IN CENTRAL WEST SHANGHAI, sculptor Chen Xi sits at his desk, adding ears made of fish bones and noses and eyes formed from broken jewellery, to mammal skulls. His creations are intricate, delicate and completely unusual.
Chen has been sculpting since his university days and has recently returned to this creative style since departing the advertising industry.
Chen worked for an agency for six years before starting his own. He lasted three years before his distaste with the industry became too much and he returned to what he loves.
He shared his thoughts on the downfall of the Shanghai advertising industry. “You’re not selling an idea or a creative anymore; you’re essentially bribing the client with as many expensive dinners, drinks and girls as you can. They didn’t care about the work anymore. I had to get out.”
Chen likes working with his hands and everything on display in his studio hails from “things from his head”.
Quiet, but still opinionated, Chen divulges his thoughts on creatives in China. He says there are creatives aplenty to produce quality pieces of unique art, but the Chinese lack the confidence to carry out their creative ideas.
He said Chinese people listen to Westerners instead and pay them big money to do the thinking. He said the Chinese then become the assistants and helpers to the Westerners. The system he describes frustrates Chen.
At one point, Chen asks Slanted Mansion if she is a fashion photographer. He is pleased Slanted’s answer is no. Chen doesn’t like the fashion industry anymore. He used to though, and still has a row of men’s magazines lining the windowsill.
Years ago Chen started a skating and street culture magazine. Again, it was the Western magazines of similar style that people wanted in China and he couldn’t compete. A year after starting the magazine, it was closed.
When Slanted Mansion met with Chen, his friend Florence assisted with translation. His English was very good, but some words were lost in translation. Chen tells Slanted Mansion it isn’t his English that is the problem, but words in general. Since leaving advertising, where he had to talk all the time, to everyone about everything, he no longer has words.
What happened in those final moments in his Shanghai advertising career, are not a concern now. Chen happily sits sculpting his ‘steampunk’ inspired creatures with great care, craftmanship and an unrelenting attention to detail.
Some of his pieces are not just for viewing, but are also very practical. Several of his works are light pieces, crafted from bones, custom made medical equipment and other materials. Chen also makes jewellery.
When at Chen’s apartment, another delivery of skulls and bones arrives, Chen tells Slanted Mansion they came from “an animal found in China; something like a wolf, but not quite.” The translation is lost.
Chen gets most of his bones from taobao.com – a local (bigger) version of ebay used widely in China. “You can find everything on here.”
Chen has a skull stored in a glass cabinet. His friend Florence tells me it is a leopard skull, something that is also illegal to buy and sell in China. It’s in the cabinet for safe-keeping. A friend had given it to him, although Slanted Mansion cannot figure out how his friend actually got it…
Florence tells me the work Chen produces is unusual for China. She says a lot of the younger artists produce copies of work and there are fewer original artists in China and no one who produces anything like that of Chen.
Chen is currently working towards an exhibition in Beijing and later hopes to exhibit in Europe. See more of his work on sealchen.com