Art as Resistance: an Interview with Taiwanese Artist Chen Chieh-jen

by Carla Ingrasciotta
December 22, 2016
Carla Ingrasciotta

On the occasion of the solo show “The Bianwen Book I”, running from December 6, 2016 to January 15, 2017 at Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei, we interviewed the artist Chen Chieh-jen ( born in 1960, Taoyuan, Taiwan). The artist currently works and lives in Taipei.

Since the early 1980s, Chen Chieh-jen has been an influent figure of Taiwanese conceptual art. The artist challenges the limits of expression with guerrilla performances, underground exhibitions and interventions in public spaces. In his art, Chen reflects upon historical events he has lived, addressing contemporary social and political issues.

Carla Ingrasciotta: Let’s start with your exhibition currently running at Lin & Lin Gallery in Taipei. On this occasion you’re presenting an installation titled “The Bianwen Book I”, a visual storytelling of people living into the darkness, often oppressed and marginalized by the political economy. Could you tell us about the process of creation of this artwork?

Chen Chieh-jen: I grew up on a narrow strip of land surrounded by a military prison (mainly housing political prisoners), munitions factory, industrial area, sanitarium, and illegal buildings. In certain respects this was a gloomy world enclosed by both tangible and intangible walls. Growing up in this environment, I naturally noticed the so-called lowest rung of society being oppressed and marginalized. But I was more interested in how these people developed a positive lifestyle, which had its unique poetry, even under such harsh conditions. What I mean to say is, in a space where art seems impossible, these people still managed to express themselves and their perceptions. For example, people of my father’s generation would recite Tang Dynasty poetry in its original language, while most academics of the period lacked this ability. Also, my mother, who never received a formal education, could mix different melodies to invent her own songs just by listening to folk opera. She would then sing to herself while working. I have more than a few stories like this floating through my mind.

These stories and methods that I observed in my childhood were once deeply repressed memories, but when I started doubting the conventional art history narrative, they reemerged. I don’t mean that the external form of traditional folk art newly interested me, but rather that I discovered some ways of thinking and processes of development within them. They are actually very inspiring, even radical ways of seeing the world and life.

Bianwen is a good example. Most of these are about the written record of oral Buddhist teachings that arose after the religion spread from India to China. The teachings were adapted from esoteric Sutras by sujiang (俗講, folk recitation) monks who strove to spread Buddhism among ordinary people by chanting easy to understand stories. These chants in their written form were called bianwen texts. They became very popular, gradually shedding their Buddhist character as they were developed into legends, novels, operas, music and other folk art forms to satisfy popular taste. Actually, their inspiring or radical features only arose after their religious and feudal morality was discarded, and their power to subvert feudal ethics was unleashed. Bianwen further inspired the people by making the Buddhist notion of the equality of all living things a universal conviction. This resulted in the traditional feudal ruling class prohibiting the recitation of bianwen.

For these reasons, I titled this exhibition “The Bianwen Book I“, which comprises a contemporary admix of video, writing, painting, installation art, and film and theater sets that I have made over the last twenty years. The intention of these works has been dissent in the form of re-imagining and rewriting people and events that had been hidden or excluded by biopolitics and the structure of the political economy.

C.I.: Your art has always acted as a response to Taiwan’s dominant political mechanisms, especially linked to the Cold War, the anti-communist propaganda and the martial law (1949–87). How do you translate your need of expression and resistance into your art?

C.C.: Post cold war might be one way of describing the contemporary political climate of Europe, but in East Asia, questions of whether we have yet entered the post cold war period still remain. Simply put, in discussing the contemporary political situation of East Asia, especially when considering how neoliberalism has affected all countries in the region, the cold war and cultural cold war are two impossible to avoid issues.

It is commonly understood that the past and future are bound to the present, because how we think and act now influences the future of human society. Regarding my own work, I’m not interested in simply going back through history, but rather introducing various historical factors contributing to today’s social predicaments into contemporary fields of inquiry to the greatest extent possible. In this way, I form multiple dialectics while sustaining a field of confrontational tension.

Taking my work “Military Court and Prison” as an example, from the title alone, one would think it is about the history of white terror during Taiwan’s martial law period. But right from the beginning of the video, the audience can easily see that it is shot inside a factory and not a real court or prison. Furthermore, the actor portraying a victim of white terror is not dressed as a prisoner, but is a young man dressed in a factory uniform. At the end of the video when the actors write down their real names and identities, the audience can clearly see that the work is about a contemporary prison without walls, and not an historical military court and prison.

The original meaning of the Chinese word bianwen (變文) includes concepts of translation, conversion, adaptation, and fabrication, which are ways of retelling stories such that they spread out and multiply. This narrative form also continually interferes on a qualitative level with the dominant narrative intended by the ruling class.

C.I.: Your art is a multidisciplinary collector of memories, ideologies, stories. First, you engage to the people developing your own vision of their lives. What is it like working with local citizen and making them the main protagonists of your art?

C.C: In pre-industrial times, Min-nan farmers living in the Taiwan and China would sweep clean a spot in the village, perhaps under a tree, and perform local operas during the non-growing season for their fellow villagers. This form of cultural production organized for villagers’ amusement was called lo-deh sao, meaning “to sweep the ground.” Also, in China’s history of peasant uprisings, these performances were often used to disseminate information or rally the masses.

For me, shooting video is a way of producing contemporary lo-deh sao, but instead of farmers, I work with unemployed laborers, temporary and migrant workers, foreign spouses, unemployed youth, and those involved in social movements.

Taiwan has quite a few social movements, and I have known some of their members for a long time, so it is easy to collaborate with them. The key point is getting participants to completely trust me, which naturally requires some time. For “Factory”, for example, I waited for a year to tell the women workers who would be in the film my idea for the artwork. We had been together occupying the factory, which was still owned by investors, for that time. Quite simply, after people become friends, things get much easier.

C.I.: How would you describe the contemporary art scene of the city?

C.C.: Although certain political, economic, and geographical features prevent the contemporary Taiwanese art scene from developing large-scale projects, I’ve seen very few other places where there is as much freedom to create as there is in Taipei or Taiwan. Naturally, this is related to the widespread memory among the people of restrictions on freedom of speech during Taiwan’s martial law period, the result of which is that no authority would dare restrict or interfere with any topic in, or form of, contemporary art today. Of course the invisible influence of the art market and governmental cultural policies under neoliberalism are considerable, as they try to control the direction of art, but this is a global issue. Still, I believe there are artists everywhere who are developing resistance, or trying to qualitatively change these invisible walls restricting art.

C.I.: Could you tell us five places in Taipei you would suggest to someone who loves art?

C.C: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, TheCube Project Space, Taipei Contemporary Art Center, ITPark, and Waley Art.

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