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The Phoenix and the Shaker Chair: A Comparison between Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project and Chen Zhen’s The Opening of a Closed Center

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"In my opinion, the best way for the West to see Asia is to study the individual. Each one is totally different from any other."
—Chen Zhen1

This summer, thanks to Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project at MASS MoCA (on view through October 27, 2013), an installation of two enormous flying phoenixes made from heavy equipment and debris from construction sites around Beijing, a piece of China has come to New England. This essay, by way of comparison, brings back into view a much lesser known artwork that in its own way brings something of China to New England—or, in the reverse, brings a piece of New England to China. The work is Chen Zhen’s The Opening of a Closed Center, a quiet and meditative installation/sculpture created in 1997. It is the outcome of a one-month artist residency in the only surviving Shaker community in the United States at Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

Xu Bing: Phoenix 1 | Mantle Selects. Photo by Hideo Sakata, courtesy of MASS MoCA.
The work has three basic elements: a chair, a screen, and a set of steps. Except for the rocker legs, the simple ‘Shaker’ chair is almost entirely hidden from sight behind an eight-sided screen made from slatted windows from a Buddhist monastery. Emerging from an opening in the screen are stairs made out of four Chinese bureaus each holding impressive rows of large Chinese vessels interspersed with an assortment of Americana bowls, candlesticks, and tins. Everything is suspended in the air from a metal support frame. According to the artist’s statement, the installation interrogates: "What is the meaning for contemporary man of ‘sitting’ in such a disturbing world? Is there a double sense of the objects of everyday life, both on the material and spiritual level? Is it necessary for it to be ‘closed,’ by being more open?"2

While thousands of people will experience Xu Bing’s magnificent phoenixes suspended in flight inside the huge space of MASS MoCA’s Building 5 (and later at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City), not many Americans will ever see Chen Zhen’s work. It had only a short run in the United States, first in Portland’s Institute of Contemporary Art at the Maine College of Art in a group show in 1997, and then at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston in 1998.

Chen Zhen (1955-2000), Opening of a Closed Center, 1997, Wood, metal, furniture, objects, 98 3/8 X 135 7/8 X 118 1/8 inches, © 2013 ADAC - Chen Zhen, courtesy de Sarthe Gallery Hong Kong
A comparison is worthwhile, however, on three counts: first, it helps narrate a story of the impact of an international artist’s visit to Maine; secondly, it looks at the power of objects in artworks; and thirdly, it shows how artworks that are a creative response to a site can themselves become a "place". While Xu Bing’s phoenixes are an expression of the New China, The Opening of a Closed Center draws on beliefs and practices from deep within China’s long history and combines them with those of a nearly extinct but distinctly American eighteenth-century separatist religious community. Each artwork, in its own way, shows the inevitability of places becoming more nearby, even at opposites ends of the world.

Who is Chen Zhen, and how did he land at Sabbathday Lake? Chen Zhen, like Xu Bing, was born in 1955 and was a teenager during Mao’s tumultuous cultural revolution when everything turned upside down and traditional forms of the social and cultural structure collapsed. They both witnessed their parents (and all intellectuals) suffer persecution, and they both grew up in a chaotic time when traditional customs and practices were denounced as backward. At the same time, they came of age when authority was transferred to the youth, and like those who had the inner-strength to prevail, they were imbued with a strong sense of personal responsibility to build up China again. If you look across every sector of society in China today, it is this generation who are responsible for the country’s incredible transformation.

Both artists were fortunate to receive formal art school training when the state university system reopened—Xu Bing at the Central Academy in Beijing where he specialized in printmaking, and Chen Zhen at the Shanghai Fine Arts and Crafts School and later Shanghai Drama Institute where he learned set design. They developed as artists in a China opening up again to the rest of the world. By the mid-1980s, however, the climate for practicing art became severely restricted, and they both decided to leave. Xu Bing moved to New York while Chen Zhen went to Paris.

Xu Bing: Phoenix 2 | Mantle Interior. Photo by Hideo Sakata, courtesy of MASS MoCA.
It was in exile and at a distance that both artists found the essential core of their practice—language for Xu Bing, and the object for Chen Zhen. Xu Bing’s first major show in the United States was at the Elvehjem Museum of Art in Wisconsin where he presented two monumental works he had made in China: Ghosts Pounding on the Wall (1990-1991), a monumental stone-rubbing from the actual Great Wall; and Book From the Sky (1987-1990), a project that took four years to complete for which he hand-carved 4,000 "false" characters into wood to print a room-sized, hanging book of complete non-sense words. In China, this work was interpreted as a critique on the government, but in the context of the West, it transformed into the impossible dream of opening up universal access to the depth of meaning and beauty in Chinese written language—essentially a visual art language.

