Mixing medias and construction methods with varying themes of religious, historical and moral matter, the work of Shanghai’s self-made artist Seal Chen conjures up images of Hieronymus Bosch’s darkest symbolic creatures with a wave of steam-punk and a touch of irony.
Metal hardware parts, antiques, toys, animal bones and all sorts of unexpected objects are part of the creative process, some sourced from Taobao (China’s version of eBay or Amazon) while others are recovered from salvage stations and ruins of demolished neighborhoods. Regardless of their origin, the parts come together to create curiously odd sculptures inspired by daily life. “People are like the skeletons of my artworks—insensitive to the emotions of life, unable to stop and take some time to reflect upon themselves,” explains Chen (born Cheng Xi). “I always follow my heart. I see the outside world as the mirror of my conscience, and I store things in my heart as if they were the bites of energy that can nourish my work.”
Though art is Chen’s main focus now, things have not always been so. Born in 1982 of sent-down youths, Chen lacked any formal training in art during his formative years, spending much of his life like many others in his generation: a workaholic young man living a glamorous life in a booming Shanghai, without much time left for introspection. Though in 2010, in the middle of a flourishing career, he gave it up and decided to take back his time. And, in the isolation of his home, he plunged himself into art, “I’ve been creating for six months nonstop, without leaving my home,” Chen tells CH. “I felt like a sudden awakening of my conscience brought to the light images that had been buried deep into my soul for a long time. I’m not good at drawing so the most immediate way to express myself was making handcrafts.”
Chen’s fictional worlds are full of grotesque creatures, elements from moral tales and religious traditions—consider the Bible’s “Stations of the Cross” story, but with a touch of humor to temper metaphysical speculation and bring the focus back to his daily encounters and ideas about contemporary society and alienation. His piece titled “New Theory of Nirvana,” was based on the ancient legend of the phoenix, which appears every 500 years to bring suffering humans to the sea of fire to make them resurrect the following year. Though Chen’s version portrays a small figurine stretching out to reach his own personal nirvana, and shorten the half millennia of waiting.
Religion related symbolism comes back again in “The Underworld—Eighteen Layers of Hell,” another fascinating work that required many hours of incessant work for over a month to make. This piece, along with many others can be seen in detail through the artist’s website. Keep an eye out for more works surely to come soon.
Images courtesy of Seal Chen