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

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

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Film set of Happiness 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/ Can you talk a little bit about your schooling and working experiences?

I studied art and designs in school. Back in those days, the education system was very stifling, hindering people’s imagination. Therefore, I often skipped the lessons in school to read in the library instead. I was unable to hold any exhibitions in school because I was actually not too good in my studies, and also because I was deemed weird by the school. The school trained me to be able to draw fast, but I felt that “art” should involve “imagination”. In those days,however,  if you try to venture out of the system even a little, you’ll be singled out by the school as problematic. If you wanted answers, you could only seek them by yourself.

In those days, there were not too many books about the arts, so I also read lots of other books. Some things were just ingrained in my mind then. I developed a habit of independent thinking. I often went to the City Public Library, Dao Fan Branch at Roosevelt Road and read a lot of art books then. There was a huge collection of painting albums in the library, but as I didn’t know English, I just looked at those pictures and let my imagination roam free. From age 17 to 23, I engaged in lots of action art and installation art out of curiosity, without any guidance from any teachers. I didn’t have a chance to make experimental films until I had some savings later on.

After my graduation from the vocational high school, I didn’t want to waste any more time in school—the experiences I had in school were really bad—so I started working and creating on my own. I worked in companies like electronic companies and cartoon companies. These experiences made me realize that my creations were without a system. The western artistic development trends are usually very clear, but I didn’t really understand the concept of artistic creations, only seeing the forms. Also, the Taiwanese Nativist Literature Movement in the 70s had great impacts on me: on one hand, I was concerned about the society; on the other hand, I also had great doubts on the so-called realism or factualism then. I think all these doubts and questions were due to the constrains of the era I was in.

During the period under the martial law, those who were active in the Taiwanese Nativist Literature Movement were comparatively less open. When they talked about visual arts, they would probably mention Ilya Repin or the Russian nationalist artists. I think the reality is complicated—we can’t just believe in what we see, because a lot of things need to be felt with our hearts. As for how to convey the feelings—that was a question that I couldn’t answer, and there was nobody I could ask either. Therefore, I just did whatever I could and whatever I felt like. My works during this period of time were mostly meaningless and without a system, so I’ve thrown most of them away, except for a action art work that I did at Ximending. That was the only artistic creation I did during that time which I feel is of any commemorative value.

Q/ Compared to your well-known photography and video works, your action art project during the martial law period is less well-known. However, these early experiences are actually critical in interpreting your later photography and video works. Can you tell us about this action art project?

It was during the elections for supplementary seats in the Legislative Yuan, which was the so-called “democratic holidays” , so the political atmosphere was a little more relaxed. My brother and I, together with about 3 of my friends, wore the clothes of prisoners and walked from the movie street in Ximending to the bustling Shizilin Square while anyhow shouting. We used an 8mm camera and recorded the process, and there were many on-lookers. One of us was blind-folded—and that was me. The crowd was very noisy and rowdy, but I felt more and more relaxed as I walked. The policemen were just beside us, but they didn’t know what to do, nor did they dare to arrest us. All they could do was to report this incident to their superiors, but when the men from the police headquarters arrived, we had already left the scene. The investigations went on for about half a year. All my friends involved were not artists, and we actually didn’t completely understand the whole martial law system, but there was just an unnamed anger within us which fuelled us to physically rebel the system to show that we no longer trust it nor be affected by it. This incident often crops up in my mind. During that era, we could only learn through incessant trials.

Q/ Please tell us about the cultural atmosphere during the martial law period. How did it affect your artistic creations?

