Chen Zhen


My Diary in Shaker Village; Opening of Closed Center

Chen Zhen was born in Shanghai in 1955; he died in Paris in 2002. He first visited Sabbathday Lake from February 16 to 18, 1996 with France Morin and Wolfgang Tillmans. He returned the following summer. Chen understood the desire to operate in what the Japanese call ma, the "space in between," a zone of emptiness between categories that, seen differently, reveals itself as an interval of fullness and harmony. By creating a situation in which the Shakers and the artists could work together to perceive both the differences that separated them and the similarities that connected them, the project gave him the opportunity to activate this space between as a zone of potentiality in which to renegotiate the relationship between art and life.

My Diary in Shaker Village (1996-97), which consists of twenty-seven pastel drawings, is one of the works that emerged out of Chen's experience at Sabbathday Lake. During each day of his stay, Chen made a drawing. The drawings range from portraits of the Shakers, to everyday objects that related to his work tasks, to objects from his own culture. The process of making the portraits in particular allowed him to communicate with and strengthen his relationships to the Shakers, as he did not speak much English at the time, simply by quietly sharing space with them. The drawings as a totality constituted a diary through which he sought to understand his experience.

Opening of Closed Center (1996-97), another work that Chen produced, is a dialogue between his own culture and that of the Shakers. Within a space bounded by a series of wooden windows from a Chinese monastery, there hangs an enclosed circular rocking chair—a space within a space. Although the chair's wooden structure and caning recall Shaker design, it also serves as a protected place, a function recalling the Zen Buddhist idea of sitting as an eternal meditation. This chair can be seen only through the screen of the Chinese windows, and remains physically inaccessible to the viewer. At an opening in the exterior window structure is a suspended altar, made of Chinese furniture, on which objects of daily life rest, such as pots used for carrying water and rice. These common objects are unusually presented as spiritual offerings, and even though they are Chinese in origin, they may also reflect the Shakers' deep reverence for the sacred origins of everyday activities, from which creativity flows. For Chen, the intersecting space between cultures is conceived as a space of growth.