Images by Chieh-jen Chen
Translated by Q. Lei
QL: Would you say that the social class you belong to shapes your work?
Chen: I grew up in the martial law period (1949-1987) in Taiwan. It was a time marked by the Cold War and anti-communist propaganda. The area I grew up in was surrounded by a military prison, a sanatorium, munitions factories, industrial areas, and illegal shantytowns. It was a world divided by visible and invisible walls. The fact that I grew up in an area like this necessarily made me sympathetic to people of the lower class who were oppressed and marginalized by the society. One can also say that the lives of these people and their history have lived in my consciousness since a long time ago.
What inspired me most was how these people despite their difficult circumstances remained optimistic about life and even gave birth to a poetic sensibility. In such a small area where it seemed art could not possibly exist, they somehow still found means of self-expression. For instance, workers of my father’s generation still chanted old Chinese poems, which was a skill that most of the intellectuals at the time already lost. Another example was my mother. My mother never went to school, but she learnt to compose songs from listening to local operas. I remembered when she worked she would always hum those songs to herself. I remembered many stories like that.
I kept these stories in the depth of my memories, until one day I became increasingly suspicious of the history of modern art as it was studied in art and educational institutions, and these stories resurfaced in my mind. The forms of these local arts did not so much interest me as their ways of thinking and transforming everyday material into art. I found them inspiring. Some even possessed quite radical worldviews and views of life, which significantly influenced the art I later started to create myself as a visual artist.
QL: Your images have the conflicting quality of being very surreal and rooted in everyday experience at the same time. Where do you find your inspirations?
Chen: Everyday experience is the source of one’s sensibility, but it is also where contradictions take place. What we call “inspiration” sometimes is just a clash of contradictions.
During the martial law period, I tried to find my artistic expression in American contemporary art, as it was being imported into Taiwan at the time. But their artistic view, which was very far away from my own life experience, made me fall into a very nihilistic state, and I gradually lost my passion in art. Eight years after I gave up making art, I happened to return to where I grew up. I saw those military prison, sanatorium, munitions factories, and industrial areas again, I met again those people who were cast from different cities in China and Taiwan to live together in this small area. I realized what I saw in front of me—the so-called “reality,” which encompassed interwoven times, spaces, histories, memories, emotions, and conflicts. Everyone’s consciousness and body carry these interwoven times and spaces. As soon as I realized that, my creative passion was rekindled. What I mean is that life experience inspires new forms of art, it is not connected to art forms that are already known, but to art that is unknown.
QL: What do you think about the relations between art and politics?
Chen: As everyone knows, art and politics are two inseparable fields. I want to compare it to our cognitive system where various conflicting concepts, and both reason and emotion, coexist. These conflicting things in our cognitive system are related to art and politics, the self and the other, to govern and to be governed, at the same time. In other words, I think art and politics are interrelated symbiosis.
QL: There is always a sense of political urgency in your work. Is it your goal to inspire social movements with your art? Do you see your art as a form of resistance?
Chen: Although I know quite a few activists personally, practically my current circumstances do not allow me to participate in social movements in the long run. Whether it is social movement or the production of art, it is always about sustained effort. Hence, as an artist, I am more interested in the capacity of art to open up a new space for resistance, to find a new way of intervention when a social movement reaches an impasse.
My most recent piece, “Realm of Reverberations,” (2014-2016) is a good example of this. “Realm of Reverberations” was inspired by the “Losheng Sanatorium Movement”—it was a social movement that aimed to fight against the Taiwanese government’s forced demolition of the Losheng Sanatorium, which housed leprosy patients. The movement lasted for ten years. But by the end of 2008, over 70 percent of the Losheng Sanatorium had been demolished, and the movement subsequently reached a low point. Apart from a few activists who kept on fighting, the movement was no longer covered by the media nor paid attention to by the public. As I happened to know some of the activists, I started to invest time in the idea of rekindling the younger generation’s interests in the movement and in its extended social meanings in 2013. I spent three years creating a series of videos and activities which attempted to reopen the space of discussion for the “Losheng Sanatorium Movement.” To put it simply, I wanted put forth this question with “Realm of Reverberations”: if the forced isolation of leprosy patients was a traditional means of governance, what is the new means of isolation, what is today’s “Losheng Sanatorium”?
Three years into this art project, those activists who keep on fighting against the demolition of the sanatorium decide that they will organize a massive demonstration this April in forms different from the movement before. Of course, I wouldn’t say that my art directly inspired them, but what I want to say is that when it comes to social movements, there always needs to be new discovery of the problematic and the development of new forms of resistance. Art provides a space for imagining new forms of resistance outside of the box. In other words, for me, the meaning of resistance lies not only in resistance itself, but also in inspiring new social imaginations.
QL: There are many violent scenes and images in your work. What is your opinion on the representation of violence in visual works?
Chen: In the mid-1990s up to 2002, I did a series of artwork on the subject of torture in human history. But actually what I was really interested in was not the images of torture itself, but two rarely discussed topics. The first was “the history of the photographed or the filmed” which was rarely discussed in the history of film or photography, especially when it concerned non-Western individuals and societies. A hundred years or so after the technology of photography was invented, these individuals were merely included into the history of photography as “voiceless subjects.” Obviously, images of torture were one of the most complicated and extreme examples of the “voiceless subjects” in photography and film history.
