Movana Chen’s Body Containers Are Breaking Down Borders

Movana Chen has a new passion: contact improvisation. Originating in the 1970s, it’s a type of movement technique where partners move or stay still upon contact with another. Beyond finding balance and achieving synchronicity, contact improvisation is also about letting yourself go off balance and willing to let yourself be vulnerable.

Fragility is a word that comes up often in conversation with the Hong Kong artist. The fragility of human beings exposed not only by epidemics, but also humankind’s tendency to make wars. The fragility of identity. The fragility of art – and in particular Chen’s, whose hefty sculptures are weaved from shredded magazines, books, maps, letters and the like.

Chen has been shredding and knitting since 2004, when she was studying for a fine arts degree at RMIT in Melbourne. Her first art piece was “ID Magazine Dress” from Dreconstructing. It was a wearable dress knitted from shredded copies of issues of Creem and Art Review – art and culture magazines she poured over as a fashion design graduate at London College of Fashion. A nod to her fashion design background, the piece was a commentary on the ways the media constructs-and deconstructs-our identity. 

The inspiration of using paper, however, came from the most unusual of places. She was working at her father’s trading firm as an accountant when it went belly up. “I was in charge of shredding the confidential documents,” she says. “That got me thinking, what if I created something out of shredded paper?”

In recent years, the artist’s pieces lend themselves increasingly to reflection on our connection with one another and to humans’ place in the world. They often involve friends and strangers alike. One of her best-known works, “Knitting Conversations,” is a monumental sculpture comprising hundreds of copies of books that have been shredded, then knitted together by their owners and the artist.

At its inaugural exhibition at the ArtisTree art space in 2013, small clusters of participants sat underneath the hanging sculpture — still a work in progress back then — knitting while sharing with one another what their book meant to them. As more books were added to the piece, “Knitting Conversations” also travelled to Los Angeles, then with Chen to her home in Portugal, where she continued adding to it. In a homecoming of sorts, it’s now on display at M+ until August 2024.

Chen left Hong Kong at the height of the pandemic, in the summer of 2021, when she moved to Cascais, a seaside town about 20 kilometres west of Lisbon where her sister has lived for the last six years. “I travel a lot anyway, so it doesn’t matter where I am based,” she says. It helps that the rent is much cheaper than in Hong Kong – not to mention the lovely climate. “It’s blue everywhere you go – the skies, the seas. You feel like you’re on a perpetual holiday.”

In Portugal, Chen began “Body Container: Questioning the Line,” the latest iteration of her long-standing Body Container series, where she knits human-sized containers from shredded paper, and performs inside them. This time around, she knitted together shredded travel maps that she collected from friends from all over the world.

When she learned about contact improvisation, she proceeded to devise a performance piece. She got in touch with content improvisation performer Francisco Borges, and the two, alongside a photographer, travelled around Portugal with the body container, stopping and performing spontaneously along the way. 

With contact improvisation, no two performances are the same, and Chen, while she could see through her body container, never knows what Borges will do next. There was a time Borges, in his own body container, jumped onto a cliff. “I was so scared I froze [in my own container],” Chen laughs. 

All the performances were done in rural areas, and aside from each other’s breathing, and perhaps the clicking of the photographer’s camera, all Chen would hear was nature’s sounds – and most importantly, a certain stillness. “That stillness is more powerful than movement,” she says. “How do you listen to yourself and nature? Sometimes, the only thing you can hear is each other’s breathing.” 

The result are performances that convey the human condition in inexplicably poignant ways. In one, a body lay motionless on top of a second body, both sapped of energy. “It’s about the expectations and pressure we give one another,” explains Chen. In another performance, only one body container remained, evoking a body that may have disappeared during a pandemic or war – or simply emigration.

On February 24, Chen is set to perform at the Asia Art Archive, marking the first time she will be performing in an indoor space and in front of a human audience. Somebody from the archive recently asked her what she was going to do for the performance. “But I do not know, I really don’t!” she exclaims with glee. “It’s about interacting with the environment in real-time.”

The latest iteration of Body Container was created in response to the pandemic, when extensive lockdowns prevented many from travelling. “I was stuck in my studio, so I asked my friends overseas to mail me their travel maps, some of which date back to years back,” says Chen. Amidst the maps are stories and memories of travels, which are deeply personal to their former owners. But maps also made her think of borders and the decisions that went into carving out them. “Who gets to decide where the national borders are?” she asks.

