Shen Yuan was born in 1959 in the People’s Republic of China, in the southern province of Fujian.
Having graduated from the School of Fine Art in Zhejiang, she began teaching at teacher training college of Fujian. The ten-year-period from 1979 to 1989 was a propitious one for artistic discovery. Shen Yuan began creating “installations” whose powerfully evocative sense of malaise not only had social ramifications, but moral ones as well. In early 1989, the “Exhibition of contemporary Chinese art” was inaugurated at Beijing’s National Gallery of Art, the first exhibition on such a scale. Shen Yuan was among the 184 avant-garde artists whose work was exhibited.
Following the repression of the democratic movement in June 1989 at Tiananmen Square, Shen Yuan decided to join her husband, Huang Yong Ping, in Paris. From that moment on, her artistic output was informed by her experience of exile and the difficulties of integration.
Since 1990, Shen Yuan is living in Paris. Her artistic work has led her on journeys all over the world and given her international recognition.
During the historic 1989 exhibition in Beijing, Shen Yuan exhibited a simple iron bed of the sort used by construction workers who need to spend the night on-site. A transparent plastic mattress placed on the bed was filled with water and swimming fish. The work was emblematic of the era of libertyunder- surveillance that China was experiencing at the time.
Four years after her exile began, she exhibited one of her most powerful works in Paris : “Perdre sa salive” [Losing one’s saliva] : it consisted of large tongues of ice installed in a cellar. As the ice slowly melted, the framework gradually revealed itself to be a set of knives brandished at the viewer. Shen Yuan admits to having suffered greatly from a language barrier following her arrival in France. The tongue, a limb at once weak, soft and gustative, which wears itself out through speaking and loses its saliva, can also act as a violent and aggressive weapon.
The installations of Shen Yuan conserve this subversive and denunciatory aspect, and yet they have a kitsch, playful, even mischievous side to them. The viewer enjoys himself just as much as he questions himself.
Should this be called contemporary Chinese art ? The nationalist tag threatens to reduce the universal significance of a work that is intended above all for our era, rather than for a specific country.
April 2008, excerpt of the press release of Le Degré Zéro de l’Espace exhibition, Kamel Mennour Gallery.