This dream hasn’t stopped for Xu Bing, evidenced by two works also in the exhibition at MASS MoCA: A Book from the Ground (2003-ongoing), a long-running project to build a universal pictorial language from international signage symbols; and The Character of Characters (2012) a black and white hand-drawn animated ‘scroll’ projected onto a 25’ light box that renders Chinese painting and calligraphy understandable in a simple and enchanting way. These demonstrate just how far Xu Bing’s impossible dream has come.

Meanwhile, Chen Zhen (departing four years earlier than Xu Bing) arrived in France with absolutely no belongings. Leaving post-Mao China for the sophisticated urbanity of Paris was a culture shock, but it allowed him to see global capitalism from an outside vantage point. Chen Zhen’s first major body of work produced in France was "The Object, Second Nature," which deals with the purification of objects taken out of circulation from commodity culture. Reverently encased as funeral altars, he placed objets trouvé collected off the streets (typewriters, phones, cameras, pots, vases, newspapers, bicycles, etc.) in various conditions of purification: water, fire, dust, and earth. For example, objects are half-submerged in water, or burnt in special open compartments balanced with other compositional elements that contain type-set words, in both French and Chinese, to identify items and concepts, such as charred crumples of newspaper identified by the words "Le Monde."

To fast-forward, by the mid-90s, both artists had received international recognition and their work was being widely shown around the world. I was able to see Xu Bing’s Language Lost, a modified version of A Book from the Sky, when it came to Massachusetts College of Art’s Huntington Gallery in 1995. My first encounter with Chen Zhen, meanwhile, was at his retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston in 2002. The show was astonishing in its scope—filled with incomprehensible objects made from materials such as candles, children’s chairs, antique beds, abacus beads, crystals, tubes, and needles. With a clear Eastern sensibility, these works addressed global issues of poverty, armed conflicts, foreign occupations, world health, environmental issues, and cultural differences. Each work was a riddle that seemed to draw on ancient wisdom. Maybe because the art connected me to the same bewilderment I felt when I was a student in China in the 1980s, I knew I wanted to understand this work better.

My path put me at the right place to stumble upon The Opening of a Closed Center. I grew up in Maine, and the quiet Shaker village just outside of Lewiston was as familiar to me as the endlessly moving sea of people everywhere in China was foreign. In other words, I was affected by a similar memory of the contrast between the two places.

Xu Bing: Phoenix 2 | Mantle Interior. Photo by Hideo Sakata, courtesy of MASS MoCA.
The Opening of a Closed Center is a collision of two cultures: Shakers and Artists (albeit in this case a collision filled with reciprocal warmth, friendship, and generosity of spirit). Chen Zhen was one of ten artists brought together as part of France Morin’s "The Quiet in the Land" project to live with seven members of United Society of Believers between May and August of 1996.3 The roster of participating artists is impressive: Chen Zhen, Janine Antoni, Domenico de Clario, Adam Fuss, Mona Hatoum, Sam Samore, Jana Sterbak, Kazumi Tanaka, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Nari Ward.

Art created out of an artist residency is fundamentally different from a commissioned work such as Xu Bing’s Phoenix Project. As Chen Zhen admitted, "This is an increasingly typical mode of working for a generation of ‘global artists’ on the international art circuit. But today, as far as our generation is concerned, we are playing the ‘game’ of constant confrontation with other artists, with different cultural contexts, causing incredible stress linked to the need to make a statement, at the same time recreating our own identity, resisting the mono-influence of western culture and trying to enter into dialogue with marginalized cultures."4

At Sabbathday Lake, the artists were expected to immerse themselves in Shaker life by spending the mornings following the daily routine of worship, shared meals, and chores, while being afforded creative space in the afternoons to develop artistic projects. Part of the magic of this unlikely situation is that each artist reformulated something of the Shaker life in the form of his or her artistic mode of working. France Morin has spoken about the ways in which the two ‘utopian’ choices in life, artists and Shakers, took something of the other from the experience. "The artists saw themselves in the Shaker way of living and the Shakers really saw themselves in the struggle to make art—and the place where it comes from. Because art making doesn't just come from a conceptual idea. It comes from the soul [. . .] the place that nobody can define."5 

