (2017), installed directly opposite, is a series of interconnected wall-mounted dioramas, which spans the length of the room. Painted in ochre yellow, black and white acrylic, each compartment depicts a dense forest scene or the aftermath of a hunting expedition, with game birds and mysterious black bags hanging throughout. Other components – such as ceramic plates, a wooden stool, stones and branches – are placed in the foreground. The Origin of Food suggests something primal, an unironic commentary on survival, as well as the environmental or ecological consequences facing mankind. While Chen’s recent installations are ambitious, the artist’s strengths as both draughtsman and painter are where his real poetics – like the superb titles to these joint exhibitions – continue to reside.