5 June - 31 July 2015
5 June - 31 July 2015
In a scene more familiar to an abattoir, or perhaps the mad machinations of a brilliantly unhinged scientist, such as Vincent Price’s madcap inventor in Edward Scissorhands, various cogs and wheels gyrate. They move with calm, clockwork-like precision amongst burnished steel and neon lights to create a surreal assembly line of morbid creation. Tanned hides, inflated like balloons, move back and forth on mechanical axes, or hang, lifeless, as if they were part of a bizarre, deconstructed fairground merry go round. Above, a red neon sign, like a burn branded into the wall, spells out Jack the Ripper’s infamous opening line – ‘Dear Boss’. Elsewhere, a pair of women’s high heels hangs from the ceiling, pink, soft and rubbery like flesh, sprouting wiry black hair. All is surrounded by the jarring soundtrack of the installation itself – a mixture of echoing, jolting metallic sounds, uncomfortable in its clinical and sterile nature, yet seductive in its omnipresence. In Dear Boss, running from 5 June – 31 July 2015 at CABIN gallery, Zhu Tian examines the many ways in which the status quo can be deconstructed and probed and society questioned, ultimately, in the search for freedom.
What binds together the diverse media and projects of Zhu is a bid to push the viewer out of their comfort zone. Whether through audio interventions, prints, installations or sculpture, she makes us question our blind acceptance of the social norms and cultural conventions that we so often conform to. In the titular piece, Dear Boss, we are presented with inflated sheep skins in various stages of movement – some are set on regular paths, moving mechanically, while others more sparingly, and others still not moving at all. Like the animals in a carousel, they are moving, yet never gaining ground, hamsters running in their wheels for infinity. The sheep skins themselves have their traditional use utterly subverted, for they are originally used in Western China as buoyancy floats for traditional rafts.
In their context as part of Dear Boss, they mark the futility of our personal trajectories. While the title itself comes from Jack the Ripper’s first letter to the head of police, the work itself does not draw on the gruesome history of London’s most notorious serial killer. “[Jack the Ripper] stated that he had been following the police’s announcements and progress on the murder case and commented on how they thought themselves to be very clever,” she explains. “Yet he also outlined the plan for his next murder and then implemented it. The letter is then very provocative and ironic. However, the murders themselves are not relevant to my work. What the title is really referencing is a provocative attitude towards the institutional, towards the system, towards some unavoidable thing that is bigger than you.” As a provocation, Dear Boss is direct – it asks us where we are going, and, more importantly, for what. The idea came to Zhu after a trip to Amsterdam. Upon watching the masses of people walking past her, she had an epiphany. “I saw dazed, drugged people walking by, young and old, male and female, moving like soulless zombies in the bright sunshine,” she explains. “It was then that I suddenly had this picture of a prison of some sort, where everyone was trapped and could never escape. Out of despair of their inviolable destiny, they indulged themselves in a plastic joy. That was a vision of life for me. It was then that the theme of these sheep skins on fixed, impotent machines came to my mind.”
Similarly, Babe, a pair of rubber heels covered in wiry, human-like hair, is equally disconcerting in its efforts to displace our notions of what is normal and our preconceptions of beauty standards and femininity. The shoes are fleshy, visceral like the sheep skins, and make us all too aware of our own bodies and skins. Indeed, skin and the body appear frequently in Zhu’s practice, whether through her own use of it in performance or photography, or through installations such as Dear Boss. “Skin, as the surface and appearance of our body, represents the physical form of us,” she explains. “It weighs us down and anchors us to the surface of the earth. It restrains us. Yet, we rely on it - we can not escape from our physicality. This contradiction makes me sick. Despite this insuppressible hostility, I’m intensely attracted to and obsessed with skin, in the same way as we can’t help being drawn to something we are extremely scared of.” The skin, of both the installation and the shoes is so nearly human that it has a morbid, cannibalistic quality – it is all too human for us to palate.
The soundtrack of Dear Boss also plays an integral role to the exhibition as a whole, bringing all the pieces together (the gallery is also displaying a series of monochrome screen-printed vinyls from Zhu’s 2014 project Scan, in which she scanned four body parts which were sold in an online auction). It also lends the installation a cinematic quality: “I’m very aware of the power of sound, and how its potential has scarcely been touched in contemporary art, certainly when compared with the visuals,” she explains. “Having said that, I don’t want to use sound in my work just for the sake of it – in Dear Boss, the sound of scratching metal was intentional, to contrast to the appealing, funfair-like visual aspect. The sound is essential to Dear Boss: It reveals the underlying cynicism of the work.”
For Zhu, each individual work and installation forms part of a greater oeuvre that seeks to unbalance the balance. She probes our notions of what is normal, and our acceptance of certain social standards and expectations. Amongst the jarring, jilting sounds of machinery, and the fleshy, hairiness of women’s shoes, or inflated emptiness of tanned hides, she asks us: why are you not questioning what happens around you? “My work always tries to rupture people’s routines, habits, behaviours and ways of thinking,” she says. “I would like to make them think and feel about things they have stopped paying attention to because they have grown so accustomed to them.”