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Articles on Indian contemporary art by Swapna Vora

Found in translation, an interpreter of human maladies
by Swapna Vora

May 16, 2008

Click here to see the exhibition Condensation: Five Video Works by Chen Chieh-jen

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

Chen Chieh-jen

Nationality, an outgrown, perhaps dangerous concept, is today's biggest excuse, after religion, for wars. Will future humans, if any survive, ask each other: "What nationality were you?" What does it mean to be Chinese and not affiliated with the political concept of mainland China? This situation has created the Taiwanese psyche.

Taiwanese Chen Chieh-jen has worked in myriad mediums from paint and performance, to films and installation. His melancholy, often gently silent videos comment on awful human behavior. He shows the fragility of small operators, sometimes covered with the shrouds of their work, and speaks of humans 'palely loitering' in search of work, even appalling, indifferent work. He comments on an image much beloved in the west: the barbaric east.

The video, 'Factory', is about workers, assembly lines, inexpensive, good quality goods: all the cheap things that we eagerly consume today. Due to low costs, Taiwan became a manufacturing powerhouse. Work moved as other places became more competent and cheaper, and protests followed. Economics changed, the owners closed plants, often in an unscrupulous fashion and left without delivering the promised compensation. When a large number of workers are laid off, what happens? How does this keep recurring everywhere? And we experience again the fragility of small people, those who seek simply to work some, earn some and lead gentle, brittle and ordinary lives.

Chen asked some women garment workers to return to a factory where they had worked for decades and produced 'Factory'. He shows a silenced past, 20 years of dedicated labor, and those who lost their work to globalization. In this video, time stands still in a derelict factory with its old calendars, newspapers, clocks, worktables, and the air is stagnant as the women get on with what used to be their daily work. Actually, time had moved and seven years filed by. Time, like language, has its own logic and laws but in our century, it has begun to mean something different, something terrifying. People are scared of it, frightened by its actions and unable to cope with its implications.

In this video, no pension or dues had been paid, the owners had simply slunk away and the problem still remains unsolved. Factories closed down, work had gone away. This is an issue repeated worldwide, of the transplanted and 'untransplanted' as factories shift and the unemployed, who cannot move, remain behind. And so, Chen shot this video in the stale, musty air of a factory shut for years. This abandoned space, with its dusty, original objects and banners from the workers' protests, became for Chen, time standing still and also hurrying on as humans became leftovers: a dual vision of time. When he asked the women workers to go back, it was amazing how quickly they fell into their mechanical routines, interacting with fabric, the machines and even the teacups and we see fragments of their erstwhile protests, their silent scenes of working. They wished, 'not to speak anymore' and the film is silent.

Chen shows a strong connection between his videos and his photography. His work began with Taiwanese issues but it is more and more universal. In one video, an ancient computer screen says 'Diagnostic', a good symbol of his analysis and diagnosis of frozen time, outdated equipment, the issue of outdated humans, leftover laborers, temporary employees long past their 'sell by' dates. He shows useless work as former 'human resources' move tables from one floor to another. The same journey happened here in America, with rude, noisy, useless interchanges on the internet from laid-off American workers after globalization flew their work overseas. People who work daily get something from its feedback, says Richard Serra. Perhaps this is especially true for blue collar workers who interact with humanity with their bodies. Is this daily work a political necessity?


Bade Area
'Bade Area' was inspired by an unimposing billboard saying 'The Majestic Town' with an arrow, a phone number. All that it pointed to was some barren land where a factory had been torn down and nothing had yet been constructed. Nearby was the aftermath of protests from a motor factory. Again the workers had not been paid what they had been promised. The building had been sealed off for auctioning with everything ready for auctions except, perhaps, the workers. Nearby were businesses that bought used furniture. When Chen went to the site, he saw nothing. The motor workers, who had protested when the employers closed the factory and left them unpaid, were now eking out a living as temporary workers. The scenes are like collages, somehow jammed together for factories were continuously bought and sold and buildings torn down. And so Chen invited the workers to roam around inside the building just as they had roamed around outside it, looking for work. In the video, the people keep moving furniture meaninglessly; however all this action is only inside the building. Earlier, this was not a space without meaning. 'Bade' actually means Confucius' eight imperatives: loyalty, filial piety, humanity, love, trustworthiness, righteousness, harmony and justice.

On Going
'On going' was inspired by his friend, an office worker who worked in a tall building. This huge building is hardly used for half of it is shut, locked up. No tenants. Who do we build these monstrous structures for? In one shot, this friend works alone in a half empty 85 storied building. He works entirely alone in this office! We, humans, are horrified by both too many and too few of our kind.

Nearby on a billboard, Superman flies on. One man is the only worker. The building looks like a jail: to hold who and why? It is full of empty spaces and our conflicting wishes for modern goods reflect the high prices we pay, if not in green money, in scores of other colors: isolation, repetitive work, a rat race when we spend more and more to buy things that please us for shorter and shorter times.

