Images like life itself, Chen Tong’s encyclopaedia of life and his art projects

What if life was nothing but a flux of images? What if life could only be retained as such a flux of images? Chen Tong loves every facet of life. Chen Tong paints images. Chen Tong’s images capture life in every detail, fastidiously, abundantly, unceasingly, erotically. His paintings fascinate through the precision of expression and the abundance of detail; a moment gone by, a plot, unique, and now frozen in a typical gesture and setting in one of Chen Tong’s paintings.

Novels, films, stories, scenes of the life surrounding him are the fuel of Chen Tong’s artistic creation. The narrative is his interest. The artist lives in Guangzhou for nearly forty years now, and the typical Cantonese way of life further convinced him that the source of art is life. Yet, as he knows, it needs more than realism to capture life and make it enter the domain of art. “Reading and painting are apparently two different things;” states Chen Tong, “one is putting things inside, the other is taking things out. These are two completely opposite movements, but if we compare them to boxing, then reading is closing the fist while painting is punching. They are components of one movement; the aim is punching. The tighter you close the fist, the harder you punch. You might say the source of painting is life. Yet, if you do not conceive a set of concepts of how to deal with the subtle relation between art and life through reading, then life will not appear automatically in front of your eyes or, if you face too much of life, then you do not know how to choose.”

What are these concepts Chen Tong developed through reading? The artist is fascinated by the French Nouveau Roman and in particular by Alain Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre, to which he refers explaining these very concepts. Chen evokes two concepts defining the relation between art and life, one is anti-utilitarianism; the other is eroticism. Concerning Alain Robbe-Grillets’ films and novels he states: ” I have to say openly, eroticism belongs to art and nothing else. Therefore, the whip that brings at the same time pain and pleasure is a symbolic tool for art. If it were not for art’s sake, people would have no need of a whip.” And further: “(…) if we cannot avoid to use a figurative representation to approach one subject, then we have to be particularly careful to avoid to be in the service of reality. (…) Only eroticism, a game without development, because of its fundamental uselessness, can be regarded a concept.”

How are these concepts then translated into his paintings? Chen Tong’s “Canton Encyclopaedia” (2006) for example, shows scenes from everyday life in the city of Guangzhou. The vitality and bizarreness of daily life in the Southern metropolis are captured through a meticulousportrayal of every detail. None of the details seems preponderant. The same is true for the depicted figures: there are no protagonists;all figures represent facets of the subject of the painting, of the story told by the artist. Like in the Nouveau Roman Chen here uses some kind of fragmentation of the subject. Gestures and movements are represented as what Nathalie Sarraute called tropism, subtle movements, indefinable, but existential. Another notion that Chen frequently mentions is relevant here: the notion of process. Process is not to be understood in the sense of creative process, but in the sense of becoming; process as a flux of consciousness and a flux of existence.

Fragmentation and becoming are two concepts further linked to the person of the artist in a very essential way. As in his paintings, in which he rarely represents one single figure, Chen is many. He is artist, teacher at the Guangzhou Fine Arts Academy, publisher and initiator and founder of different art projects, most prominently of the Libreria Borges (since 1994), further the connected art institute, the L.B.I.C.A. (since 2007), and finally the Video Bureau (since 2012). Asked, which of these identities he prefers, he answers that he loves them all and that all are part of his identity as an artist. The aim of these institutions is to present artistic creation through the means of literature and to present literature through artistic procedures. To achieve this aim Chen Tong not only publishes translations of modern and contemporary French literature and philosophy, but also organizes monthly reading parties to enhance the discussion on important topics. Chen further promotesthe young local Cantonese art sceneby organizing exhibitions and talks. Cao Fei, Yang Yong, Duan Jianyu, Hu Xiangqian and many others started with exhibitions in Libreria Borges. His concern with the local art scene and culture is best expressed in the logo that he created for Libreria Borges in 2010: CANTONBON. CANTONBON stands for”Guangdong bang”, meaning “Cantonese gang” or if read in French “Canton is doing well”. But alsorenowned international artists were part of Chen’s exhibition program: next to Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jean-Philippe-Toussaint, he showed Adel Abdessemed and Dan Perjovschi. Finally, the Video Bureau with its two locations in Beijing and Guangzhou focuses on archival work in the field of contemporary video, starting with contemporary Chinese video, a field mainly forgotten by the former market boom.

Looking at the list of these projects we realize that in his choice Chen Tong again combines diverse domains, namely practice, theory and education, as well as different identities: that of an artist, a publisher and a teacher. It is important to bear in mind that all these institutions are private and financed by Chen. By injecting the outcome of the sale of his paintings into these institutions he creates a kind of closed economic circuit, and it is here that Chen Tong reveals his true identity, namely that of a cultural activist.

The discussion if the institutions founded by him can be considered a long-term art project is vain. They are part of the artist’s life, the intersection where art and reality meet, the juncture where reading turns into closing a fist and art into punching.