Xu Bing’s commissioned project, although it represents the highest echelon of the global art market in terms of budget, exposure, and scale, was likewise a creative response to a site, but only in an unexpected way. The glassed-in atrium of the shiny new World Financial Tower in the same district as CCTV and the "bird’s nest" Olympic Stadium made Xu Bing think of a bird cage, so he decided to create an artwork in the shape of a bird. Switching from the original idea of the crane to the phoenix opened up research into folk traditions over fine arts. Perhaps with a sensitivity to this, when it came time to figure out the materials for the project, Xu Bing looked around and noticed the contrast between the poor conditions of the migrant workers, many of whom have no education, and the cosmopolitanism of the new urban class who hold jobs in those shiny new buildings. I also saw first-hand the paradoxes of the lightening-speed modernization because I returned to China in 1995 and saw the country literally under construction—there were more building cranes in the city of Shanghai alone than in the whole rest of the world put together, where country clubs where literally being built out of rice paddies. Xu Bing’s choice of materials was driven by a similar sensitivity to a more humble reality of life as Chen Zhen experienced in New England. So in that way, the two projects have affinity.

At a much different pace, in April 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Sabbathday Lake to meet with two of the individuals who were part of the project: Brother Arnold Hadd, one of the seven participating Believers, and Michael S. Graham, curator of the Shaker Museum and member of the staff.6 What it hit home for me was that the artists did not experience Shakerism in the abstract—they made one-to-one connections with individuals who live in daily obedience to the Shaker way of life. Both Brother Arnold Hadd and Michael Graham recounted stories, verified facts, and pointed out details that brought to life some of the personalities, events, and feelings that made up that special time at Sabbathday Lake.7 I asked them both if they now find contemporary art more understandable—the answer was "yes and no". They both agreed that knowing the artists personally made their art make sense to them. It makes me recall Mikail Bakhtin’s words that "each utterance is a deed, and the deed is a subject’s answer to the world."8

Chen Zhen was remembered as being quiet, observant, and "present." Brother Arnold Hadd recalled that he was mostly quiet at meals and only tended to give input to community projects at essential moments. This may have had to do with his English skills at that time. Perhaps because of this, Chen Zhen’s entry into his artistic project was through a non-verbal type of communication. He decided to create an artwork or sketch for each day of the month, and arranged for each of the seven Shakers to sit for a portrait in the Dwelling House. This allowed him to spend time with each of the Shakers in that distinctive intimate exchange peculiar to portrait painting: no talking, but concentrated awareness on both sides that is silent but dynamic. It also recalled Chen Zhen’s early days in Paris when he earned his living by sketching people on the street.9

The intensity of living face-to-face is a way of life for Shakers, and through the portrait sittings, being face-to-face was how Chen Zhen connected with each of the Believers. At Sabbathday Lake, the daily worship routine consists of spending time sitting, singing, and praying—in the Meetinghouse during the summer and in the music room in the Dwelling House in the winter. According to Shaker custom, the sexes are separated—each using their own staircases in the living quarters and doors into the Meeting House. The Meeting House chapel is set up with two rows of benches facing each other—again, to separate the sexes, but also to have all face each other as equals. The music room, an airy and light-filled space with a piano and old portraits of Shakers hanging on the walls, also has two rows of handmade rocking chairs in different shapes and styles from different eras facing each other, one side for the men and one for the women.10 The stair/altar of The Opening of a Closed Center is a kind of multitude of faces opening from the closed center. ‘Facing’ the Shaker chair, therefore, holds in it the complexity of Chen Zhen’s question, "Is it necessary for it to be ‘closed,’ by being more open?"

At one point in the residency, there was a "portrait controversy" that shook things up for "at least seven or eight days"11 when Sister Francis Carr, dismayed by her likeness, asked Chen Zhen to make a new painting.12 After some debate, the portrait was redone, but what is more important is that the incident reveals the opening and opportunity that comes through misunderstanding. Chen Zhen calls misunderstanding "a most tantalizing state of communication. It is an effective ‘medium’ through which cross-cultural exchanges and the very co-existence of the various cultures are made possible."13

The formulation of the material form of these ideas in The Opening of a Closed Center is traced in Chen Zhen’s My Diary in Shaker Village (27 Frames), which itself is a second artwork. The seven Shaker portraits anchor the composition, and because the portraits take a traditional form, they are immediately accessible to a broad audience, and they probably gave the Shakers a compass point and reassurance that artwork was being produced during the project.14 It is also a sensitive choice because it honors the last handful of Believers who are the only connection to ‘living Shakerism’ (imagine seven out of 7 billion!), and through Chen Zhen’s hand, something of the humanity of each sitter is preserved for posterity.

