Objects For Mending: Chen Zhen and Leonilson
Level 4: Room 5, The International Council Gallery
Tate Modern: Display
Open every day
Leonilson (José Leonilson Bezerra Dias), 'The Penelope' 1993

Leonilson (José Leonilson Bezerra Dias)
The Penelope 1993
Embroidery on voile
displayed: 2220 x 830 mm, 0.5 kg
Presented anonymously 2001© The estate of Leonilson

View the main page for this artwork

These late works by Chen Zhen and Leonilson reflect the experience of chronic illness through fragile combinations of everyday objects.

Chinese artist Chen Zhen saw his work as a hybrid of elements from different cultures and fields of knowledge. He had a strong interest in healing, and intended his work to have a therapeutic and meditative aspect: he suffered for more than twenty years from a serious blood disease that ultimately claimed his life. Between 1997 and his death in 2000, he dedicated himself to the project of becoming a doctor, fusing traditional Chinese medicine and art-making into a creative and spiritual practice. In Cocon du Vide, the use of rosary beads has overt ritual connotations, and the hollow form recalls a figure bent in meditation or prayer. The work’s title, ‘empty cocoon’, suggests both a void and the potential for growth and transcendence from one state to another.

Brazilian Leonilson explored embroidery after discovering the work of Arthur Bispo do Rosário and American Shaker textiles. In 1991 his health started deteriorating due to HIV, forcing him to focus exclusively on sewing. The Penelope dates from 1993, the year of the artist’s death. The title refers to Homer’s Odyssey: Penelope, wife of Odysseus, was hounded by suitors who tried to convince her to remarry. Hoping that her husband would return, she refused to do so until she had finished weaving a shroud for her father-in-law, secretly undoing her work every night in order to delay this moment indefinitely. Penelope’s endless weaving conveys the sense of patience, suspension and hope of someone resisting in the face of a debilitating illness.

Chen Zhen was born in Shanghai in 1955. He lived and worked between Shanghai, New York and Paris. He died prematurely in Paris in 2000.

Leonilson (José Leonilson Bezerra Dias) was born in Fortaleza, in the north-east of Brazil,in 1957. He lived and worked in São Paolo, where he died in 1993.

Curated by Matthew Gale and Valentina Ravaglia.