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A Personal History Interwoven by Fragments of Memory

- On Chen Yanyin’s Mother Series Author: Sun Zhenhua Interviewer: Wu Chenyun 2015

I. Jury members may not have insight into the stories behind the prize-winning works.

In 2008, Chen Yanyin’s “My Mother 1956, 1963, 1998” was awarded the “China Sculpture Grand Prize” from the First Chinese Pose - China Sculpture Exhibition.

The prize-winning pieces were three groups of busts featuring a pair young man and woman, a pair of middle-aged man and woman and an elderly woman respectively. They indicated three different periods of Chen’s mother: youth, middle-age years and later life.

I assume the decision to award to grand prize to this work was mainly based on the criteria to judge figurative sculpture. In an era when developments of sculpture are becoming increasingly diverse, how to retain the charisma of modelling and how can figurative sculpture still find a role to play in the context of contemporary art? Such symbolizes the vision and wish of many involved in the practice of sculpture.

However, the jury members might not be aware that the three pieces were part of a grand sculptural project Chen Yanyin intended to produce in memory of her mother. Neither might they be aware that these busts were based on real photos. While working on them, the artist didn’t put much thought into imbuing them with profound meaning. Neither did she see it as significant exploration or innovation of figurative sculpture. What she looked forward to was to truthfully revive certain memory captured by photograph and to reproduce the life stories of her mother through sculptures and paintings.

What might surprise the jury members further was that the three groups of busts actually contained a family secret. The two male figures were two different men. The man with her mother in 1956 was her childhood sweetheart. Despite their deep affection towards each other, they ended up breaking up. The photo taken when they decided to break up laid the foundation for this piece.

It was a sad story and yet quite common during that period: A boy and a girl knew each other since they were kids and grew up together. Though there was no official announcement, being each other’s childhood sweetheart, they took it as a tacit agreement that each was “the one” for the other. Upon graduation from high school, the boy was assigned to the Second Military Medical University  in Harbin due to his excellent performance at school and good family background. And for the sake of her promise to take care of his younger male cousin, the girl decided to quit school and work at a factory. However, such determination made the boy’s mother wary rather than touched. The girl’s family background, which was complex and not “progressive”, might affect her son’s future. As a result, she spared no effort to tear them apart. Love became hopeless. The girl compromised. She decided to marry a man, a worker, whom she met through matchmaking. That man was the male figure in “Mother 1963”. When the boy heard the news, he came all the way back to Shanghai to stop this marriage. Nonetheless, he failed to convince his mother. Before the girl got married, they took a picture together and made an agreement that they would spend the life living as brother and sister. The loving couple didn’t get to marry each other but they loved each other a life-long time in a Platonic way.

After all, love is for two people only. The marriage was doomed to be unhappy at the very beginning. “Mother 1963” captured a very short period of happiness in the marriage of Chen Yanyin’s parents. The birth of her younger brother was the reason for such happiness. But soon with the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the factory where her father worked at was moved to “Third-line” area (north west part of China) and hence her parents were separated for a long time. They never lived together as a family until her father’s retirement. Suspicion, doubt and indifference hung over the family until her father passed away and her mother therefore became single again. This was “Mother 1998”.

Certainly, her mother had her innocently happy time. At the 14th National Art Exhibition in 2014, Chen Yanyin’s group sculpture “1949 - New China’s First Generation of Young Pioneers” was awarded bronze medal. Like in the case of “My Mother 1956, 1963, 1998”, I believe the jury members didn’t have an idea why Chen Yanyin all of a sudden wanted to work on a group of Chinese young pioneers. The reason could still be traced back to her mother and that grand project in her mind.

In 1949, her mother studied at a Christian girls’ school. The group sculpture was based on a group photo featuring the classmates and teachers of her mother. The little kids were so lively and energetic to embrace the birth of New China. However, to each of them and each of their families, that year would mean the beginning of a series of profound and dramatic changes. To all of them featured in the photo, that year indicated a turning point in their destiny.

