‘ It’s very diaristic, it’s a very secretive thing.’
Born 1989 Beijing. Lives and works in Beijing.
As soon as Chen Zhe graduated from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, in 2011, her work was immediately acclaimed. She was the recipient of the Three Shadows Award, Lianzhou Foto Festival Photographer of the Year Award, and the Inge Morath Award from the Magnum Foundation (all 2011), was nominated for the Prix Pictet in 2012, and presented with the Xitek New Talent Award in 2016. She is featured in the documentary films Chinese Viewfinder (2013) and China Through the Lens of Youth (2014). Her controversial series of works The Bearable and Beespresent an unflinching gaze on a disturbing subculture, documenting the practices of those, including the artist herself, who seek a cathartic release from psychic pain through harming themselves. Chen who wants her work to be ‘both beautiful and difficult to look at’. The Bearable examines Chen’s own self-harm, which began when she was in high school: when she began cutting her own flesh and pulling out her hair she always photographed her wounds. She found the images ‘sublime’ but kept them hidden in a file on her computer. Returning to China after study in the USA she sought others who shared her experiences, visiting 6 different Chinese cities to meet those who replied to an invitation to take part in an art project. She called them ‘bees’, in reference to lines from the Roman poet Virgil: …if hurt, they breathe / Venom into their bite, cleave to the veins / And let the sting lie buried, and leave their lives /Behind them, in the wound. To Chen, the poignancy of the dying bee symbolised the dilemma facing those who seek release from psychological distress in self-inflicted physical pain. Bees is thus an act of healing and a means of forging meaningful connections. At the end of the project Chen Zhe experienced an epiphany and she threw away the blade she had kept as a secret talisman for years.