The portraits are interspersed with drawings, sketches, photographs, diagrams, and notes for the installation project. There are direct commemorations of the time at Sabbathday Lake—a group photo, a drawing of a woven basket (something Chen Zhen made on one of his first days in the village), a sheet of music with a photograph of the artist looking out a window, and pictures of the granite steps and stairwell of the Meeting House.15 Along with traces of Chen’s daily life at Sabbathday Lake, the Diary also documents his ideas. There are diagrams and measurements about how to put together the circular chair, images of the Buddha, photographs of Hindi statuary, drawings of qi circulation within the body, ink drawings of meditation seats and platforms, and notes in Chinese. They evidence the Eastern sources of Chen Zhen’s thinking about The Opening of a Closed Center.

The white fence outside the Meeting House was another point of interest during the residency. Each of the three rotations of artists was involved in the restoration of the eighteenth-century picket fence outside the building. Nari Ward explained: "It was a symbol, because we were privy to these two worlds, to this boundary. Through working on the fence we all bonded together as artists. The Shakers were always on the other side. It seems an apt metaphor for what happened."16 The artists readily adopted the "Hands to Work, Hearts to God" axiom of the Shakers, and embraced the life as best they could, including memorizing some of the hymns sung during morning prayers and Sunday meetings. But the worlds were separate: as Brother Wayne Smith observed to the artists, "You have art, we have prayer."17 The portrait incident and the fence-mending project alike underscore the truth that: "Misunderstanding is predicated on meeting each other."18

Today, the meeting of world cultures is inevitable, as is clearly seen in both The Opening of a Closed Center and the Phoenix Project. Mapping misunderstanding may be the best way to understand the world more fully and, as Chen Zhen says, to allow for "the very co-existence of cultures." About his time at Sabbathday Lake, Chen Zhen recalled: "quiet in the land is a unique experience. It was an unbelievable chance, for someone who is Chinese, to have an idea of how the Shakers live in such a special context, to experience their spiritual world and to re-experiment the quality of rural life and hand-work. But it was also an incredible occasion, which made me recall the ‘Re-education in the countryside’ during the Cultural Revolution. It reminds me also of my three month stay in Tibet, just before I left China."19 Observing Tibetan Buddhism had a profound influence on Chen, as did the gift of having a ‘Western spiritual experience’ with the Shakers. "From [the Tibetan Buddhists] I learned to walk; they walk several hundred miles to go to temple."20 In a similar way, he experienced what it was like for the Shakers "to spend a lot of time in chairs praying and singing."21

Chen Zhen’s choice of a rocking chair as the centerpiece of The Opening of a Closed Center speaks to the way Chen Zhen dignifies and respects objects. In Chen Zhen’s view of philosophy and metaphysics, ‘everything is corporeal.’ He writes: "Man is not the centre. The centre lies between the spirit-desire (man); the concrete-illusion (thing); and Solid-Void (nature). The centre is a link which connects man, things, (products and consumer society), and nature. I should like to let the object—the witness/victim—once again live spiritually like one of the three independent elements, which might privately converse with man and Nature."22 Chen Zhen looks to the obviousness of the objects he sees around him. He asks: ‘So inanimate objects, do you have a soul?’ Of all the objects you can call inanimate, dead, after a life cycle, after having been used by man, how many are there in which you may find the soul, which you may give birth to again, and endow with a spirit?"23

It is here where we can examine more closely Xu Bing’s use of objects in the Phoenix Project. It is immediately noticeable that the phoenixes are made from junk and debris—rusted, dusty, scuffed, and used materials collected out of construction sites across Beijing. They are big. The male phoenix flying ahead is carrying steel rods and beams, including even a number of excavator arms and buckets. The female is a little more delicate and her load isn’t as heavy, but nevertheless, they weigh 12 tons each.

Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the objects are suited to their placement on the body. Jack hammers at the beak, hard hats at the crown, wires, transformers, and fire extinguishers on the plumes . . . My favorite details are the swirling tail feathers made out of the ubiquitous blue and red plastic tarps that people from the countryside use for make-shift luggage, and the brooch-like breast feathers made from the heads of shovels. Xu Bing explains: "This part of the shovel is similar to that part of the feather in that it is supposed to take on weight and make it stronger. Many of the tools that we use come from the study of the replication of things in nature. With this there is a kind of internal logic that produces a beauty. Also produces a sense of humor."24

Xu Bing: Phoenix 2 | Mantle Interior. Photo by Hideo Sakata, courtesy of MASS MoCA.
Xu Bing has used everyday, common objects before—in both his language projects and in the Tobacco Project he made at Duke University using hundreds of thousands of cigarettes. But for Chen Zhen, the object has always held the most central place in his practice. After "Cycles of the Objects," his mature style developed with the use of chairs, chamber pots, and beds. This marks a turning point in Chen’s career when he moved beyond focusing on the resonance of individual objects to creating installations in which objects relate to each other within larger spatial configurations.

One of the most widely known works from this period is Round Table (1995), a round table with inlaid chairs from around the world now installed outside the United Nations Hall in Geneva, Switzerland. "But the key point about his work is neither the chairs nor the round table itself. Rather, it is the guanxi (relationships) between the table and the chairs. The crux of the problem lies in how to arrange all the chairs and the table in a ‘normal manner,’ but to create a kind of ‘abnormal relationship.’ When the chairs were embedded in the table top, the meanings emerged."25 Rather than externally attaching conceptual ideas to "readymade" objects, Chen Zhen puts objects into forms that can propose concepts. This is why he does not see himself as a conceptual artist, rather as an artist who uses the metaphorical method.26 "People ask if I am a conceptual artist. What does that mean? I don’t think it means anything. What they see as conceptual I see as metaphorical. While the conceptual is linked to a logical, rational way of thinking, the metaphorical is free and flexible. It is a way to talk about deep philosophical ideas."27

What makes Chen Zhen’s objects different from the Duchampian Readymade? Chen Zhen uses the Chinese word jie, (to borrow) to make the distinction. "The idea is not to transplant the images directly or move across time and space directly. [ . . . ] Chinese cultural symbols aren’t ‘ready’ at all, unless you are talking about calculation of ours used to cherish a strong rebellious spirit against our own traditional culture. Besides, the key to metaphors is to jie (borrow). You can jie freely from here and there, and from the East or the West."28 Phrases such as ‘metaphorical conceptual method,’ ‘bi-lingual thinking mode,’ ‘conversational mode and cultural strategy,’ ‘frontal clashes,’ describe how actively Chen Zhen sees objects operating in artworks. More than anything, he is "borrowing the subject to exaggerate matters."29

Xu Bing also maintains that his use of objects is distinct from the Western Readymade. He connects his use of construction materials in the Phoenix Project to methods used in Chinese folk art. He calls it a type of ‘bootlegging.’ He says: "The method of Chinese art is to use the cheapest materials to express hope for future and their lives. You see this in Chinese art using corn husks and corn silks to make beautiful objects . . . roots of trees . . . its existing form to make something beautiful like a sculpture." 30

While the objects in these works do resonate with Eastern sensibilities, there is one striking difference. While Xu Bing’s phoenixes are unique, they are already known. Chen Zhen’s The Opening of a Closed Center, on the other hand, is a strange shape never seen before. Finding meaning in this unknown form can only be done through what is familiar: solid oak rocker legs, painted clay pots, tin cigar can, stained antique Chinese dressers, metal handles, decorative wood carvings, pewter tankard, checkerboard tape-woven chair seat, steel frame, support cables. [ . . . ] Looking at the piece invokes Chinese antiquity mostly due to the distinctive red lacquered painted pots and wood detailing of carved immortals and dragons. But rather than being nostalgic, the arrangement and function of the pots on the bureaus is odd and confusing. The main purpose of the arranged items seems to be to block any visible access to what is inside.

The centerpiece, the "chair of eternal meditation," can only be seen from above, and is therefore inaccessible to viewers. This feature came as a disappointment to Michael Graham, since he had helped cut and lathe the solid pieces of seasoned oak he and Chen Zhen found beneath the ox barn at Sabbathday Lake. No one from the Shaker community knew what the final piece would look like because the circular chair was custom made through the Shaker Workshop in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. All of the Chinese antiques had to be shipped from China to Chen Zhen’s studio at P.S. 1 in New York where the final assembly took place in the year following the residency.31 The twenty-seven framed Diary entries were finished in France.32 The sleek newness of the Shaker chair contrasts with the weathered monastery windows, scuffed furniture, and peeling and fading containers. Like the table Chen Zhen made for the United Nations, what seems to matter here is complicating the relationships between the meditation chair, the screen, and the set of stairs.