From the two prize-winning pieces, people could get some insight into the general features and methodology of Chen Yanyin’s sculpture-making. They also cast some light on her grand project as well as the secrets, both of the individual and of the family, behind the project.

When personal and private contents were displayed and spread in public space, what was the meaning of Chen’s somewhat peculiar project and her ongoing practice?

II. In comparison to the overwhelming era, these sculptures are nothing but people and things that would easily be neglected. But to individuals and their families, these are the unbearable “heaviness” of being.

Sculpture is an art form that is public-oriented in nature. It’s known for its expressive power to commemorate and to make record of public incidents. However, Chen Yanyin’s “Mother Series” was more about personal narrative and based on photos selected from family album.

Though the presentation of these works was completed in public space, the point of departure for the conception of these sculptural works was very personal. Collectively they formed a reflection of a family’s “everydayness” and reminiscence of the past. What lied beneath the surface was the pondering upon the unpredictable and yet inevitable destinies.

In these sculptures and paintings, mother undoubtedly played a central and most prominent role. It’s not strange at all that a sculptor chose to represent her mother. But Chen Yanyin managed to conceal her own visibility and to objectively reproduce history. She didn’t intentionally beautify her mother. Neither did she embellish or dramatize the life stories of her mother. What she intended to do was to truthfully represent her mother and to make an ordinary person’s life recorded and spread through sculpture and painting. With the passing of so many years, hopefully the aspiration and grief of ordinary people could still be imbued with a touching and yet poignant power and a sense of vivid humanity, and could still be sensed as the unbearable “heaviness” of being.

What the artist presented was a mother who was as ordinary but as lively as all mothers in the world. It was a mother with infectious power, strong emotions and enthusiastic pursuit. In our art production system, ordinary individual has remained for long invisible. Unless s/he performed some brilliant feasts or was made a hero(ine)/model/celebrity thanks to some sudden events, an ordinary person was usually deprived of the right to be included in art.

For long we’ve taken the separation between ordinary people and art for granted. We tend to look for meaning, for future, for directions, from within the “models”, but turn a blind eye to the trivialities that surround us everyday. To a family and its children, mother means the one who holds up the sky for them or even the whole world for them. As a matter of fact, we are shaped by “mother” rather than the “models”. In this regard, it would seem particularly weird that in the public discourse sphere and in art, only the “models” are visible. Mothers, especially the vast majority of ordinary mothers, often fall into oblivion within the “grand” narratives.

III. Refuse to forget. Stand up to the razor of time. Rediscover the meaning of sculpture/painting and readjust the relation between art and history within the construction of personal narrative and personal history.

When thinking about Chen Yanyin’s sculptures, a lot of questions would occur to us. What is sculpture? For sculptors, what does creativity/initiative mean? What’s the relation between sculpture and photography? What’s the relation between painting and photography?

“Abandonment” is the first and foremost element we perceive from Chen Yanyin’s work: abandonment of sculpture, and even of art. The sculptures and paintings were based on original photos and Chen Yanyin endeavored to reproduce the scenes from the past, or say, moments when such photos were shot. Photos were not necessarily a truthful representation of the reality, but they were certainly imbued with the historical information and brimming with atmosphere featuring a particular period of time.

To take photos rather than definitions of “sculpture” and “painting” in the traditional sense as criteria effectively broke the habitual perception of sculpture. In other words, the point of departure for Chen Yanyin was history rather than art, the representation of history rather than expression of art. While working on the project, Chen Yanyin was firstly a daughter and then an artist.

It was also at this point that the artist managed to imbue sculpture and painting with another layer of meaning. Thanks to the involvement of sculpture and painting, personal history was made possible to make its way into the public sphere.

Every family has lots of old photos; and behind those photos, there are lots of stories. Nevertheless, to those ordinary people, no matter how thrilling and unforgettable the moments and scenes captured in the photos mean to them, they are after all personal and meant to be circulated only within personal domain. The involvement of “art” makes it possible for the “personal” to be communicated and spread within a broader realm.

