A Researcher at Heart, Zian Chen’s Enlightening Insights into Translating Theory, Manifestos, Embroidery, and trips out of Beijing Airport, into a Life of Art

Curator Zian Chen Courtesy Long March Project, The Deficit Faction 2019 Photo by ARTEXB
Curator Zian Chen Courtesy Long March Project, The Deficit Faction 2019 Photo by ARTEXB

On the spectrum between spontaneity and premeditation I am certainly on the side of spontaneity. One thing I realized about curating, is that planning has to facilitate the contributions you don’t entirely expect. So you plan for the unplanned to happen. What I liked about my three-year work with Long March Project in Beijing, from 2017 to 2019, was curating the annual exhibition. Each project took time and allowed the unexpected to happen. It functioned as a group curating format. At the end of 2018, to kick off the research journey for the next year, I hosted a reading group with three other members of the curatorial group, to share personal research and discuss them together. Then our reading group evolved into a monthly Planet Marx Reading Club. It ran throughout 2019, and gathered audiences in Beijing and Shanghai to read together fiction and/or theory about technology and/or ecology. The name of the club alludes to Chinese economist and philosopher Yu Guangyuan’s notion of the great excavation of the planet. Yu is a Chinese Marxist scientist who conceptualizes the Earth according to Marxist dialectics. From there, we gradually decided the theme for our annual exhibition for November 2019, titled “Long March Project: The Deficit Faction”. In this group exhibition we surveyed the kind of artistic projects that embrace their own limitations and set out to create abundance of meanings. One of the participating artists, Aracha Cholitgul from Bangkok, presented a digital print, “The Book of Enlightenment–Limits”, where she uses organic shapes to interpret interpersonal relationships, aiming at creating a basic vocabulary about mental and physical existences and the limits thereof.

I imagine my 10 years older self is visiting me from the future today and they tell me  contemporary art no longer exists. At least, not in the way we know it. Its current form became obsolete. This insight actually comes from Indian-American anthropologist and critical thinker Arjun Appadurai’s, about time travel and art objects from his 2006 article The Thing Itself. He states: “today’s gift is tomorrow’s commodity. Yesterday’s commodity is tomorrow’s found art object. Today’s art object is tomorrow’s junk. And yesterday’s junk is tomorrow’s heirloom.” I actually hope I will be able to live a life like the one John Berger has achieved, living in a farm in the mountains in Quincy, France. I don’t need to be in France, but a sustainable life in which I can farm and write for myself would be ideal. Maybe in Hualien, who knows? It has mountains and it has the sea.

My go-to piece of clothing is my embroiled kimono. Last year, when Latvian art historian and curator Egija Inzule was our guest in Beijing, we took a very touristic visit to Panjiayuan antique market with her family. That is where I found embroidery pieces from South West China. I later had them made into sleeve edges for a unisex kimono, by a tailor in Beijing. The deep v-neck waistcoat inside was also made with fabric I have shopped locally. It took me some time to realize that I’ve actually been captivated by weaving as a rich practice, for both its potential for dreaming and the richness of the textile production. I’m attracted by the potential that it operates not only on the surface, but the way it is made, one stitch above and one stitch below, it requires calculation. Its own materiality gives it a social life as an object, just like in the theories of Arjun Appadurai. 

I climb stairs to keep in shape. Now I’m in my three-story household in Hualien, on the eastern Taiwanese coast. I’ve developed a very stable day plan for stair climbing before working at my desk during the multiple self-isolation periods I had to go through. One after coming back from Shanghai in February, and this March coming back from London. If it wasn’t for the quarantine, I wouldn’t imagine how I would stay in my hometown for such a long time. At the time of writing, it’s my thirty-seventh day since I quit smoking. Something worthy to do in quarantine, and the stair climbing helps.
But I guess I know more about this place through literary representations than daily experience. You should get a second-hand copy from Abebook of “The Man with the Compound Eyes”, a climate fiction by the Man Booker Prize nominee Hualien-based writer Wu Ming-Yi. It will teleport your into this hinterland. The full-length novel weaves environmental writing with science fiction speculation. For example, it answers questions such as how would the island’s sea people interpret the Great Pacific garbage patch through their traditional cosmology? The descriptive narrative also reveals, in the backdrop, the lushness of the mountain range and the coastline, loosely, but evocatively, alluding to the geography of Hualien.

