Jennis Li Cheng Tien’s intentionally Accidental Masterpiece(s)

Text by Emilie Trice, Independent Curator

“The beautiful is a promise of happiness”

- Stendhal

In his 2005 book, The Accidental Masterpiece (on the art of life and vice versa), New York Times chief art critic Michael Kimmelman writes, “…we can, I think, still learn something…about how art transforms lives. We can learn, among other things, that a life lived with art in mind might itself be a kind of art. “ (pg.3)  Jennis Li Cheng Tien, (born 1983, Taiwan), personifies this sentiment. By living a life acutely conscious of the potential for artistic providence, even in the monochrome banality of the everyday, Jennis offers those around her a direct conduit to the personal wonder and collective joy that art can, and often does, create.

Perhaps the most fanciful of her public action artworks was the interactive installation zu.sammeln to.gather, which took place in a rural German town Biedenkopf from July 7th-August 11th 2010. Jennis invited local residents to a former brewery whose hollow shell she would later transform into a kind of sacred alter. Comprised of hair, metal, wool and lights, the piece, which the artist terms a “site-specific participatory installation” reorganized the chaos of individual locks of human hair, given by more than 50 of Biedenkopf’s local townspeople, into a conical form that Jennis later photographed in transcendent black and white.

In the resulting images, perfectly taught lines of hair, spun with wool by the artist herself, radiate from a hole in the ceiling, creating a play of shadows that is both haunting and heavenly. Fastened to the floor around a much, much larger circular opening, the contrast of delicate precision with the decay and tile geometry of this post-industrial backdrop forms a compelling and beautiful dichotomy that, in its balance, feels like a sacred space.

This work’s title also plays with unified binaries, in its literal translation and play on words. The German word for “together” is zusammen. The word sammeln means “to collect.” In her translation of this word combination, Jennis draws our attention to the inherent collective action that created this work: a combination of individual contributions and the artist’s conscientious craftsmanship that wove them together to create a sublime and inspired whole.

This practice is also displayed in Jennis’s piece Drive-In Flohmarkt , which took place twice (on December 5th, 2009 and May 5th, 2010), again in the town of Biedenkopf. Jennis had local participants park their cars facing outward around a large monument and tree in a circular parking lot. The lines delineating parking spaces recall the lines in a sundial or clock, another reference to radiance, both literal and figurative. The cars’ owners brought personal items they wished to sell or trade and arranged them in their respective trunks with the doors open, forming, yet again, a kind of circular alter to each contributor’s individuality.

Jennis’ work is highly attuned to spatial balance. In her constructions once feels a peaceful flow and exchange of energy. It comes then as no surprise that the artist has a profound interest in architecture (i.e. at the Bauhaus Labs in Chicago and at the Experimental Architecture Program in L,Aquila, Italy, among elsewhere). She states, “Having been educated with influences from both the western and eastern, I am foraging an expression that is unique to my own identity. My works deal with public space and its unequaled characteristic of being able to extend its audience to everyone, stimulating a possible new perception from the people, curing them from their indifference with their living environment.”

Returning now to the Accidental Masterpiece, Kimmelman, an ex-pat residing in Berlin (where Jennis has also momentarily settled) quotes a letter from Astolphe de Custine, the French profiler of czarist Russia, in which he wrote:

I should feel as if I could not depart in peace out of this narrow sphere unless I endeavored to explore my prison. The more I examine it, the more beautiful and extensive it becomes in my eyes.” (pg. 23)

In her work, Counterforce, Jennis continues this play with duality and unexpected beauty. Installed in a typical German garden colony during winter (Jan 31st- Feb 9th, 2010), Jennis built a hybrid structure that functioned as both a kind of playground jungle gym and a regimented exercise machine. Painted white, the linear geometry of the construction cuts a series of angles out of its organic, natural backdrop. Simple, clean lines are the focus of the structure, which recalls both a birdhouse and a sort of elevated gilded cage (without the gilding). Custine also made reference to the prison as a metaphor for temporal life. “We are all vaguely tormented,” he wrote, “with a desire to know a world which appears to us a dungeon…” (pg. 23)

This desire fuels Jennis’ artistic practice. She speaks of the “passion” with which she undertakes her projects and, truthfully, these are inspired works. “I hold a strong belief in doing things I enjoy with much passion (as I can), as I believe that it makes changes not only to you, but also influences people around.”

In Counterforce, Jennis invited 4 participants to “play” with her elevated cage. Built into the structure were various exercise machines: a stationary bike and a treadmill, for example.  Performing their “drills” in the softly falling snow of Germany’s bleak January weather, the construct is transformed into a critique of society, political constructs and religious hierarchy, while still maintaining a poetic aesthetic and striking orchestration of light and dark.

The artist states, “How a single individual is relevant to the outside world plays an important part in reforming the larger and political structure of one’s society. One needs to be self-aware and disciplined when placed in a position of influence or power. This holds true while I work mainly in the public space, with frequent contact with people from all walks of life.”

In his chapter, “The Making of an Art World,” Kimmelman quotes a poem that Martha de Meligny (the complex and misunderstood lover of the French artist Pierre Bonnard ) selected as her epitaph. Penned by Rainer Maria Rilke, it reads:

With your eyes, which in their weariness

bearly free themselves for the worn-out threshold,

you lift very slowly one black tree

and place it against the sky: slender, alone,

And you have made the world. And it is huge

And like a word which grows ripe in silence.

And as your will seizes on its meaning,

Tenderly your eyes let it go.

With her practice, Jennis offers the viewer and all her participants access to a sacred space orchestrated by her balanced gaze. These pieces, and the artist’s unification of art and life, speak of transcendence, of harmony and, above all, of beauty.