When people ask me what I do in my research degree, and believe me, I often get stuck by that question. Honestly speaking, every third minute I will come up with a newly nudged idea. Abstract concepts, cross-disciplinary enquiries that have been gaining popularity, and the increasingly vague division between subjects under the system of arts, and of course its essential complexity to be explained has decided that all my collections in the carrier bag is beyond “twenty words, and the difficulty that old grannies can understand” (I guess Feynman’s time was not politically correct enough). Art is about demonstrating a problem, regardless if that is achieved by the invention of an imagined measuring system. In the context of such befuddlement, I once asked my supervisors, “what exactly am I doing?”, and I was advised to use “Cornwall” as a standard answer. My bubble burst light out, and I know some of the others are more brightened ——why in certain topics this guy knows more dates, events, terms than locals, he is a painter, to contemporary he’s too fogyish, and to conservatives, he’s too young and stupid ——oh, those Arts & Humanity people!
But figuring out what exactly am I doing relies on the administrative document filling significantly. When I first drafted my application, I ended up with 2000-something; during the application for registration, it was 996 words; and until the ethic approval, it managed to shrink into 100 words.
“The practice-based research Hold onto Land explores how images can be used to define a particular identity. It investigates and responds to the regional self-motivation and cultural identity of Cornwall, 1859 to nowadays. The enquiry looks into the “geographically marginal land” of Cornwall, whose industrial lifestyle declined, and images rebuilt romantically and ideally by travelling artists and visitors. The project aims to interrogate the transformation of Cornish identity in this situation that could be called “domestic cultural colonisation” with the perspective of an outsider; the question is challenged by images & writings produced based on field trips and interviews.”
To most of the fellow Chinese people, my research seems to be a meaningless thing; and sometimes to Cornish people, my work is simply a surprise that an outsider is interested in their what-is-going-on but let’s be fair, either meaningful or meaningless could be concluded under one term with two different perspectives. Arts and Humanity is often belittled; this is often explained by jungle rules, and the “rational” of “rational debate” seems ironic and self-contradictory due to the lack of civilised rules in the law of jungles.
A successful PhD is defined as “to make a significant contribution to knowledge” somehow, for my family, understanding this sentence in my context is way more tricky than the research itself. For example, “why do you, as a Chinese, study Cornwall?”, “why this subject is meaningful (for you as a Chinese)” and “why is your research important (while you are a Chinese)”. Interestingly, they have, perhaps unconsciously discovered a peculiarity that increasingly contemporary anthropological researches of domestic culture are now conducted by foreign students. If I may add to this point, these researches can be fully lost, like a lonely, floating, inhabitable planet in a far system, if they lack attention, or after the graduation of the student. My father once asked me what kind of doctor I am going to be (regardless I am always unconfident in obtaining academic achievement). I answered, “Errrr…PhD, which is directly translated as Doctor in Philosophy”. As in China we have a different academic system, and rewarding PhD originated from Prussian states, he somehow didn’t seek to double-check the fact and, “Oh, so you are like the philosophy doctor like the doctor in Marxism Philosophy?” As a properly educated university-attender who was the first group of entry after the higher education was allowed to have their own recruitment examination after the cultural revolution, during which period university students were assigned and recruited administratively from people who “have high revolutionary spirits”, his misunderstanding reflects the unknowing of a practice-based research degree. Hey, we also need to submit a thesis! And, contributing to knowledge, isn’t that a grand story that is satisfying enough?
Ce Chen is a full-time research student at Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon College, University of the Arts London. He explores the cultural boundary of landscapes, and how images of landscapes can be used to define identities. After obtaining his master degree in Camberwell, he moved to Falmouth for a second one, building up a model of thinking and “a year-long immersive field trip”. The inspiration of this project traces back to when Chen was still doping my BA; he had his first chance visiting Cornwall in 2013; he started to question what has later been summarised as “the essence of the landscape that only Cornish people understand”, and the identity that “the word Cornish refers to”; while expanding mediums and creative approaches, he adopted the idea of “painting as a shit-stirrer”, pursuing my enquiry playfully. Chen introduces a cross-cultural perspective into the discourse and engages in a contemporary phenomenon where domestic anthropology study shows greater participation of foreign researchers. The collision of culture and concept is what he believes is “the catalyst of new findings”; after structuring a functioned pattern of thinking, he’d start using ethnographic approaches and seek to nudge the stability of the system by applying the idea framework into the real-world.
The Pathway Exhibition
The exhibition is the artist’s periodic summary of works that he produced during the transition from masters to a PhD research degree; it is also an invitation to whoever is interested in the discourse. The exhibition consists of three parts. The first section displays a series of NFT works from a project he collaborates in. Illustration collection Luna y Jamón by Hoaalab and NFT’s quality of decentralisation, self-motivated inspired Chen’s question to “the ownership of images”; he tries to frame the concept of “the ownership of material products that originated in landscape images and cultural identities”. In his own research, the most shit-stirring idea is challenging the Cornish sea salt. “What is the difference between Cornish sea salt, regular sea salt and sea salt?”*, he wrote, “obviously, comparing to regular sea salt, the extra value of Cornish sea salt is defined by materialised cultural concepts and usually addressed by the purity of each ingredient in a selection”. Chen intends to open up a new angle for interrogating each element of the phrase “the landscape that only Cornish people understand” by highlighting the increase of economic value brought by the adjective of Cornish, out of nothing. He has listed three questions: What is Cornishness? What does being Cornish mean? Can I be a Cornish, and how? Conventionally speaking, the answer to the third question is “two more generations to go” (then how to become a Cornish artist, does it involve with the area of interest, the format of practice, location of residency?); he believes pushing the former two questions would explain how Cornish people are trying to gain voices of autonomously defining their landscape after travelling artists and tourists since 19th century has idealised, romanticised and post-colonised images of Cornish landscapes. Hence, as a somewhat modern travelling artist, he rushes into the real context, reversely applying orientalist onto western landscapes and revealing the core dilemma of his enquiry: the strength of images when they become a system.