Zhang Ding, Nezha Defeats the Dragon King, 1979. This mural now sits in the hidden staff canteen at Terminal 1 of Beijing's Capital Airport, Photo Zian Chen
Zhang Ding, Nezha Defeats the Dragon King, 1979. This mural now sits in the hidden staff canteen at Terminal 1 of Beijing’s Capital Airport, Photo Zian Chen

If I were an art collector I would collect a mural. This goes back to the ritual I used to do when I was living in Beijing. If there’s ever a way to collect it, I’ll definitely choose to collect, without privatizing them, a series from the historical murals that still sit in a shabby bistro hidden in the furthermost corner of the Terminal 1 of Beijing Airport. The murals were commissioned right after the 1978 Open Door Policy in China. The government recruited the best artists from the communist official’s artist association. Out of the eight murals that were made, I discovered four pieces in different corners of the airport terminal. Among them, “Nezha Defeats the Dragon King” (1979) by Zhang Ding (born in 1917, in Liaoning, Guohua painter and cartoonist) is the one I like the most. 
The mural depicts a story from Chinese mythology about the warrior deity Nezha who defies its destiny. For its style, full of embellishments, this mural would have been criticized before 1979, when only very strict socialist realist style was allowed. Zhang has crafted his very particular Chinese modernist style from various sources, including from the Dunhuang ancient frescoes, in terms of composition and characters’ postures. He also aligns with other Third World modernist painters such as the illustrator Miguel Covarrubias who once came to Shanghai. Mexican muralism had a strong influence on the Chinese muralists in the ‘50s. The idea is, I always stop by before I take a plane in Terminal 1 or 2. I find it most rewarding to cope with the humdrum and banality of the airport by exposing myself to the tranquility of the mural. It hides in a corner where the aura of art and history would only beam on those rare visits.

Whenever I need to go back to the basics I tend to facilitate myself through brain yoga, something I’ve learnt from artist Valentina Desideri’s group workshop entitled Political Therapy in Amsterdam back in 2015. The workshop meant to facilitate the participants (paired in two) to develop their own glossaries to “talk about and do politics”, based on a method similar to a yoga class where instructions would guide you through self-reflection. Valentina modifies it by letting the participants go on verbalizing his/her feelings of their bodies. Later she would discuss these feelings, say, bubble in the body, would be a metaphor that connects to, for example, the financial bubble.
I actually never managed to fully restore the experience I had in that very session, in which, after stretching your body, you felt the brain streamline effortlessly while you remained really grounded.

Curator Zian Chen Courtesy Asian Art Forum 2019
Curator Zian Chen Courtesy Asian Art Forum 2019

The best way to know someone is maybe getting to know his/her family by joining them on a day trip that they are used to make? It’s like, you get to know someone from the back door of their mind. 

The best way to know an artist is to make sure you have great deal of time in conversation, in a near-state of quarantine together. Back in Beijing, I happened to live in the very same apartment building than artist Liu Chuang during a year, before he eventually left the city due to the frequent evacuations of artists’ studios. Initially, there was a kind of tacit agreement that the conversation may or may not end up anywhere. He would share his experiences in Shenzhen in the early 2000s, as a freelancer and artist. Once, he shared his experience reading the Chinese translation of Deleuze’s “The Fold”, where Deleuze offers a new interpretation of the Baroque and of the work of Leibniz. Suddenly during the conversation, he realized that what he experienced of Shenzhen as a city was an unexpected embodiment of The Fold, as this instant city had the lowest median age in China, below 30, and was growing exponentially: “Either it is the fold of the infinite, or the constant folds of finitude which curve the outside and constitute the inside.” 
Somehow we did manage to develop from the archeological and speculative accounts about the city of Shenzhen, several projects throughout 2018. We started from thinking Shenzhen as the brainchild of Chinese reform policies, which served as the window for the rest of China to accept the implementations of private capital and modern technology. The project attempted to capture and transvalue the technological optimism of contemporary China in various formats, spanning from a video essay, a group show, a critical essay, and a short fiction (mentioned there after). We tracked political and scientific propaganda from the beginning of China’s reform policies in the ‘80s, such as “time is money” and “science and technology are primary productive forces”, to historical works by artists who commented on the concepts of technology, such as Wu Shanzhuan’s legendary stream-of-consciousness novel and series of illustrations titled “Nature as a Taxi” (1985-1998)(downloadable here). We’ve also shown accelerationist philosopher Nick Land’s column in the Shanghai Star, the first English newspaper established in China after the reforms and opening up in 1992. The articles primarily talked about technological future and leftist philosophy in the early 2000s. The discourse and tone of the articles kind of served as precursor to the technological optimism in China.

