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History of the Photographed – The Age of Provocation. Interview with Chen Chieh-Jen (Part II)

Posted in about Photography, about Video Art, Interviews with Artists by sylvielin on December 8, 2012

A01Happiness Building I: Apartments

(Courtesy- Chen Chieh-Jen Studio)

Chen Chieh-Jen is the most renowned Taiwanese artist in the international art scene. His work focuses on the situations and psychological states of exploited social classes such as that of workers. In his works, he explores issues of colonization, globalization and capitalism in history and the contemporary world. In the second half of the 1990s, he made photographic works by means of computer imaging techniques, based on archive images of tortures or massacres before focusing on making video works. The interview with the artist traces his youth and education during the era of martial laws as well as his action art projects on the streets at the time. He also talks about the ideas of his photographic work and how, through his own practice, he attempts to construct a perspective on photography and cinema that distinguishes itself from its western counterparts.

(Interview & Editing by Sylvie Lin, Assisted by Wei-I Lee, 2012, Taipei. See Note of publication at the end of the text.)

Q/ When you re-started creating works of art in 1996, you started with photography as the medium. Why?

During that time, I lived off my younger brother; I was so poor that I sold even my camera. It was also very coincidental that I learnt to use the computer: I happened to meet my friend in Shida Night Market who used to be a cartoonist. He told me that he was using the computer to draw and lent me a computer, at the same time taught me some simple functions. I started to explore the possibility of using this as a tool to explore and seek for some answers, like editing some photographs of tortures that I collected here and there.

In those 8 years, I totally realized that all artistic creations come from experiences in life—we have to go back to where we started. Suddenly, I felt that everything was so simple: making art is to solve your own problems. As you grow older and the time span of your lives extend, you will see more than meets the eye; you’ll see many layers of images, including your imagination and your memories.

I was thinking then, that a lot of things we have now are results of colonialism. Our experiences in modernization are results of colonialism, because we didn’t really experience a lot of things. For example, we didn’t experience things like Dadaism and what we knew about some western ideologies were also rather fragmented. Why did we want to mimic experiences that we didn’t really “experience”? Why not start from our own life experiences? If there was a kind of modernism that belonged to us, what was it? Where would it start? All these couldn’t be answered by theories, only through experiences in life.

Therefore, when photography started to become an everyday event that is no longer only done by professional photographers, we have to ask a very simple question: what is the starting point of ‘our’ photography? The purpose of this question is not to draw a timeline or to find out who introduced photography into China or Taiwan, for that would be oversimplifying the question and lower the benchmark for those who continue in this exploration using other means. Essentially, culture is “made up”. The Westerners were earlier than us in applying technologies to photography, thus we naturally have to “make up” a new history when we start to engage such skills. It would definitely be very subjective, but we must dare to imagine, or else we would just be another follower of traditions.

Q / You said ‘make up’; does it mean ‘construct’?

Yes. I think in terms of the history of photography, non-Westerners/non-whites have entered this history by being photographed. Yet the photographed people do not have their voices in the history of photography. Then who are they, and what are they? These questions need to be discussed. Otherwise, regions under development would never obtain their own positions. Since we are the photographed, we should begin from the history of the photographed people. Now that the history of photography has spanned for more than a century, the photographed can be an agent on their own through appropriating photographic tools in certain ways. The point is that we have to develop awareness toward questions about images. The agency of the photographed – this is what I would like to explore.

To be more precise, even though the photographed do not possess photographic tools, they are able to retain such an agency. This is one of the main reasons for which I appropriated the photographs of torture. Such photos represent the extreme case in the history of the photographed. They were taken by colonizers, Western anthropologists or photographers hired by those in power. As for the specific photo of torture I used for my work[1], the choice was particularly based on the fact that the person being tortured was laughing. Certainly, this allows multiple interpretations. Yet in my childhood memories, I have seen images of captives from the Taiwan volunteer army being tortured because they revolted against Japanese colonizers. The tortured person, too, was laughing. Later, in the era of White Terror(白色恐怖)[2], many of the leftist victims were being photographed before the execution. They were also laughing in front of the camera. For me, the laughter was not just out of a kind of bravery and the spirit of a martyr. It actually implies many complex meanings to be explored.