In many ways, The Opening of a Closed Center articulates Chen Zhen’s most important artistic mode: the ‘fusion/transcendence of experiences.’ He calls it "transexperience." Chen Zhen defines transexperience as "a spiritual running away"—out of oneself into the reality of another, "a system of internal and external linkages, a cerebral geography with an invisible mechanism making it possible to connect up all experiences, to immerse oneself and be one with those that follow."33 Transexperience is not only a philosophical approach, but an ‘experiential concept’—one that, in Chen Zhen’s words, "relates to an extremely important matter, that is to immerse oneself in life, to blend and identify oneself with others."34 Chen Zhen’s immersion into Shaker life is the essential condition of the artwork that came out of it.

Transexperience also recognizes the "real potential" of objects.35 The piling high of the simple vessels, very strong in their sense of being household objects used for daily activities, but from the other side of the world from Sabbathday Lake, questions if there is a connection between the spiritual essence of things from China with things from New England. Shaker products are remarkable for their simple integrity to the Shaker way of life. Whatever is made is not "made on the side." Having nothing but what is needed was the way it was in pre-modernized China. I saw it when I was there.

Regarding the question of whether objects have spirit, the ‘vertically half-open’ cylinder open to the sky resonates strongly with the Shaker concept of "heaven on earth." When asked about the goal of Shakers working "to become perfect and to achieve salvation and heaven in this life," Brother Arnold Hadd explains: "It’s a prefigurement of the kingdom, and the whole idea is to live the kingdom life here and now." He further adds: "The Shaker is seeker after the kingdom in very practical terms. Everything we do/all things we do have the potential to be worship. So everything we are laboring at we are laboring at to make it better. To make an offering to God."36 When talking about the chair during our interview, Michael Graham remarked on the suitability of the form, gesturing with his hands that "heaven is above." Nari Ward’s columnar curtain of colorful bottles, Vertical Hold, 1996, made in response to his stay at Sabbathday Lake, has a similar form (an opening to heaven), but Chen Zhen’s chair, with its seat, grounds the sitter in a bodily act of meditation that is also ‘open to heaven.’ Having ten connected backs, the chair seems to metaphorically accommodate not just a single person, but many at once—perhaps a whole community, or even all of society.

Maybe the objects taken from the refuse of Beijing’s construction sites have also been infused with a kind of new spirit in their transformation into art. In putting everything together, did the workers act differently than in working on the high-rises? What happens when a hardhat becomes a crown, or a tarp a plume? If it is the personal touch that makes Shaker furniture so valuable, could it be the same for the re-constituted construction tools?

The answer may be gleaned through the device of the LED lights that adorn the phoenixes. As Xu Bing describes them: "During day you can’t really see them. With the change of light when evening approaches, these lights will become more and more apparent. At night when it is dark, you cannot see them at all, you can see very flat, very distant phoenix constellations hanging mid-air. When you approach these phoenixes from a close distance they appear very fierce. They’ve used these cheap materials to make themselves beautiful to give themselves a sense of self-respect. But at a distance at night, they begin to appear soft and very beautiful—something distant from our everyday reality."37 This flittering between the real and the mythical, the humble and the extravagant; the close-up and the far away is how the phoenixes exude their glorious energy and transport us to the New China.

It is impossible to contemplate The Opening of a Closed Center at a distance, however. You have to be face to face. Nothing is made up, just things in the here and now. That’s why the artwork holds the essence of the Shaker religion. As of September 2013, the United Society of Believers is down from seven members to three. Brother Arnold Hadd does not seem at all discouraged by this. "As long as we do God’s work I believe in the essence of my soul that there will always be vocations sent to this way of life."38 All he can do, he says, is to let people know that they are here. The most recent image I could find of The Opening of a Closed Center shows it sitting quietly in a luxurious entryway of a Hong Kong skyscraper while a passerby looks at it curiously. One wonders, will it ever transport anyone to Sabbathday Lake?

It’s a curious thing about the Phoenix and the Shaker Chair: as different as they are, and as strange as their displacement is in the world, it is through their objects that we know them, and through their art that we know each other.


