Ever Terrific, contemporary artist Tianzhuo Chen takes us into a “trance”
June 2-4, Chinese Artistic Director Tianzhuo Chen staged his last show, Trance, at Hamburg’s Kampnagel, Germany’s largest independent venue for the performing arts. Over nine hours and six chapters, the durational performance installation lulled everyone – performers and audience members – into a trance.
The performance, which premiered at the M Woods Museum of Art in Beijing in 2019, could not be presented in Europe until three years later due to the Covid-19 pandemic. It is hoped that the team will perform the show again in Berlin in February 2023.
Since the global pandemic, the performing arts have taken on new layers of meaning. In Trancefor example, the very act of coming together for a live performance is cause for celebration and a unique collective experience.
The proper meaning of the work is linked to bardthe intermediate stage between death and rebirth in certain schools of Buddhism.
“I aim to form a shared state of consciousness in a space,” Chen told RADII.
Born in Beijing in 1985, Chen is known for his post-internet mythologies. His works can be seen as a testimony to both radical modernization and archaic relationality. In 2015, Chen, in constant search of community, gathered an entourage of artists and founded the label asian dope boys (ADB).
The night of June 2 is when we finally experience Trance for ourselves.
Memorable from the start, Trance requires entering a heat-filled psychocosm. The performers linger in the nebulous atmosphere and a guitarist suspended from a crane slowly pinches his instrument next to an inflatable heart from which a worm emerges.
The scene is inspired by a series of Japanese paintings which represent a decomposing female corpse. The visceral theme of bodily putrefaction reflects human impermanence, a fundamental tenet of Buddhism.
This introductory scene embodies a central feature of Chen’s artistic purpose: to alter the spirit of the popular, to position it alongside religious spirits, and to switch between the ideal and the material, the sacred and the profane.
It creates a new dynamic of encounters by the force of subversion affirmed in Trance. It recalls a general sense of collective process fueled by associative powers and intuition.
When we sit down with Chen in her backstage dress-up studio, the performers keep wandering. Chen asks the team to don flashy T-shirts designed by Bali-based artist Ican Harem, one of Trancemany highly qualified employees.
The performance domain sees the culmination of ADB’s experimental practices, which unify painting, sculpture, installation, video, music and fashion. They engage the scripted anarchy of Chen’s artistic approach with a deft affinity for transgression and endurance.
In a broader sense, the cyclical narrative of the performance oscillates between the mythological and the religious. Chen’s creatures inhabit a liminal state with undefined boundaries while signaling a deep understanding of relationship. They remain in constant transition between different physical and spiritual states, vibrating with heaven and hell through fluidly changing scenic patterns.
In addition to Buddhism, the dramaturgical process incorporates the psychoanalytical writings of CG Jung (especially in The red book), the surrealist René Daumal and K Allado-McDowell. A disembodied narrator informs the audience that the performers’ journey represents a search for something vague, an imaginary mountain that “situates the lower sky at its feet”.
A scene is a perfect example: By analogy with Daumal’s allegorical novel Analog mountperformer Omid Tabari, aka Shadow Licker, pushes a huge boulder through space.
Chen’s experiences and efforts to represent the realities of inner experience are grounded in the poetic cosmology of a self-created artistic “religion” called Adaha.
Adaha is the god, idol and superstar who appears in his works as a figure representing a global witness, a ‘all seeing eye.’ The Eye of Adaha is reminiscent of the Eye of Horus, the Egyptian symbol of the doorway to the soul, the embodiment of state power and divine benevolence that watches over human civilization.
“I would like to see each performance as something like a ceremony. So maybe in that way the mode of storytelling itself comes closer to how religions are constructed,” said Chen in a previous interview.
This time, Adaha’s eye appears on a gigantic T-shirt sculpture that hangs above the dance floor and continually cries throughout the show. The liquid drips into a small pond below, evoking the scenic surrealism of a fairytale park.
Chen also uses spiritual traditions to interpret capital-driven developments in contemporary Chinese society. Iconography such as religious totems, commercial logos, and pop culture icons convey a sense of endless incorporation, absorption, and ejection.
As the performers walk onto the main stage, they remove their streetwear hoodies while performing folk dances – a gesture of unlearning from their imposed socio-cultural conditions. Chen then invites the audience to enter a state of possession, to visit the different hells of the show and to witness an intermediate state of travel.
In a series of solos, performer Yiva Falk, sporting long fiery red tresses, strikes us as a stage presence inspired by Barong, Bali’s panther-like king of spirits.
Indonesian artist Siko Setyanto also presents an eye-catching performance that fuses classical ballet and Javanese dance.
Drawing inspiration from 12th-century Japanese paintings of the Buddhist underworld, also known as Jigoku-Zoshi, their solos strike me as haunting biographies of bodily reincarnation – or raw, bloody spiritual lessons to help the audience understand the Fishing.
One of TranceThe longer segments of take place on a circular grass floor with stage elements and projection screens to one side. An inflatable frog stands guard; the poisonous creature sits on the roof of a Southeast Asian bamboo hut – a symbiotic arena that blurs the relationship between the human, the non-human and the spiritual in a way that transcends the judgments of categorical values.
In the style of 19th century panoramas, the side screens depict Chen’s earlier works, namely some films recorded in Tibet. These feature Tibetan Cham rituals, which showcase dance as a skillful spiritual tool and a monastic practice employed since time immemorial.
As the evening progresses, the stage ritual setting dissolves into an immersive rave-like experience.
The cathartic finale has a passionate vibe and takes place in a club atmosphere. Strong vibrations spread through space. The bodies show their exhaustion in a shared desire to return, to dance and to inhabit a sphere of consciousness among all present at that moment in space.
Perhaps the concept of Trance can best be understood as a claim to artistic freedom, articulated on a cross-cultural and collective level, wrapped in the terminology of the archaic, the mystical and the magical. The attempt to give up what we imagine as ourselves is an unspoken invitation to experiment with various modes of ‘otherness’ in exchange for liberation.
This sensual, intimate and contemplative experience of performance leaves us with an afterglow that lasts for days.
All images courtesy of Kampnagel