To the younger generation, they only learn about the martial law period and freedom of thoughts in school or from the books; however, to those of us who had been through the period under the martial law, these things could only exist through rebelling and clashing with the system. A lot of things in our lives would become gotten used to by people, for example, the Military Court was opposite my home when I was young—it had been there since I was born, and you would think that the presence of a prison was a normal thing. This is the first stage of “getting used to things’’. But slowly, our innate sensitivity, imagination and yearning for freedom would well up to cross the boundaries, and clashes occur—not on purpose, but simply because of the lack of freedom. For example, my teacher banned me from participating in the exhibitions in school just because I drew some paintings that looked surrealistic. I started to ponder why, and would go to the library to read up; things only started to become clearer to me after I came across publications like Free China. I am not naturally someone who is politically passionate, only paying some attention to it simply because it’s part of our lives. It is very important to feel. I think to live in this society in this era, it is important to rebel and clash with the obstacles that we face in life, even if it is dangerous to do so. It thus becomes an important task, because if I can’t overcome the obstacles, I can’t go on with life, much less to create any art works.

Q/ For a long time, you not only had clashes with social-political systems like the martial laws or colonialism, but also systems like specific cultural organizations. Can you tell us about the incident which made you announced in 1985 that you would not hold any more exhibitions in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM)?

I first participated in an exhibition in TFAM in 1985, when the museum director vilified and damaged the works of artist Chang Chien-fu(張建富). Thereafter, there was a long period of time when I insisted on not holding my exhibitions in TFAM. It wasn’t because I wanted to rebel against the system, but because if we made compromises, we would lose our stand in what we believed in—freedom, imagination and the arts. Therefore to me, if we wanted to talk about being ahead of times, we had to take the stand which was against the system.

In 1984, I created some abstract works of art and was going to display them in the American Culture Centre (ACC) in Taipei. During the Cold War era, the ACC was able to import and introduce a lot of art works and was a deciding factor in the development of the concepts of modernism in Taiwan later on. However, after we had finished setting up our exhibits, I was banned from the exhibition—on the opening day. I was the only one banned. Back then, the US was the symbol for freedom and democracy, and it was totally natural for me to question the reasons for such happenings.  This incident sparked more questions and doubts in me. Even in such a non-open environment then, with limited knowledge, I still wanted to find out the answers, else there was no reason for me to create anymore works of art.

So, I didn’t intend to do all these things; it was simply because I was limited by the system or society first. Even if you were naturally genteel, you would still be repressed and controlled—who gave them the rights to do so? When I carried out the action art project in Ximending, nobody could foresee that the martial law period would end in just a few years. We were born in the martial law period, and I was already 27 when it was over in 1987. As “children of the martial law era”, my whole schooling and learning experience was spent in such an environment, which naturally was internalized into my life.

In my Ximending action project, there was a scene when I laid on the floor; I felt that psychologically there was something that was changing in me. However, the film could only record my external behaviors and not my thoughts and feelings. This is also the reason why I chose not to make documentary films, because I feel that documentaries could only record what we see, but what we feel and imagine are as important as external images, even though no words can sufficiently describe them. Such indescribable feelings are what I am very interested in.

Q/ You did not create any works of art in the 8 years after the martial law period ended. What were you doing or pondering about?

To me, lots of experiences in our youths are just meaningless conventions. In the end, we all have to start from our life experiences, local cultures and the drive to seek for answers. So I spent a lot of time looking for ways to ‘speak’. I didn’t stop creating because I wanted to be secretive, but because I couldn’t find a way to. Initially, I thought I could work and create at the same time, but it turned out to be impossible. I stopped working, and gradually used up my savings. I didn’t know what to do, so I simply read. Amongst the books I read were a few about the history of modern China, which influenced my creations thereafter.

History is often deemed to be the past and not the present. However, to me, a lot of questions that we have now have no solutions, and at the same time are rooted in history; if these questions are not solved, how can we say that they are the past? They will definitely affect us now. I’m interested in history itself, and not individual historical incidents. In the words of a traditional academic: how did modernization and modernism occur? How do they affect our thoughts and behaviors? I think that I should at least have my own stand or viewpoint.

(to be continued in Interview with Chen Chieh-Jen(Part II))

(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/August 2012 (Taiwan).

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