[1] Eleanor Heartney, "An Interview with Chen Zhen," In Chen Zhen: A Tribute, ed. Jeffrey Uslip and Rachael Zur (New York, NY: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, a MoMA affiliate, 2003), 16.
[2] Chen Zhen, "Artist’s Statements: The Opening of Closed Center," in Chen Zhen: A Tribute, ed. Jeffrey Uslip and Rachael Zur (New York, NY: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, a MoMA affiliate, 2003), 180.
[3] The Shakers’ is the commonly used term for the United Society of Believers in the Second Appearance of Christ, a Christian pacifist religious sect founded in 1747 by Mother Ann Lee (1736-1784). Under her leadership, the first members came to America and started about 20 settlements in New England, New York, and beyond. The Sabbathday Shakers have been active as a community since 1783. (See "Historical Background, The Shaker Village at Sabbathday Lake," http://www.maineshakers.com/history.html.)
This was the first iteration of a project that has since also been staged in Brazil and Laos. "The Quiet in the Land" is described as "a series of community-based art and education projects initiated by the contemporary art curator and historian France Morin in 1995, in a search for a way of working that would reaffirm the potential of contemporary artists as catalysts of positive change. This new way would possibly open up a new language for speaking about the relationship between art and life, in which the standard definitions of such terms as artist, community, and work of art would perhaps no longer be adequate." "The Quiet in the Land," accessed May 12, 2012, http://www.thequietintheland.org/description.php
[4] Chen Zhen and Daniel Buren, "A Conversation between Daniel Buren and Chen Zhen," in Chen Zhen: In Praise of Black Magic (Torino: Gam - Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderne e Contemporanae via Magenta 31 Torino, 2000), 102.
[5] The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art and the Shakers (VHS tape.) Produced by the ICA and Community Television Network, Portland, ME. Producer/director: Branka Bogdanov, editor Eric Neudel. 30 min. 1998.
[6] The interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Michael S. Graham, and Kate Farrington took place on April 19, 2012 at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine.
[7] A particularly important event recounted by many of the artists was attending the funeral of Sister Ruth who had lived in the Trustee’s house with the artists over the summer. Even though the funeral took place a year after the residency, it was attended by nearly all of the artists. Adam Fuss talked about coming to funeral: "That burial of this old Shaker really seemed like a mythical event. It seemed like I was touching those mythological beings — the generations of Shakers that had lived and died. We were in connection with them and with the whole thrust of this spiritualized life that they practice. The connection was coming into contact with the ideas that powered those lives, past and present. And from my reading, from looking at images, from just walking around the place and absorbing the environment and the stories." (Janet A. Kaplan et. al, "The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art, and the Shakers: A Conversation with Janet A. Kaplan," Art Journal, Vol. 57, No. 2 (Summer, 1998): 13.
[8] Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist, Mikhail Bakhtin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), 54.
[9] In the self-interview Chen Zhen staged with his altar ego, Zhu Xian, he recalled his early days in Paris: Z.X.: "You didn’t work for four years!?" C.Z.: "On the contrary, I worked very hard, day and night. It might be the period in my entire life during which I worked the most and my thoughts were most concentrated." Chen Zhen, "Transexperiences: A conversation between Chen Zhen and Zhu Xian," in Chen Zhen: Invocation of Washing Fire, (Prato — Siene, Italy: Gli Ori, 2003,) 156. (See also, n. 33)
[10] Michael Graham showed me the music room and said that Chen Zhen participated in the Wednesday services, a less formal mid-week worship meeting. (Interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Michael S. Graham, and Kate Farrington on April 19, 2012 at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine.)
[11] Brother Arnold Hadd recalled this memory in the interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Michael S. Graham, and Kate Farrington on April 19, 2012 at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine. See also, Jeffrey Deitch, "Sculptor as Doctor," in Chen Zhen, Chen Zhen: A Tribute (New York, NY: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, a MoMA affiliate, 2003), 13.
