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Interview: Tianzhuo Chen about An Atypical Brain Damage


Chinese visual artist Tianzhuo Chen is a force to be reckoned with. Chen (33) forges an intimate connection between his works, combining quotations from global club culture, corporate identities, folklore, and social media to create a snapshot between kitsch and apocalypse. Chen’s An Atypical Brain Damage is no exception. Prepare to be completely immersed in a clash between Asia and Europe. As you walk through an upbeat pop spectacle you will encounter Chen’s atypical characters, who can all be seen as “brain damages”. This is the first time Tianzhuo Chen is coming to The Netherlands, presenting this work alongside the video installation PARADI$E BITCH | PICNIC. It is hard to believe this young artist has only been working in the performing arts for two years…

“People tend to think I come from a visual art background, but I didn’t start making my performances until two years ago. I think the reason I started was just to try something new. In the beginning the work was more contemporary performance art, which then accidentally crashed into the theatre world. It was quite a random thing: I got an email from a theatre festival saying they wanted to present my performance during their upcoming edition. So that’s how I started to make my more ‘theatrical’ pieces.”

Your works are somehow connected to each other. How does An Atypical Brain Damage connect to your previous works?

“The bigger structure of An Atypical Brain Damage is a murder story in which a woman kills her husband and the husband keeps coming back as a ghost. This is a story I also used in an earlier work, Ishvara, and I used it again because I wanted to link the new piece to my older work. In Ishvara a girl tells the story of the Indian demon Kali. When the goddess kills the demon, a drop of his blood hits the ground, and out of this drop of blood a new demon arises. So in that sense the husband in An Atypical Brain Damage is the demon who keeps coming back. The wife is played by two performers, one representing the manic side of the wife and the other the typical housewife-side. Two Vietnamese twin brothers perform the husband, either living or dead. It doesn’t really matter. Many of my previous works focused on religious topics. This time I wanted to make something different, something that would be more connected to my roots. The audience will experience a folklore story that incorporates both Chinese and Vietnamese aspects. The performance tells a story set in the Chinese countryside, and also the story of the life of the twin Vietnamese brothers. What the twins are doing in the performance is basically their real life story.”

What is the story behind these Vietnamese twin brothers?

“They come from a small city in the countryside of Vietnam. Working with them was really interesting. Vietnam and China are relatively close to each other, but the twins have led their own particular small-town lives. We worked with their personal story and let them be themselves in the performance. It was quite confusing but also fun. Working with performers who are not used to performing or not used to the theatre world is fun for me, because I’m exactly the same. I don’t really have a theatre background so I’m trying to learn things, while also saying “I don’t give a f*ck” about some of the rules. I quite like imperfection. It’s OK for the actors to make mistakes on stage.”

I expect you get many different responses to your work because of this rawness. It can also be quite graphic and overwhelming, especially for the average Dutch theatre visitor. What kind of response would you hope for from your audience?

“In every city I perform I get different reactions. Some people hate it, while others love it. This has been true for each of my previous performances, and I think I kind of like it! Whatever the response, it’s always a very strong reaction. And to me that’s better than people thinking my piece is boring or doesn’t make them feel anything. The music and techno in the performance are often perceived as the best part, especially by Europeans. And then there is another part with Vietnamese karaoke that nobody understands. The performance shows a mixture of different cultures and how they work together.”

Why do you specifically focus on a clash between Asia and Europe in this work?

“I’m a Chinese artist, but I have always shown my work in Europe. People always project their own image of China, or their fantasy of it, onto my work. They have a typically Western, stereotypical view, always asking me questions about the political situation in China or what I think about Ai Weiwei or whatever. So I like to play with that stereotype in my work.

My generation of Chinese artists is very different from earlier generations. Chinese artists from the past liked to project a typical Chinese image to Western audiences. But our generation were all born in the age of the internet or post internet. We all watch Instagram and YouTube, so we don’t really view ourselves as Chinese artists anymore. We don’t use Chinese references in the way older generations did. Instead of showing them a big Tiananmen image to reference the Chinese cultural revolution, we show them the complacency of the Western image or fantasy of it. That is one thing I try to claim in this work.”

You are one of the most promising young artists in China. What do you think is your biggest superpower?

“I’m not sure. I think the fact that I keep trying new things, breaking boundaries between China and the West, visual arts and music, and between performance and theatre. I think innovation is the thing that makes me different. I keep trying and pushing myself to be more open to everything. I’m just trying to combine all the things I like. Variation is really important to me, to keep myself busy. I don’t want to get stuck in one place, I need to be able to move my *ss around. It’s really easy for an artist to get stuck somewhere.”

Speaking of variation, you have many other activities on your plate. A record label, clothing line Asiandopeboys, sculptures and so on. Where do you find so much inspiration to keep producing?

“There are so many things that inspire me. I like a party, so I like to use this bar-club-zombie-techno feeling in my work, like I drugged it… I’m also inspired by Monday mornings, musicians I work with, raw music videos and things from contemporary art.”

You also make video installations. Can you tell us something about the PARADI$E BITCH | PICNIC installation, which will be shown during SPRING 2018?

“The installation consists of two videos. PARADI$E BITCH is basically a rap battle between two fictional rappers on two screens. One of them is on the left screen and the other on the right. Their battle is about social problems in China, but presented as a typical American gangster-rap video. The other video, PICNIC, was the first I ever made. It’s more trippy and weird, you’ll have to come and see it for yourself.”

As a Jack-of-all-trades, what is your biggest dream to achieve for the future?

“I really don’t know, I don’t plan my career or life clearly. I go wherever life leads me.”

• An Atypical Brain Damage can be seen in the Stadsschouwburg on Friday 25 and Saturday 26 May. Click here for tickets.

• From 22 – 26 May PARADI$E BITCH | PICNIC can be seen continuously in the Hekmanfoyer in the  Stadsschouwburg (admission free). 

Photo: Shen Peiyu


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