Commiseration – the World and Art of Chen Yufei
According to Mencius, commiseration is the beginning of humanity, meaning our ability to sense the suffering of others urges us to act compassionately toward each other. Commiseration is an innate human instinct. When it is fostered, it puts us in the shoes of others. When it is ignored, we become selfish unsympathetic creatures. Judging from his artwork, Chen Yufei can be said to have a heightened sense of commiseration.
Born in 1962 in Hefei, Anhui, Chen Yufei attended university at the age of fifteen due to the special circumstances following the Cultural Revolution. Most of Chen’s formal education was filled with communist indoctrination. Perhaps during this time, Chen developed a special sensitivity toward the working class and the lives of everyday people, for after all he was taught to believe the proletariat was the foundation of Chinese society. However, such values were soon met with doubt during China’s economic reform and transformation of the 1980s.
In 1987 Chen Yufei left Hefei for Shenzhen, China’s first Special Economic Zone (SEZ). There Chen found employment under two foreign-invested art firms, but felt estranged by the corporate culture and quit both jobs before his contracts were up. During this time, Chen could only relate with members of the working class, most of whom, similar to him, came from inland areas in search of job opportunities created by the influx of foreign capital. He became deeply captivated and observant of their lives, in which he witnessed countless hardships and exploitations. Chen watched as men and women worked long hours in hazardous conditions, with little or no corporate benefit and minimal protection under the law. Yet Chen knew that they willingly did so because the pay was significantly higher than that outside of the SEZ. As the circumstances of what he saw began to sink in, Chen came to the haunting conclusion that such an environment was robbing his mind of all mental nourishment, and promptly left Shenzhen later that year.
Upon his return to Hefei, Chen Yufei redirected all of his energy towards art, in an effort to recollect his thoughts and recuperate his mind. Yet, Chen was unable to relieve himself of the memories and images of what he saw in Shenzhen. The cruel nature of the capitalist society came as a shock to him. The competitive environment brought on by the introduction of free market made him feel unprotected and even threatened. Never in his life has he experienced such an uneven distribution of wealth and power. Almost everything he saw seemed to contradict the values he was taught to believe in. Unable to cope with these realities directly, Chen’s only form of understanding was through his art.
The hardest thing for Chen’s mind to come to terms with was the extreme hardship of the workers, which consequentially became a prevalent theme throughout his art. In Shenzhen, Chen encountered countless workers who were mistreated and exploited, suffering from both physical occupational injury and emotional pain. In his 2012 painting Hurt, Chen depicts a man in an uneasy posture with a small wound across the left side of his chest. Here Chen expresses not only the physical discomfort of the man depicted, but also his inner mental anguish, as represented by the bleeding wound on top of his heart.
In Chen Yufei’s art, he often blurs the distinction between physical and mental distress, and draws a distorted connection between the two. In Going Home for Chinese New Year of 2010, Chen depicts a downcast man with luggages traversing through a snowstorm. The luggages and snow indicate the purpose of the man’s journey, the time of the year, and thus the subject matter, which is the Chunyun or Spring Festival Travel Season. As tens of thousands of migrant workers are attracted to work in major cities like Shenzhen, their return home for Chinese New Years has become the largest annual migration in human history and a major social problem in China, simply because there are not enough public transportation to provide for all the migrant workers. Although the man in Going Home for Chinese New Year is not shown with any significant signs of physical pain, his luggages are uncannily painted to appear as part of his naked body. This creates the effect that his luggages are all that he owns, in the sense that he has nothing but the skin on his back. Here Chen uses the improvised nature of man’s physical presence to suggest the similar improvised condition of the man’s mind. The distorted connection between physical and mental distress is further illustrated in Chen’s Life on the Wheelchair series. Chen’s depiction of the disabled reflects not only their physical disability, but also their mental pain, as well as the correlation between the two. In China’s swift economic transformation of 1980s, attention to details were often overlooked. Workers will often under-qualified or undertrained, and as a result risks of occupational injury was high among workers, and cases of injury-led disability or death were common. To make matters worse, workers were poorly protected by the law and received very little compensation for their injuries or losses. Thus in Chen’s art, he strongly stresses one’s emotional suffering in correspondence to their physical pain or disability.
Through his art, Chen Yufei is able to reflect on the social ills around him and the suffering of everyday people. In this way Chen can be said to have a heightened sense of commiseration. However, outside of his art, Chen feels inability to fully confront these social ills and the rapid changes around him. His feeling of being powerless or incapacitated can be felt by his chosen subject matter of the hurt or disabled. While Chen’s heightened sense of commiseration urges him to confront injustice, he is only able to most comfortably do so in his art. In other words, Chen Yufei’s art is his chosen tool of compassion.
Taipei, Summer 2013