Wang Chen builds dark and satirical worlds that blur the line between realism and fakery
Incorporating queer symbology and genderless identities, Chen’s reality-kicking work incorporates a medley of techniques including costume design, drawing, installation and animation.
- Ayla Angelos
- 21 January 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Born and raised in Hohhot, the Inner Mongolia province of China, Wang Cheng first came to America in 2010 in pursuit of his BFA in painting from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). They graduated in 2014 and continued their studies, graduating with an NFA in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2018. Well-versed in the arts, Chen’s long been influenced by Chinese painting, “especially when thinking about looking at things that are more profound and express something beyond an image or an appearance,” they tell It’s Nice That. “I’m always more fascinated by work that makes me feel, rather than just looking at it.”
This attitude transfers directly into the type of work that Chen creates today. After their undergraduate studies at VCU, an interest in performance art blossomed – a sharp contrast to their educational background in traditional painting. Chen was deeply fond of this newly found medium, particularly for the fact that it ignited all of the senses. “It activates a variety of actions, such as seeing or hearing, or even smelling the art,” they say. This MFA in photography also gave Chen the tools and techniques to take this interest further, whereby they'd learned a broad range of software and equipment so that they could toy with the limits of what can be achieved through art.
As such, Chen is as a multimedia artist. Their portfolio is replete with digital video, performance, 3D game design, sculpture, drawing, costume design and costume fabrication. It’s a medley of sorts, where the physical barriers of reality are destroyed by the addition of technology. “By layering these different mediums into a single digital composition, I use satire, fiction and exaggeration to create all-consuming dreamscapes,” they tell us, grounding the work on building worlds suffused by this breathtaking collision of realism and imagination. Each and every piece they create seems embellished with a sense of surrealism, the kind of work that’s punchy and bold, busy and colourful. A place where strange and unearthly characters roam and dance, while unlikely objects and plants decorate the landscape.
Chen’s typical day-to-day consists of drawing, an essential part of his process that's strictly adhered to when finding inspiration. It informs everything that Chen makes, be it the character design, costumes, environments or video. When building, they create a scene or environment using Unity to augment the drawings. Then they start developing the characters’ costumes, which is done so in real life. “For me,” they say, “drawing, costume and video production are intertwined and develop simultaneously in my various projects.” All of which is achieved through software such as Premiere, After Effects and Logic.
Throughout Chen’s portfolio, you’ll find detailed scenes that are riddled with deeper context. Often, they’ll address topics such as gender, sexuality, power structure and politics, with special attention paid to the imbalances of such found among society. Scenes like playgrounds, landscapes and a “nightmarish park” are their own representation of the world, that which Chen describes as a “fun-house mirror” to reality. Resultantly, life is warped and disjointed through their eyes; the juxtaposing of such dark and fantastical scenes are there to serve as a playful response to societal norms, all the while “construing and escaping my vision of imbalanced powers in my world.”
The weaving of costume, fabrication, sculpture, drawing, animation and performance only adds to Chen’s magical depiction of reality. Chen views each part as a separate entity that, when combined, creates a unified and even-more powerful connotation of this imagination. This can be seen in their latest piece, The Sin Park, which is currently on view at Fotografiska in Stockholm. It’s marked by costume performance, they say, adding that they've mimicked the “dominant gestures” that arise from human desire and physical violence. “The combination of dense and highly saturated mise-en-scène with these gestures and displays of behaviour resolves in an allegory for power dynamics within sexual identity and heteronormative social constructs.” The outcome of such is the blurring of binaries between societal norms and traditions, where Chen's characters are displayed with genderless identities and intertwined with queer symbology. It’s a fantastical utopia that encourages its audience to become a participant in its absurd, and at times chaotic, narrative.
Above all, Chen views their work as a means of escapism – both for them as the artist, and for the viewer. Digital media has enabled us all to achieve our hopes and dreams without the restrictions of physical space, which in turn has seen endless work that pushes the boundaries of “digital life” to a great extent. But what makes Chen’s work so extraordinary is the use of mixed media, which they continue to build upon – as seen in their upcoming work at the year-long Roswell Artist in Residence Program in Roswell, New Mexico. This new work will involve hand-made costumes and drawings, and they’ll be working with clay and stop-motion animation. It’s sure to be an exciting turn for the artist and we’re looking forward to the results next year.
Wang Chen: Trailer from The Sin Park, single-channel video (looping), 4min, 2019. (Copyright © Wang Chen, 2019)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.