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February 20, 2011

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Perfume bottle art

Huge, human-size cut-outs of familiar perfume bottles greet visitors to the solo exhibition of photographer and installation artist Mu Chen's works called "Forever & Ever."

The perfume bottle installation is called "Pride and Prejudice," a clear commentary about vanity and consumption. To accompany the works, around 13,000 fragrance names, alphabetized, are read emotionally in both French and Chinese in a sound work titled "Poetry."

The show at the Shanghai Gallery of Art on the Bund is the first solo in Shanghai for Mu, whose works are exhibited around the world. It runs through March 7.

In 1995, the Liaoning-born Mu graduated from journalism school but instead of being a press photographer, she chose to become a freelancer and an artist. Her works are exhibited in the Center Georges Pompidou in Paris, Tokyo's Mori Art Museum, the Santiago Art Museum and Shanghai Art Museum.

Q: The installation "Pride and Prejudice" features large, brightly colored cut-outs of familiar perfume bottles. What are you saying?

A: This is inspired by the many perfumes in my home, mostly gifts from friends. These bottles made me to think about today's consumption behavior. Perfume, once only used by aristocrats, is now popular among ordinary people. It is easily available in department stores and duty-free shops at airports. It's among the most suitable gifts from lovers and friends.

Each fragrance has its own name, implying a certain taste or positioning. When people buy a fragrance, they tend to choose the one that makes them sexier, more feminine or elegant. They are trying to find their own styles by wearing certain fragrances. Yet we forget that the so-called charm of those perfumes is actually defined by their makers. In this way, people are gradually losing themselves in the pursuit of their own characteristics.

Q: Please discuss your installation "Color" featuring famous logos.

A: This represents luxury brand logos that have become household words. I used an ancient construction method called compacting. In this process soil is placed in molds and casts and repeatedly rammed in a certain rhythm to remove the air in the soil and compact it into desired shapes. This is how the Great Wall was made.

I used China's "five colored soils," collected from different places around the country. The term commonly refers to the whole Chinese land, including green soil from the east, red soil from the south, white sand from the west, black soil from the north and yellow soil from the Loess Plateau in the northwest. I mixed them up and rammed them into logos such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, McDonald's and Apple, and painted them in candy colors.

The average size of the molds is about 2 meters long and 0.8 meters high. The longest logo of Nike is 4 meters long.

Seen from the side, these logos are a huge contrast of and dialogue between the present and the past. The painted surface represents today's world, bizarre and motley, consisting of various logos that are part of brand consumption today. The rammed-earth body is like our history and tradition, which gradually accumulated, layer by layer, make us what we are.

Q: Where does the rammed earth idea come from?

A: I was moved by the power of the earth when I visited a fossil museum in Gansu Province last year. Some parts of our history are well kept, thanks to the earth. You can feel this power when watching documentaries of archeological excavations. You can see history in the different layers of soil, each layer marking a particular period. I realized our history isn't just words or stories in some massive books, collecting dust somewhere. It is right here, lying quietly under our feet, never fading away.

Take the ancient city of Kaifeng in Henan Province. There are six ancient Kaifeng cities of different dynasties buried under today's Kaifeng, the earliest dating back to the Wei Dynasty (AD 220-265) of Three Kingdoms period. Isn't it amazing? So I borrowed it and applied it to my works.

Q: You majored in news photography. How did you decide to become an artist?

A: I am an idealist and self-expression is my first priority. When I hold a camera, I want freedom to create, which news photography doesn't allow. You have to consider many things when taking news photos, except your own feelings. I don't think I fit the job. Yes, there were doubts and pressures from my family when they first learned I wanted to be a freelancer, an artist. And I sometimes I am bothered by prospects and living pressures. But I don't care that much. What matters is I get to do what I want to do.

Q: Do you have any personal collections?

A: Yes, I have collect more than 40 silver lock pendants. I like the patterns, with primitive simplicity and aesthetics. I used to go to antique markets a lot for treasure hunts.


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