When I thought over the meanings implied by these photos, I felt that the laughter was to create a kind of confusion in the viewer.  It was around 1905 that this kind of torture was abolished. The Westerners who were able to photograph such scenes were all involved in the united army of France and the UK and the Eight Power Expeditionary Force. During that time, three people in the process of torture were photographed. One of them was photographed by a  3D camera, which was very light and portable. Out of all the discussions that investigated these photos, only Bataille noted that the person in the photo was laughing[3]. For me, the laughter aims to create confusion, which is actually a vortex in itself. The tortured person understood that a camera was taking photos of him. Then how should he create confusion in the process? Once the confusion was recorded in and attached to the image, future viewers would feel confused when they see the photo : how could a tortured person still smile, and ever so lightly?This is what I mean by the ‘agency of the photographed’.

Q / You mean that he was conscious of viewers beyond the camera lens?

Yes, and these are delayed viewers. The photo will outlive the victim after his death. And there is agency as long as there is confusion. Another example, when Jiang Weishui(蔣渭水)[4] lied on the bed at the point of his death, he opened up his eyes and stared at the camera.  His colleagues, students and family gathered around him. The way he looked at the camera was as if he wanted to penetrate it. He didn’t stay there passively and waited to be photographed. Rather, he looked towards the future to penetrate the condition of being photographed. Such examples abound and they at least provide a new starting point. Otherwise, we will always say that Daguerre[5] represents the origin of the history of photography. I don’t mean to controvert the history of photography. Rather, I’d like to start from another point. I don’t think I’m a photographer but rather an amateur for photography who likes to think over certain questions. What interests me is not making excellent journalistic photography works, but to think about these suspended questions and where we start.

Q / Nowadays, everyone uses digital camera. Does it mean that we are more liberated in terms of image-making or that we are no longer colonized in this regard?

Yes. But I think we need to analyze the phenomenon on different levels. The point is that today we also naturalize the digital thing without really thinking over related questions. For example, the ratio 16:9 was imposed; for those who cannot handle the technologies, they can only accept. The solution to the problem is not only about the tools themselves but also concerns from various other levels.

Q / Why did you often insert your own images within your early photographic works such as Revolt in the Soul & Body 1900-1999

I used the pictures I collected as raw materials for these photographic works. They are not original ; once the printed images are magnified through scanning process, they become blurred. The eyes in the pictures might become just two dots. Therefore, in the process of reconstruction, real images would be lost. They become blurry images and I would draw with my own imagination. For example, I could imagine the two dots as eyes. In the process, I was able to make use of the attributes and limits of traditional photography and printing technologies; I could expand these characteristics through the unlimited possibility of modification in digital image-making. Indeed, there are contradictions or rather a kind of gap between the two mediums. As for my choice of inserting myself into the image, the idea is simple. I think we are the perpetrator, the victim and also the onlooker. We always assume one of these identities.

Also, the approach has to do with expressing a corporal sense. I draw very slowly on the computer so I can only work on a part of an image each time and assemble all the parts at the end. Yet eventually there are chances that I may not be able to put them together. In addition, with digital technologies, what we work on is intangible. So this feels like being in the fog. Sometimes I don’t even know what I was drawing. Yet it is a process that evokes rich imagination. For example, it is also like recreating something on top of the relics of images, which, again, is very corporal.

VOP / You mentioned ‘agency’ that enables a photographed person to react in his passive situation. Did the idea of ‘agency’ inspire you to transform the static photographic image of Lingchi – Echoes of a Historical Photograph[6] into images in motion

Many would feel that the photos I created were horrible. But for me the person in these photos is simply human, and more so, a human with ideas. He created a confusion, which prompts us to enter a dialogue with him. I do not see horror; instead, I see a mutual communication. At the same time when I made Lingchi – Echoes of a Historical Photograph, I wanted to make moving images with it. I wanted to integrate many dimensions such as the temporality. Nevertheless, I didn’t have the budget for this. For me, static and moving images are two different media. Each of them has its limits and possibilities.

To me, the definition of ‘agency’ is a broad one. For example, when we talk about the origin of Taiwanese cinema, I will not simply take it off the chronologies in the books. Books of chronology can only be a reference, whereas being an artist, it is necessary to think further. I think if there is any change in the process of our identification and interpretation of the movies, a lot of things will look different. Such an ‘agency’ should be the origin of cinema. So, cinema begins where creation begins. Otherwise, we are just looking at the history of art or the history of film in a mechanical way. For me, creation means proposing solutions when we confront certain questions, no matter how rough the solutions can be.