[12] Brother Arnold Hadd recalled the tension surrounding this issue during the interview. See also, Jeffrey Deitch, "Sculptor as Doctor," in Chen Zhen, Chen Zhen: A Tribute (New York, NY: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, a MoMA affiliate, 2003), 13. Sister Francis Carr recalled: "I was not very happy — ‘oh dear, am I really that cold, stern?’ [ . . . ] We see what we want to in ourselves not how we see it in another… He went through the whole trouble. I was not very happy at my first portrait sitting. [As for the second,] I still didn’t like it. I almost disliked it as much as the first." The Quiet in the Land: Everyday Life, Contemporary Art and The Shakers. Produced by the ICA, community Television Network, Portland, ME. Producer/director: Branka Bogdanov; editor: Eric Neudel. 30 min. 1998.
[13] Chen, "Chen Zhen and Zhu Xian," 171.
[14] Michael Graham remarked on how many of the pieces in the exhibition in Portland, including Opening of Closed Center, were a surprise because they were produced after the residency. The clear exception to this was the group of portraits. They hung on the wall in a studio/room Chen used, which Janine Antoni showed to gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch when he came to tour the village. Interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Michael S. Graham, and Kate Farrington on April 19, 2012 at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine. See also, Deitch, "Sculptor as Doctor," 13.
[15] Interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Michael S. Graham, and Kate Farrington on April 19, 2012 at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine. Interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Michael S. Graham, and Kate Farrington on April 19, 2012 at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine.
[16] Kaplan, "The Quiet in the Land," 26. Kaplan, "The Quiet in the Land," 26. Kaplan, "The Quiet in the Land," 26. Kaplan, "The Quiet in the Land," 26.
[17] The Quiet in the Land Website: Shakers/‘The Story,’ http://www.thequietintheland.org/shakers/category.phThe Quiet in the Land Website: Shakers/‘The Story,’ http://www.thequietintheland.org/shakers/category.php?id=the-story.
[18] Chen, "Chen Zhen and Zhu Xian," 172.Chen, "Chen Chen, "Chen Zhen and Zhu Xian," 172.
[19] France Morin, "In China there is a Proverb that says…" in Chen Zhen, Invocation of Washing Fire, (Prato — Siene, Italy: Gli Ori, 2003), 264.
[20] Kay Larson, "A Month in Shaker Country." New York Times 10 Aug. 1997. The New York Times. Website accessed 28 Apr. 2012.
[21] Larson, Ibid.
[22] Chen, "The Object, Second Nature," 52.
[23] Chen, "The Object, Second Nature," 54.
[24] XU BING: video Mass MoCA: Translation by Jesse Robert Coffino, Studio director, Xu Bing studio.
http://www.massmoca.org/event_details.php?id=771
[25] Chen, "Chen Zhen and Zhu Xian," 159.
[26] In an interview with Eleanor Heartney, Chen Zhen said: "People ask if I am a conceptual artist. What does that mean? I don’t think it means anything. What they see as conceptual I see as metaphorical. While the conceptual is linked to a logical, rational way of thinking, the metaphorical is free and flexible. It is a way to talk about deep philosophical ideas. Chinese people are always telling stories with bigger meanings behind them." Heartney, 16.
[27] Heartney, 16.
[28] Chen, "Chen Zhen and Zhu Xian," 170.
[29] Chen, "Chen Zhen and Zhu Xian," 170.
[30] Xu Bing, "Artist Talk" Mass MoCA, April 26, 2013. Website: MASS Moca. Accessed August 19, 2013.http://www.massmoca.org/event_details.php?id=771
[31] Interview with Brother Arnold Hadd, Michael S. Graham, and Kate Farrington on April 19, 2012 at Sabbathday Lake, New Gloucester, Maine.
[32] The Chinese antiques were brought over from China and assembled in New York. The 27 Diary entries were finished in Paris. (Email from France Morin to the author, April 4, 2012.)
[33] Jérôme Sans, "Jérôme Sans," In Chen Zhen: Invocation of Washing Fire, ed. David Rosenberg and Xu Min (Prato-Siena, Italy: Gli Ori, 2003), 14.
[34] Mâité Vissault, "Installations as Sites of Presence," Chen Zhen: The Body as Landscape (Nürnberg: Kunsthalle Wien, Verlag für moderne Kurnst, Nürnberg, 2007), 58.
[35] Jérôme Sans, "The Resounding Silence: Interview of Chen Zhen (2000)," Chen Zhen: A Tribute. New York: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, a MoMA affiliate, New York: February 16, 2003 - May 25, 2003, 29.
[36] The Shakers" Religion & Ethics newsweekly," September 17, 2010. Recorded interview with Bob Abernethy, Sister Ruth Francis Carr, Brother Arnold Hadd, and Sister June Carpenter. Originally broadcast on PBS September 17, 2010,
[37] Xu Bing, "Artist Talk" MASS MoCA, April 26, 2013. Website: MASS MoCA. Accessed August 19, 2013. http://www.massmoca.org/event_details.php?id=771
[38] "The Shakers" Religion & Ethics newsweekly," March 18, 2011. Recorded interview with Bob Abernethy, Sister Ruth Francis, Brother Arnold Hadd, and Sister June Carpenter. Originally broadcast on PBS September 17, 2010.


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