Chen Zhen

Cocon du Vide


Chen Zhen 1955–2000
Wooden abacus beads, rosary beads, wooden chair, steel and paint
Object: 2030 × 1060 × 1550 mm
Presented by Tate International Council 2009


Made by the Chinese-born artist Chen Zhen, Cocon du Vide 2000 is a biomorphic sculpture resembling a large curved chrysalis resting on an ornately carved Chinese lacquered chair. The chrysalis form is made from thousands of wooden Chinese abacus and Buddhist rosary beads that have been threaded onto a steel framework of both vertical and horizontal supports. The beads are predominantly pale brown in colour, but darker ones have been interspersed throughout, and these, along with the deep colour of the chair’s lacquer, accentuate the dark hue of the rusted metal rods that form the simple crossbar composition of the work. At the top of the sculpture, the ends of these thin rods have been pulled together and jut out of the upper part of the form in an uneven projection.

Cocon du Vide belongs to a series of sculptures made by Chen between 1999 and 2000, when the artist was living and working between studios in Shanghai, New York and Paris. It is constructed in two metal halves, with both parts welded and bolted together along a central steel axis and the whole form attached to the seat of the chair with further bolts. Many of the works in the series share the title Cocon du Vide, which translates from French to English as ‘empty cocoon’, and also feature a large chrysalis-like form resting on a chair. As the curators Matthew Gale and Valentina Ravaglia have observed, the title of these works ‘suggests both a void and the potential for growth and transcendence from one state to another, reflecting the artist’s interest in meditation and healing processes’ (Matthew Gale and Valentina Ravaglia, ‘Chen Zhen and Zhang Enli’, room guide, Room 5, Level 4: Energy and Process, Tate Modern, London 2013,, accessed 13 August 2015).

The title of the work is also a reference to the cocoons in which silkworms are harvested for silk production, a craft historically associated with the artist’s country of origin. Before leaving Shanghai for Paris in 1986, Chen studied and subsequently taught at the Shanghai Fine Arts and Crafts School, where he encountered many traditional Chinese craft techniques, such as threading and weaving, that he would later incorporate into works such as Cocon du Vide. In 1998 Chen made direct reference to the importance of the cocoon form both to his artwork and to the history of Chinese culture more generally, stating that:

One should learn to break out of one’s own cocoon and be courageous enough to break away from one’s self and to abandon one’s own cultural context. The Chinese proverb ‘the soul has left its shelter’ in fact symbolizes the critical state in which one’s creative capacity has reached the most active zenith.
(Quoted in Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea 2003, p.83.)

Connected to this notion of moving beyond one’s immediate cultural environment is Chen’s term ‘Transexperience’, which he coined in 1998 while living between New York, Paris and Shanghai in order to describe what curator Hou Hanru has defined as ‘the dynamic and dialectical process that occurs when an individual is displaced between cultures, societies and languages’ (Hanru, ‘“Transexperience” in the art of Chen Zhen’, in Serpentine Gallery 2001, p.15.) According to Hanru, ‘Transexperience suggested to [Chen] both the fusion with these other influences and, simultaneously, the ability to transcend their impact’ (Hanru 2001, p.15). As a result of his combining creative techniques and influences from the divergent countries and cultures in which he resided in works such as Cocon du Vide, Chen has been described by art historians as a ‘transcultural artist’, as was explored in the exhibition Chen Zhen’s Transcultural Art in Paris Retrospective at Galerie Perrotin, Paris, in 2014.

Further reading
Chen Zhen, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2001.
Chen Zhen, exhibition catalogue, Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea, Milan 2003.
Chen Zhen: A Tribute, exhibition catalogue, P.S.1. Contemporary Art Center, New York 2003.

Judith Wilkinson
August 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

Chen Zhen lived and worked mainly between Shanghai, New York and Paris, and his work reflects this constant shifting between cultures, which the artist called ‘transexperience’. In his sculptures and installations he typically assembled obsolete everyday objects, particularly old furniture and candles, sometimes in combination with fragments of technology and consumer goods. This work belongs to a series of sculptures made between 1999 and 2000, sharing the title Cocon du Vide (‘empty cocoon’) and featuring chrysalis-like forms made from Chinese abacus and Buddhist rosary beads threaded onto metal frames.

Gallery label, June 2013

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