Critique of Zhaoyi Chen’s Be A Child (2011). Paper, paint, dandelions, acrylic medium, foam core board, hot glue (~7’ x 1’ x 1’).
Chen’s Be A Child occupies two planes of a ninety-degree room corner, with two black foam core board “shelves” comprising two more planes that lie perpendicular to the first two and jut out towards the viewer into the space of the gallery. Although all of the surfaces are essentially two-dimensional, the intersecting planes seem to describe a columnar “volume” that most of the rest of the piece occupies (although the paper extends above and below the “shelves”). The two planes of paper and the foam core boards thereby serve as a means of containment and, ultimately, unification of this piece. The artist has also achieved unification through use of repetition, evidenced by the identical form and proximity of the seeds attached to the paper. The wispy placement of the seeds creates an implied line that draws our eyes from the base of the piece up its considerable vertical dimension and towards the top “shelf.” On the bottom shelf, we see more repetition with the repeated form of three dandelion inflorescences “growing” out of the foam board. One still contains its seeds; the other two have probably lost theirs to the paper behind and above them. The proportionally large, bright yellow text towards the bottom of the work establishes itself as the focal point. Its coarse, imperfect letters declare, “Be A Child.” This text, combined with the presence of the three dandelion stalks, and the fact that the line of seeds is much denser towards the base causes the balance to be shifted towards the bottom of the work, though as already stated the thinning line does draw the viewer’s eye upwards through the rest of the work. Another, proportionally much smaller bit of text, this one red and printed from a computer, appears on the bottom shelf and commands the viewer to “SQUAT AND BLOW.”
The open volume and bright colors of the piece form an inviting, secluded space for the viewer. The large yellow text literally suggests the viewer to regress to a state of childhood, when we picked dandelions to blow the seeds of the seed heads and watch them fly into the distance. The smaller red text, too, tells us to perform an act. Its capital letters suggest a rather forceful command. Squatting, we become about the height of a child and the work becomes most accessible because now the lower shelf is at our height. This smaller text also encourages us to interact with the artwork, something that children often feel an urge to do (an image of a mother telling her child not to touch an expensive oil painting in a museum comes to mind). Here, the openness and brightness of the piece, along with the text, beckons the viewer to give into his or her childhood desires and interact with the artwork. Because the work occupies a small amount of space and the white background contains no hint of a landscape, we are also invited to use our childlike imagination to visualize the seeds being swept off far into the distance. The title and text of the work are also very accessible and simple enough to be understood by a child. My only qualm is that the black foam core weighs down the otherwise light and airy feel of the work. The message of Be A Child likely deals with being playful and enjoying simple, fun things that we did as children.