This question has never been more relevant in an age when war and sociopolitical events are forcing many to leave their own homelands. Shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Chen watched Swimmers, a 2022 documentary about two girls who had to flee their war-torn homeland to search for a better life elsewhere. That influenced her latest Body Container work. Maps are shredded, borders dissolved, and the wearer symbolically tries on the idea of living in a borderless world. Chen says she wanted to create a work that expresses the idea that we’re all connected somehow, most of all by our desire for a home. “Home shouldn’t be privy to just some people,” she says.

Inside the body container, Chen’s vision might be restricted, which encourages the artist to hear and feel more acutely than usual. Once, she found herself tearing up uncontrollably while performing, overwhelmed by the idea that she was “wearing” the memories of the people she made contact with, a reminder that the deepest connections make us fragile while also strengthening us.

For our photoshoot with Chen in Hong Kong, we travelled to Lau Fau Shan, an oyster-harvesting village on the shores of Deep Water Bay, on the far northwest side of Hong Kong. What was meant to be a single afternoon session turned into a remarkable two-day performance across several neighbourhoods as Chen inhabited her body container, eliciting curious glances from some onlookers and short conversations with others.

The initial idea behind shooting in Lau Fau Shan was that it was close to the border with mainland China. “We actually went to so many other places like different borders, rooftops, mountains,” says photographer May James. But there was something off about the results – not enough human contact. “We did some brainstorming together after. We decided to find a good [housing] estate to have real human connection,” says James.

They ended up in Yue Wan Estate in Chai Wan, not far from Chen’s former studio and home. As Chen sat in her body container on a bench, curious onlookers arrived to ask questions and take photos. Chen remained silent and motionless. “Everyone [came] together to play their characters around me,” she says. 

“While she was performing, she didn’t move or talk, but it created many conversations between each [of the onlookers],” says James. “‘Will it break? Is it hot? [They wondered about] the thickness of the paper and even guessed how pretty she looks.” 

Finally, one onlooker offered Chen an orange. “They waited for me to come out from the body container,” she recalls. At another time an older lady passed three times before she asked what she was doing while she was knitting her body container. Chen added a new edition to her series: “Questioning the line in the neighbourhood”.

The body container is a vessel that allows Chen to experience the world in a different way, but just like in Chai Wan, it can often take on a life of its own, responding to events in its own way. 

That’s something Chen has been exploring for years. In 2010, she created “Peace & War in 2010,” a body container made of two linked figures. Any movement by one inevitably impacts the other, to symbolise close yet taut relationship between North and South Korea. But due to the fragility of the knitted sculpture, a hole appeared at the back of one of the containers during one performance. Around the same time, North Korea fired a few dozens of artillery shells at South Korea. The artist thought of patching the hole up but decided to leave it in the end, to poignant effect.

In contrast to these geopolitical reflections, Chen’s upcoming solo show Words of Heartbeats at Flowers Gallery is unabashedly sentimental, weaving together shredded letters from ex-boyfriends, friends and family dating from 1989 to 2023. In the process of shredding, then reconstructing these letters in another form, Chen says she is reconnecting with all those who’ve written to her – and perhaps with her past self. “Unlike emails or text messages, a letter is more real, as there is weight, and warmth,” she says. 

Isn’t it a pity to shred letters that mean so much? Possibly, says Chen. “But the idea that it’s now transformed into art is quite beautiful,” she says with a laugh.

Her next piece takes the rumination on national and individual identities further: a “humongous sculpture” knitted from expired passports. “How much does your passport define you?” asks Chen. “And who gets to decide what countries you can visit [visa-free] if you hold a certain passport? It depends if your country is friends with another country. It all seems so arbitrary!”

The artist is certainly not one to let national borders hinder her desire to connect with others. These days, she says her studio is not in Chai Wan, nor in Cascais – it’s “anywhere and everywhere.” She’s on the lookout for a camper van. “As long as I have my paper shredder with me, I can go anywhere,” she says. “There’s a lot we cannot control, but at least in my work, I want to give hope.” 

Knitting Conversations is on show in the M+ Focus Gallery.

Words of Heartbeats runs at Flowers Gallery from March 28 to May 11, 2024. 

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