Bees in the Body Temple

Brought up in Beijing, China, Zhe Chen is photo-based artist currently living in Los Angeles. In the past four years, Zhe has created a series of projects focusing on body modification, human hair, identity confusion, post-traumatic stress disorder, and memory. Zheí»s winning project is a document of self-mortification among a community of disaffected Chinese. The difficult nature of her subject is made more complex by Chení»s lyrical approach, identifying the physical self-destruction of her subjects as an act of spiritual cleansing." That is how in some sixty words the Inge Morath Foundation and the Magnum Foundation have summarized the essence of Zhe Chení»s young master piece Bees in their introduction to the 2011 Award attributed to her.
Zhe started hurting herself seven years ago, although she said presenting her self-harm photographic diary as weekly assignment for her class was the beginning of a healing process, today she still cannot resist the temptation of relapse from time to time just to enjoy the thrill of seeing blood seeping out of the self-inflicted cut. As a way to better understand herself and to further her photographic art, Zhe has embarked on photographing people who share the similar suffering with her. From the simple act of tattooing oneí»s skin to the more serious acts of auto-mutilations and body modification, Zhe found those she calls í░beesí▒ by showing them first her own scars. Leonard Cohen wrote in Favorite Game: "Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh".
"Photographing my bruised body is the perfect way to evacuate the unspeakable suffering in a tangible form." said Zhe. Since Jesus Christí»s passion, fanatical religious followers have practiced self-harm and self-flagellation in their monastery cells and in public procession as a means to experience divinity. By marking stigmata on their bodies, which resembled the wounds of Christí»s crucified body, they intend to purge their imaginary or collective sins. For this body temple, they believe, is also home to the devil. At the very origin, do we not share one common experience of pain? Our belly button is here to testify to our coming to life through an injury. This universal scar of ours gives all its sense to Cohen's "word made flesh". This initial pain is perhaps the reason why the only goal we pursue in life is happiness. 
And when we cannot find happiness, Zhe shows us, we shall commit further sacrileges to our body temple by inflicting violence to our body.  Zhe's collective of bees are performers of a secret society that practice self mutilation: artists of cutting, of eating disorders, of body modification. They are modern day students of Marquis de Sade and of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In apparently quiet and well-balanced photographs, under the surface lies a tension that spells danger, violence, and threat, physically magnifying what Roland Barthes called "punctum". But it is the physical "sting" of these Bees that leads to our emotional disturbance. It is this pain that makes us realize how much we are physically and emotionally alive. What the innocent blue angel in her swimsuit is hiding is the detail that pierces the surface of apparent tranquility. Suffice not just to locate and identify the tell-tale scars on her skin, but why and how and who she is, who they are, anyway, all of them? Not content to hang around or accompanying them to the hospital, Zhe persuaded her subjects to pose in the nude by removing herself her clothes to reveal her scars first. This compassion helps explain the total self-abandon displayed by her subjects, in a way only offered to someone who is a member of the same club, a la Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki.
Zheí»s poetry and lyricism lie in her portraits, landscape, and still-life, with a treatment akin to an instinctive deep breath after you nearly drown. Her camera points down, shoots up, lying in bed, getting wet in the shower, blurry as the subject breathes out into the lens. Her composition recalls the creativity and freedom of experimentation which were the signature of Francesca Woodman the other tragic genius in photography. One can interpret Zhe's images according to one's sense and sensibility; but there is no rationale beside the esthetic quality, and beyond our fascination with the blue angelí»s awkward smile and the tiny marks on her forearms, left by an imaginary baby shark. 
Like a good movie, we come out of the screening of Bees as if we had taken a shower, feeling fresh and alive, ready to face up to whatever that may come.

Jean Loh
January 2011

Zhe Chen - Bees
4 color printing
88 pages