I had perfect meals with friends during our dinner feasts, several nights in a raw, with the Delfina Foundation’s residents, I was there March 2-17. There were three or four days of in-between state, when our usual family lunch was canceled and we were just preparing to leave the city. Somehow, we ended up getting too much groceries that we couldn’t finish, although artist Amy Lam from art-duo Life of a Craphead had organized three consecutive nights of Chinese banquets. We all feasted on amazing Sichuan dishes that she learned from a cookbook she took along for her residency. I can tell another story when it comes to Delfina’s refrigerator. Thanks to it, I was introduced to former resident Turkish artist and filmmaker Sena Basoz, from the mouths of the people who, whenever they opened the refrigerator, and came across her kimchi making, commented on its progress. Here, even storage space became a site for conviviality and circulations of memories. 

Curator Zian Chen Photo by Chen Zhou 2019
Curator Zian Chen Photo by Chen Zhou 2019

The book that still haunts me, and constantly, is “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable” by Amitav Ghosh. He claims that a lack in imagining our complex ecosystem proves lack of imagination in modern literature. On the theme of climate change and literature, he didn’t write a novel coming from the climate change angle, but from a commentary of preexisting world literature. Ghosh looks into how an 11th Century Chinese poet documented the discovery of a new energy (coal mine), or the butterfly effect between the world’s largest recorded eruption of a volcano in 1815 (Mount Tambora, Indonesia) and Frankenstein, the world’s first sci-fi character that Mary Shelley became composing in 1816. He suggests that ecology always conditions literature, now and then.

What drives me forward the most about curating includes non strictly curatorial work. In the context of China, that I’m capable of commenting, my understanding is that curating is transforming from a mode I would call “native informant”, someone who introduces art, to that of “companion”, in which a curator is foremost a research companion. This would also allow a certain generation of curators, when they don’t curate, to still work on one form of research or another. Previously I co-authored with Marysia Lewandowska the script for her film Rehearsing the Museum (2018) about China’s museum boom. And with artist Liu Chuang, we’ve worked on a short fiction for Art Asia Pacific Magazine, speculating about the future of the city of Shenzhen and an imaginary gadget, a voice tagging video-to-audio conversion called ræntenna that takes over the technological industry.

If I wasn’t curating, I would be working on various novels collecting potential intersections between theory and feelings, as a form of artistic research in disguise of fiction.

Zian Chen

Independent Curator

Hualien, Taiwan


Zian Chen (Taiwan) is a writer and curator working on “critical science fictioning” – a hermeneutics on the discourse of technocracy and technology in East Asia. While these threads were developed during his time as a researcher at the Long March Project, Beijing, he has introduced this practice in a number of subsequent co-curated projects, namely the Long March Project: The Deficit Faction (Long March Space, Beijing, 2019), Planet Marx Reading Club (various locations in Beijing and Shanghai, 2019), and Long March Project: Building Code Violations III – Special Economic Zone (Long March Space, Beijing and Times Museum, Guangzhou, 2018).

Zian’s writing primarily take the form of the guidebooks to his curatorial projects, however he has also contributed fiction writing to Future Histories: Mark Dion and Arseny Zhilyaev (Mousse, 2016), The Two-Sided Lake: Scenarios, Storyboards and Sets from Liverpool Biennial (Liverpool University Press, 2016), and has published a pamphlet A FanThesis on Ray Brassier’s Prometheanism (Salt Projects, 2018). In 2015 he received the Contemporary Art Writing and Critical Thinking Award from Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco. (Biography courtesy Delfina Foundation)

Art critic and writer.

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