The other issue I wanted to explore via those images was their composition. Their basic elements always include: the tortured, the onlookers, the executor, the person who created the image behind the camera, and the bureaucratic group which gave order to the execution. In other words, images of public execution or torture are also profile images of “politics founded on death” in the sense that they are composed of the law-breaker, an anonymous audience, the lower-ranked executor, the outsider who recorded the event, and the bureaucrats who ensure the smooth operation of the penalty system. I wanted to ask the question of what kind of role we play in the “politics founded on death.”
QL: What is your opinion on violence in general?
Chen: Visible and invisible violence is undoubtedly a complex subject. I can only speak about it briefly here. In modern life, in particular in the entertainment industry that you are speaking of, violent images have already become the norm. They have become a device for stress relief, whose primary function is to provide the audience instant pleasure and a temporary escape from the stress of everyday life. I often compare it to drone weapons in that when the operator of a drone weapon drops a bomb, he or she can only see the massive explosion in the operating room, which makes it as if the violence of war is nothing but video games as it causes no “real pain.”
A long-term task for artists of our time, I believe, is to make pain visible and “feelable,” and more importantly, to make the various power apparatuses who try to conceal acts of violence visible and knowable.
QL: Do you think that a lot of films and other media today work to entertain the masses, making them the passive receiver of information or entertainment? What do you think the relationship is between your work and the public?
Chen: Any technology, when it is first born, already carries with it the conflicting quality of being both medicine and poison at the same time. It will have both the positive side, which is usually widely spoken of and the negative side, which is less likely to be considered when it was first invented. It is the same for image making technology. As the capitalist system operates at a faster and faster speed, the majority of people have to give up their free time for the sake of survival in the system. Then, the entertainment industry as a device for stress relief becomes almost omnipresent in our society.
Of course, we need entertainment. But the problem is the means of entertainment, or more exactly, the homogenization of leisure. For me, the key to change lies not only in critiquing the cultural industries, but we as artists must think of and practice new social imaginations. We not only need to retrieve the leisure time that people are deprived of, but also to suggest new answers to the question of “what is entertainment?”
Perhaps what we call the “sweep-floor plays” during the agricultural period can still inspire us today. The so-called “sweep-floor plays” were plays created by farmers during their leisure time. They would sweep the floor clean of a small space in their village, usually under a big tree, and then put on a play for their fellow farmers to watch. I am particularly interested in such a self-organized cultural production. When the play is on, it is not only the moment when art takes place, but also a moment when a farmer is not restricted to his or her own identity as a farmer, but becomes a farmer, an artist and whichever character he or she is playing all at once. The space where the play takes place becomes an interwoven space-time.
The reason why I use this as an example is because I see the importance of encouraging this kind of self-organized cultural production when media technology has become so cheap and easy to use. But more so, I think we should encourage a culture of dissent where the number of likes or views is not seen as important, because only in this way the masses can turn into active citizens who are not afraid of upholding opposite viewpoints than what is accepted by the mainstream.
If you look at my own artwork as well, few people are interested in what I do. But in the past ten years or so I’ve always been working with the same groups of people: unemployed workers, temporary workers, migrant workers, foreign spouses, jobless youths, and social activists. We have become the “sweep-floor play” artists of our time. I believe in the development of a new mass culture from the collaboration of just a few active individuals.
QL: How do you view the relationship between the individual and society?
Chen: I want to speak about this with an episode that happened to me a few years ago. I was invited to attend an art exhibition in New Orleans, which was part of an effort to restore New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. When I applied for a non-immigration visa at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT), I was rejected of my visa because the officer suspected me of intention of illegal immigration. Afterward, I created a blog titled “The Illegal Immigrant,” collecting different cases of verbal violence and discrimination during visa interviews at the AIT. It also served as a platform where people discussed the ways in which the relevant institutes can change the discriminating system of visa application as well as the structural problems behind it.
I developed the project “Empire’s Borders I” out of people’s comments on my blog. The video comprises two parts: the first part consists of eight typical cases of Taiwanese citizens being verbally abused and rejected of a US visa for unknown reasons; the second part consists of eight cases of Mainland China spouses also being grilled and discriminated at the airport and at the Taiwanese National Immigration Agency.
This project was perhaps the first open objection to the unequal visa systems between Taiwan and the US. In February 2010, when the AIT published their official Facebook page, many people commented on their page criticizing their visa system. The AIT deleted all the protesting comments afterward.
Being one of the US’s “allies” in Asia has led to the silence of the Taiwanese people when it comes to inequality in visa systems. However, when someone stands out to protest, there will naturally be more people who are willing to stand out as well to testify with their own experience of discrimination.
After Trump was elected, followed by a series of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim policies, I often question if the American people truly know how their government treats people who are not its citizens. I also ask myself if the Taiwanese people ever truly reflect on the reasons why Taiwan plays the role of a humble servant to the US. Returning to your question about the relationship between the individual and society, I believe that only when there are individuals who dare to voice their dissent, we can have a more equal society.