*Land salt and sea salt are two different concepts when they are identified as mineral resources. The decline of industry in the early 19th century is still influencing the county. The coastal region that is “more Cornish” shows distinction against those mining towns that are trapped in the mineral depletion and industry upgrading. The exhibition Survey held last summer in Poly, Falmouth has displayed a grotesque fact in Chen’s cross-cultural background. Due to the unbalanced economy of seasonal tourism, the rise of real estate prices that stimulated by second homes and the increasingly competitive employment market, the living space of local young people shrinks, makes them hard to “go outside”; many of them have never been to London, which is, considering the geographic distance, shocking when it happens in a developed country. Recently, a lithium deposit has been discovered, which placed the anxiety of material extractivism onto the table; it shows a sarcastic comparison to the capitalistic consumption of a cultural concept generated from inexhaustible sea salt.
The second part of the show composites The Fantasia on Entropic Sea Songs, an experimental project which isolates observed elements of Cornish landscapes and relocates them into semi-isolated space. Chen maintains the rebuild of linearity in the process of forging the experiences of landscapes can produce a sort of grand narrative that is the potential to suppress voices that have not been penetrated by the event-line. Quoted from the preface of the Taiwanese version of Against the Grain, where roads are interpreted as an approach for converting natural landscapes into national territories; in his essay Out of Nothing, Chen briefly discussed how land art could be used to define a landscape, putting dots onto blank space of a map. During the transport, the completion of Royal Albert Bridge introduced those who tended to find idylls after the declining of Barbizon School a reversing landscape: from the most advanced, magnificent railway stations, landscapes outside carriages transit from the arrogant and around the capital of once the greatest empire that marked the highest of western civilisation, to their imagined land that filled with traditional lifestyle and medieval romance. The linearity of this grand narrative imported an unclaimed virgin (unclaimed by them) directly into the sight of the privileges of aesthetics, and then paraphrased, rendered, exaggerated into a self-consistent system.
The third part, the mirage series, visualises elements that the artist plays with, it is a practice of shit-stirring. The series consists of individual paintings and images collaged by old works digitally and physically. Chen believes such a format can effectively depict ensemble casts in the ethnographic direction. Geographer Marc Antrop defines landscape as the dynamic interaction between natural and cultural forces; hence human here can be defined as the unnatural process of changing the landscape, and the cause of the un-objectivity in the archival process. paraphrased, rendered, exaggerated into a self-consistent system.
Illustrated by Hoaalab, Luna y Jamón, digital print, 2021 - 2022
Fantasía on Entropic Sea Songs, mixed media on canvas, 2021 - 2022
Full description see: https://www.ruischen.com/a-song-for-cornwall
One of Them is Cornish Sea Salt, Installation, 2022
Highlighting the vague boundary between capitalist concept and cultural concept.
Year Calendar 2002, watercolour on paper, 2021
The painting was inspired by a give-away calendar from a bank back in 2002. The reflective golden coating on coated paper rendered the beauty that a six-year-old cannot mechanically understand. I spent months in the room where it was to repeatedly check out such splendour. But because sitting on the back of the bike often messed up my trousers, my father cut off the coating and made a dirtboard out of it. The title of the painting is still participating in the discourse about the process of "extract - refine - reorganise" of "the cultural expression of material"; its image reversely applied Orientalism onto St Austell white clay pits, which has become a cultural symbol of local landscape biography. Like Silver Dragon, these two paintings are always used as the presentation-opener.
Silver Dragon, watercolour on paper, 2021
The spurious pictorial style adopted by the painting translates the symbolised visual features of St Austell clay pits into an easily-confused image.
Modern Bard, watercolour on paper, 2021
Locals on the Prince of Wales Pier. The music reminds me of arriving at Edinburgh's train station and the echoing bagpipe rhythm around the city. The image and the guitar music represent two different dimensions of the scene; audiences that are not familiar with Cornwall can, of course, imagine something that symbolises Cornish music history is going on.
Budget Longrock, watercolour on paper, 2021 - 2022
“Our impression of a land is based on our experience of going through space which could be illusional due to factors like sequence, sensational disruption and etc.” A budget of £100 and without a car certainly formulate an experience that is hard to forget.
Background Noise, Digital Collage, 2022
An image digitally collaged The Mirror of Marazion with Old Crowns of this Land. It states the necessity of decolonising the cross-cultural gazer himself because the existence of the personal background could form un-objectivity, which influences the analytic thinking process.
What do we Search? watercolour on paper, 2021
What do we search in the wild?
What is to be conquered?
Do I decolonise myself first,
decolonise the pre-determined purpose
forget about my experience, logic and culture
before examine the landscape?
That verb, is what I called
a basic element that I intend to nudge.
Midoriko's Nessie? digital print, 2021
A print collaged with digital drawing and watercolour background. The artist intends to express the idea that the motivation of wandering and seeking may influence the objectivity in discovering & examining landscapes.