The video, 'Lingchi', shows the reverberations of history. It means death by a thousand cuts when a criminal was given opium to drink and slowly, methodically, cut and bled to death. This is inspired by a photo taken by a French soldier in 1904-5 and was often used by Europeans as proof of China's 'cruelty and barbarism'. A historic snuff video for an audience to observe, with appropriate quivers and tremors?


Lingchi - Echoes of a Historical
Chen has used a very handsome, chiseled actor to act as the executed. And alas, it is a pleasure to see this lovely man with his taut body and remain disassociated from what is actually portrayed. His body is dismembered, the psyche slowly dissipated with opium. Every body shows its past and here we observe the pleasure of the flesh and the pain of the flesh. The criminal seems to be in a trance, (entranced?), oblivious to his cuts but we, the viewers, watch his beautiful, gleaming face and eventually suffer and cringe. Is this also a likeness of our time, our century, when the body and its simple needs are tortured, mutilated by work, by inhumane fashion, by barbaric food, by artificially comfortable conditions, the gory story of our societies?

Today 'lingchi' is used commonly to refer to tedious work. However 'lingchi's many distressing disguises still survive: Japan's Unit 731 with its biological experiments on humans, political prisoners routinely tortured in many places, pollution left behind by sophisticated, multinational companies, poor people exploited everywhere. And so the victim smiles, as poor people smile, getting on with the moment since there is no escape. Was this communal viewing a deterrent to the public? This video however is not concerned with scholarly accuracies but man's treatment of man, often for some trivia, some current, transient baubles.

The Route
Another video is 'The Route'. This story was translated (and interpreted) from English to Chinese and Taiwanese. Today, privatization of public assets affects all of us. Liverpool dockworkers went on strike in Mrs. Thatcher's England as she sought to privatize ports. This meant temporary workers could be utilized and the ship, 'Neptune Jade', was loaded by non-union workers. It sailed to Oakland where local longshoremen refused to unload it. It sailed to Vancouver, on to Kobe and Yokohama and met the same decision. News spread and port after port refused to unload it. The ship had been boycotted by all the longshoremen in the world! Ultimately it landed in Kaohsiung in Taiwan for the workers there had not heard of the strike. They unloaded it, unaware of the worldwide strike. Chen sought, like the Creator, to rewrite an ending and hence 'The Route', a video not about the dockworkers' strike and the conditions they sought to change, but human solidarity. Chen went to Liverpool to meet the dockworkers. Like Japanese children ignorant of Hiroshima, these workers were unaware of this event and its ending. The artist says he found no records of the incident in Kaohsiung either. And so he arranged for a fictitious ending and got today's Kaohsiung dockworkers to create a picket line, to echo the resistance movement of dockworkers around the world united against the privatization of ports. He wanted to create connections between the Kaohsiung longshoremen, Liverpool and the rest of the world. Hence the signs are in Chinese and English as the picketing men stand in simmering heat, sweat flowing. Unflinchingly, they stand holding their messages. Psychologists sometimes tell us to act as if something had or had not happened, that make-believe has its own healing power. If it did not actually happen, let's act as if it did! Like Chen. Translation, rendition, used to mean explaining from one state to another. For without your personal interaction, what is art? Without your input, there is no conversation, no contact, no community.

'Condensation', this series of 5 videos was curated by Miwako Tezuka for the Asia Society. It is created by Chen Chieh Jen, pronounced Chen ji Ren. (Go figure!) These videos are in super 16 or 35mm transferred to DVD, single or multiple channel video, mostly in black and white, some with a little color, mostly silent and approximately 15 to 30 minutes long. These were on continuously at the Asia Society in New York and you entered the story wherever you could, a bit like life itself. Around Chen Chieh-jen's work, Asia Society expressly created installations which are stark and simple, clean and gray.

Miwako Tezuka said Chen was exhibited purely on the quality of his work for it is perfectly drawn, panned slowly, with such long duration, such dense issues. It starts with people and even in his empty spaces, ghosts and spirits lurk. His deep humanism gives life back to those people, gives them memories. His work is not decorative, not created because something is new, unique or gorgeous, but as a logical, emotional development, chosen carefully.

Videos, we are told, are different from movies. More and more collectors are buying these works which one cannot exactly put on walls to announce one's wealth and style. People have started buying copies and editions and single issues may become costly. They have code numbers, signatures, and certificates of authenticity, all the required provenance and panoply of our time. Many times, video artists create specifically for museums and galleries, not auditoriums, and add value to artistic expression, not just to exceptional objects. They are often at the early hours of what art means today.

Click here to see the exhibition Condensation: Five Video Works by Chen Chieh-jen

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