Q / You mentioned some ‘awareness toward questions’, including modernity and the origin of photography.  How do you respond to these questions?

We can reflect on many questions and develop our own interpretations. For example, why does Cindy Sherman’s disguise before the camera mean transgression? But we tend to ignore these questions and wait for scholars like Roland Barthes[7] or Walter Benjamin[8] to give us the answers. In this way, we give up our rights to imagine things. Today, have we really solved all the problems that existed from the past? For example, the Taipei Biennial organizer, i.e. the TFAM always look up to their foreign counterparts. In fact, we have never gotten rid of the effects of our internal colonization. Taiwanese people often talk about Taiwan’s autonomy but they become silent when it comes to critical questions. In fact, we don’t dare confront our own plights. It is not about politics but about our psychological state. Similarly, regarding photography, more than a century ago, we didn’t have our own voices, so we lagged behind. But there will be no hope if we continue to accept a given historical view. So, why not start from somewhere else and reconstruct anew, even if it will be rough and imperfect?

I think a large part of the ‘Taiwanese spirit’ consists of self-devaluation and problems of internal colonization. We don’t dare to face our predicaments and are unable to confront our problems. By ignoring problems, we pretend that we are doing fine. As for westerners, they generally take it for granted : they see the world from their own historical perspective. They never doubt. On the contrary, when we look at things from our own perspective, we tend to devaluate. But i think we should have the guts to insist upon our own aesthetic logic.

Q / Have you been challenged by criticisms from Westerners

There will always be criticisms, and it certainly did happen when I held exhibitions abroad. When I encounter unfair criticism, I will always tell my interpreter to directly rebut. Sometimes they can be extremely and astonishingly ignorant. I have met an American scholar who talked about the idea of Lingchi and said that Bataille was from the West. But to me, since it was a photo, I think we should just fix the problematique on that level. I even rebutted directly, “Based on your extreme Western-centeredness, you think that non-Westerners do not have their own voices over the photo, which was taken in a Chinese context. I think that you are Western-centered. If I regard you as the one and only standard, I would certainly be intimidated. However, I think should respect each other’s opinions as we are on equal grounds. But if you explicitly express a sense of Western-centeredness, I will definitely counter argue.” At the start, the interpreter would worry. But I said it’s ok, just tell him what I said.

We tend to restrict our ideas and think that ‘international’ means ‘the West’ while ignoring the Southeast Asia. But, for example, there are good artists in Vietnam. And in East Europe as well. Maybe they are even better than Taiwanese artists. Very often, we tend to devaluate ourselves and see ourselves as servants or jackals when faced with westerners, unlike artists from Southeastern Asia or Eastern Europe who dare to argue. we don’t argue, would it put us in better plight or give us more benefits? Maybe we need a psychoanalysis book on the history of Taiwanese people to explore such attitude of internal colonization and self-devaluation.

Q / For you, does artistic creation represent a way of protest

I think it is a way to express life. The “protest” is often associated with political issues such as the antagonism between the “blue and the green”[9]. But art is more about dialogues. Artists of any gender, any ethnicity equally possess the right of creation. Why should we give it up? Most of all, our society represses imagination and possibilities. In the end, we all become conformists, who, like students, do not dare to break the rules. It makes us stupid.

Q / The shots in your films are often static; the figures in the films often seem static too. Is there any specific reason for such an approach?

A lot of scenes in my films seem almost static. For example, when I filmed Factory, I didn’t hire professional actresses but invited real female workers. However, they didn’t know how to act so we invited them back to the textile factory where they used to work. The factory had become ruins. We didn’t prepare any scenarios for them, simply observed them working and trying to see what possibilities there could be. When they threaded needles, most of them couldn’t succeed because they were aged and had presbyopia. We wanted to help them but they insisted on doing it themselves. In the end, after twenty minutes, about two third of them still couldn’t succeed. It was a very moving scene for me and I put it into Factory.

During the shooting, they also asked if they could stay silent and not to put on an act. I told them that they only needed to work as per normal. In fact, these female workers have gone through long years of protest. If handed microphones to speak, they can talk far better than us and they know all the laws by heart. But once a social movement comes to its peak and enters the juridical process, it’s like going into a labyrinth and a Kafkaesque world. There will never be any solution. Gradually, social movement members lose energy and cannot go on anymore. And they will go on separate ways because they have to earn a living. This is very painful. The female workers seemed worked up when they talk, but once they were silent, they seemed to exude a complicated sentiment, which I felt was very moving. When I saw this, I just wanted to observe them quietly.

