Homeless children in Salvador de Bahia assembled these “dream homes” in collaboration with the artist—provoking a discrete commentary on their own foreignness within a city that overlooks their presence. Similarly, as a Chinese man in Brazil, Chen is concerned with his own “transexperience,” the difficulties of moving among cultures, within and across borders of visibility. With globalization directly affecting labor sources in cities throughout the world, Chen questions the increasing distance between one’s dreams and projected reality as part of the “eternal misunderstanding between East and West.” Assembling an imaginary city with this collection of houses, Chen’s project remarks on the divisive and inequitable aspects of the built environment.
Gallery label from 2019
Chen Zhen made these little houses out of candles and wooden chairs with help from homeless kids in Brazil. He asked them to make the kind of home they dreamed of living in. The artist used colors, shapes, and sizes inspired by the kids’ ideas. If you made a model of your imaginary home, what would it look like, and what materials would you use?
Gallery label from 2019, for kids
The final work Chen made before his death in 2000, Un Village sans frontières is an assembly of unique miniature houses made of candles and positioned on children’s chairs sourced from around the world. The artist drew from his experiences in Brazil mentoring impoverished children, who used candles to build models of their dream houses; here the inclusion of chairs and the works’ small size expand upon his keen interest in domestic spaces as a primary site of intimacy, security, and vulnerability. With the heat from an electric cautery, Chen melted the candles and bundled them into wall-like and roof-like structures that suggest, in their flammability and mutability, how concepts of home and community are subject to perpetual change.
Allusion via appealingly surprising juxtapositions of found materials was a hallmark of Chen’s installation- and sculpture-based practice. Raised in Shanghai in the 1960s and ’70s, he moved to Paris in 1986, led by his growing interest in traditional Chinese philosophy and Western modern art (then banned in China). Paris served as a launching pad for the restlessly curious artist’s constant travels and his exploration of “transexperience,” a word he coined to reflect his own life and work as it cut across national, regional, and ethnic boundaries. This work, whose French title means “a village without boundaries,” envisions a universal and borderless community in which the itinerant viewer is empowered to move from one place to another simply by changing seats.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)