I believe that’s why Chen Yanyin has been working so hard for so long on the sculptures and paintings of the “Mother” series. By sublimating personal photos through “art”, the “personal” was therefore imbued with the potential to converse with the public. And more importantly, as long as the “personal” was included into the pedigree of art, it was then able to be passed down generation by generation like an epic. In this way, the old photos of mother was transformed into an epic about mother, and personal history would be commemorate in perpetuity.

Chen Yanyin’s “Mother Series” was motivated by a promise she made to her mother. It was brimming with a daughter’s reminiscence of her mother. It was a record of the life story of her mother that she didn’t want it to fall into oblivion due to the passing of time. And due to her identity as an artist, personal memory and personal history were inevitably interwoven with her artistic practice. That art became a channel for personal life to be integrated into historical narrative imbued Chen Yanyin’s artistic practice with new possibility.

During the process, Chen Yanyin was constantly faced with conflicts between and questions into “history” and “art”. On the one hand, she needed her identity and capacity as artist; and on the other hand, she would need to constantly leave such identity and capacity aside. For the sake of history, the human figures she sculpted were painted: black eyes and brows, red lips and black costumes, which were all for the sake of the reproduction of “history”. From the perspective of art history, there was stunning similarities between Chen’s approach and the that of earlier sculptures. Ancient sculptors also put an emphasis on “representation” and “outlining”. By adopting a strategy which emphasized more on history than art, Chen Yanyin, in a way, managed to liberate art. By “collaborating” and “conspiring” with history, an epic of personal narrative was hereby opened up.

Artistic creation became a channel for individual liberation. The happiness and sadness of ordinary people could be experienced within the grand history; and the feeble voice of the vast majority of the ordinary people could be heard within public discourse.

Chen Yanyin’s focus on sculpture featuring personal history imbued it with a kind of story-telling charisma which was different from the usually high-brow and detached image of sculpture. Art theories constantly tell us that sculpture is an art form that is pure, concise and not good at narrating. But as far as Chen Yanyin’s concerned, sculpture is about telling stories, the stories of history and of her mother. It doesn’t matter whether sculpture or painting is adopted. What matters is the mother. After all, sculpture is just a way of representation and narration.

The process for creating the “Mother” series was the process to face her mother again and to converse with her again. It was both a process for individual to reflect upon the history and for the artist to probe into and question herself.

The old photos, to the artist, contained her self-reflection and remorse. This was how Chen Yanyin described “1978: Mother and My Younger Sister and Brother”: “In 1977, I left home to study at Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts (which was located at Jiading District) . I had a liking for painting since I was a kid. At that time all I could think about was drawing and color. I was very inconsiderate. Only my younger sister and brother were home with my mother. How hard and helpless they three were!” Through the “Mother Series”, she would have to, once again, face the family ties and affection that she had long overlooked. The self salvation and liberation of the spirit were fulfilled through the self-reflection and self-accusation aroused during the process of re-confronting the history.

That’s the case for an individual. Then, how about others? A nation? A country?

All men are connected one way or another. One person’s fate is everyone’s fate. One’s uneasiness is everyone’s uneasiness. One’s grievance is everyone’s grievance. One’s grudge is everyone’s grudge...

A big picture of the era could be perceived through every ordinary man; and the grand history could be constructed by various micro-narratives. The happiness and sadness of ordinary people could be experienced within the grand history; and the feeble voice of the vast majority of the ordinary people could be heard within public discourse.

According to Georges Duby, French historian and co-editor of History of Private Life, “There is, I think, an urgent need to protect the essence of individuality from headlong technological progress. For unless we are careful, individual men and women may soon be reduced to little more than numbers in some immense and terrifying data bank.”

Who could say Chen Yanyin’s sculpture is merely personal?




(Dr. Sun Zhenhua is the first Dr. in sculpture history in China, his theory affected many artists. He is also the chief editor of magazine “Chinese Sculpture”, Vice president of China Sculpture Institute, President of Shenzhen Sculpture Institute)

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