Exploitation of labor began as early as the existence of factories. We all know this too well. And what I would like to highlight instead is the kind of corporal sense. For those who didn’t live in that period, it would be difficult to understand. Yet for people of my age or older, this is part of us. For example, my elder sister has worked in factories for her whole life. There are positive and negative things about the experiences. And how is such a corporal sense being conveyed and represented? Not through given knowledge, but through the silence, the ineffable part about the workers’ experience in the factory. This is how I developed my approach in filming. I don’t really care about classic or avant-gardist approaches in the history of cinema. I know where I started from, and this is what I try to face. Eventually it will become significant in some way. If my ability to “make up” things were better, I might come to make up an entire theory.(laugh)

Basically, I don’t follow the rules. It doesn’t matter to me whether some approaches have been applied in classic Hollywood films ,neither do I feel the need to follow any avant-garde styles or methods. I think we shall re-examine the history of cinema and all the existing methods in order to interpret them in new ways. So, I think that attitude, concept and imagination are more important than everything else. And the reason why I chose certain forms is related to the reality that I was faced with.  Actually, my long shots last no longer than thirty seconds. But as they are silent, they seem to be prolonged and extended. Viewers would feel that these shots seemed for last for three minutes and lose their patience.

Q / Do you think that it’s necessary to develop a vocabulary of images unique to Taiwan, belonging to just us Taiwanese and not so much influenced by the West? How can we find our own way instead of replicating Western ideologies?

Actually I don’t think we should presume such things. When we talk about a vocabulary of images that belongs to Taiwan, we are on the way to becoming fascist. But we should allow ourselves to imagine things and make up things in various ways. Maybe we will find another kind of modernity. It is about basic dialectics:if you seek to become Oriental instead of Westernized, you invariably reinforce the Western ideologies while at the same time implying the non-existence of the Orient. When the Taiwanese attempt to define icons or signs that belong to Taiwan, we fall into the danger of trapping ourselves once again in the orientalist thinking.

(Chen Chieh-jen was born in 1960 in Taoyuan, Taiwan and graduated from the Fu-Hsin Trade & Arts School. During the martial law period in Taiwan, he made guerilla action projects as a way toprovoke the political regime. He continues to make works of static images or moving images that examine issues of history, memory, colonization and social conditions of the marginal. Being the most active Taiwanese contemporary artist on the international scene, he takes part in numerous biennials and exhibitions worldwide.)

*Note of publication : First published on Voices of Photography, Issue 6, July 2012 (Taiwan).


[1] The artist refers to his photographic work Lingchi – Echoes of a Historical Photograph which he later  transformed into a video work. This will be mentioned in the following text.

[2] In Taiwan, the “White Terror” describes the suppression of political dissidents during the martial law period from May 19, 1949 to July 15, 1987, following Kuomintang’s retreat to and acquisition of Taiwan. It resulted in part from 228 Incident (also known as “228 massacre”) in Taiwan in 1947. It included the repression of democrats, communists and Taiwan independence supporters.

[3] Georges Bataille(1897-1962)was a French intellectual and literary figure. In his essay ‘Larmes d’Eros’, he discussed about the historical photograph which is the raw material for Chen’s  Lingchi – Echoes of a Historical Photograph.

[4] Jiang Weishui (1891-1931)   was a founder of the Taiwanese Cultural Association and the Taiwanese People’s Party. He is seen as one of the most important figures in the colonial resistance movement.

[5] Louis Daguerre(1787-1851) was a French artist and physicist and recognized for his invention of the daguerreotype process of photography which was defined as the origin of photography technology.

[6] ‘Lingchi’ is the transliteration of the Chinese term ‘凌遲’. It was a form of torture and execution used in China from roughly AD 900 until its abolition in 1905. It can be translated as the slow process, the lingering death, or death by a thousand cuts.

[7] Roland Barthes(1915-1980) was a French literary theorist, philosopher and critic.

[8] Walter Benjamin(1892-1940) was a German literary theorist, philosopher and social critic.

[9] The two colors represent two political parties in Taiwan.


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