Found in translation, an interpreter
of human maladies
May 16, 2008
(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)
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.
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?
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?
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.
'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.