Fascinated with the human body and medicine, the artist Chen Zhen once mused: “When one’s body becomes a kind of laboratory, a source of imagination and experiment, the process of life transforms itself into art.”
This interest can be attributed partly to Chen’s family background—both his parents were distinguished doctors—and partly to the hemolytic anemia he began suffering from at the age of twenty-five. Transforming an incurable disease into artistic creativity, Chen experimented with a variety of materials—colored candles and glass in particular—to articulate his own idiosyncratic understanding of the body, which combined Chinese and Western scientific knowledge.
The work Crystal Landscape of Inner Body evokes the centuries-old Daoist concept of “Internal Alchemy,” a practice of visualizing the human body as a form of healing. In order to initiate a process of purification in the body, one meditates on each internal organ and body part. In Crystal Landscape, Chen renders his own internal organs in glistening clear crystal. This purity contradicts the body’s own contamination. It is one of the last pieces Chen created before his untimely death from cancer in 2000.
“My daily battle against illness has given me such energy that the whole experience has been transformed into a positive creative force. Treatment, cure, therapy, purification, and meditation: these daily preoccupations have become the universe in which art and life feed on each other.”—Chen Zhen 1
Chen Zhen, quoted in France Morin, “In China There Is a Proverb that Says . . . ,” in Chen Zhen: A Tribute (New York: P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, 2003), 19.
Crystal, glass, and metal
Table: 37 3/8 x 27 5/8 x 74 13/16 in. (95 x 70 x 190 cm)
Private collection, Paris, courtesy of Galleria Continua, San Gimignano/Beijing/Les Moulins/Habana