Interview by Amy Cheng, Yishu March 2003
Born in Taoyuan, Taiwan in I960, Chen Chieh-Jen is one of Taiwan’s leading Contemporary Art:
From the I980s to the early I990s, before and after the lifting of martial law in Taiwan, he was active in performance art. Starting in I996, he created the series Revolt in the Soul & Body (I900• I999) using the computer to alter historical photographs of criminal executions. In 2000, he begins his own photographic series The Twelve Karmas Under the City to explore the virtual future. His reflections on historical images and the relationship between image and power through intense and frightening images drew people’s attention.
He has taken part in international exhibitions such as the I998 Taipei Biennial, the Sao Paulo Biennial, the Taiwan pavilion at the I999 Venice Biennale, the 2000 Biennale de Lyon Contemporary Art, and the Kwangju Biennale. In 200I, he held his solo exhibition at the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris. He won the Special Award of the Kwangju Biennale in 2000. At the Taipei Biennial, which opened in November 2002 his new black-and-white film Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph was shown on three screens at a slow and lyrical speed. In the film, he links history and Contemporary Taiwan society.
IT ALL STARTED WITH A HISTORICAL PHOTOGRAPH
In the nineteenth century, with the development of colonialism, Westerners shattered the self-sufficient Eastern world with a new technology: photography. The East was seen and under¬stood in a certain way and from a certain perspective. As a result, the subject became an object that was being seen and interpreted. Chen Chi eh- Jen describes it as a kind of soul-stealing. In the process of being se en and photographed, one loses one’s subject consciousness and becomes the silent « other. » An image is thus « a kind of death frozen on the photographic paper.
The photograph used by Chen Chieh-Jen showing a lingchi scene was taken by a French soldier in I905 and made famous by Georges Bataille. It not only shows the East seen through the eyes of colonialists-through a « technological medium resembling a kind of soul-stealing instrument ¬but also a long process of dying. An analogy can be drawn between the photographed person having his or her soul stolen and the criminal’s trance-like state (as a result of the application of opium to delay death and pain). As a piece of historical evidence, the photograph reveals the power relations between spectator and spectacle. The photographed person had his or her soul taken away, just as the criminal was being subject to physical dismemberment. After the moment had been captured on camera, it became a sealed memory and a potential source of energy. In the West, due in part to Georges Bataille s interpretation, this photograph has become a key image of the aesthetics of horror dealing with religion, lust, torture, and ecstasy. But prior to I998, it was a little known image in China. In I996, Chen Chieh- Jen developed a series of photographs with computerized montage based on this lingchi photograph, posing questions about an array of issues: image/power, body/execution, politics/violence, reason/ madness … self others.
This time, Chen Chi eh- Jen has reworked this theme again in the film Lingchi, which elaborates on the theme of delayed pain and trance in order to explore contemporary living in Taiwan. More precisely, instead of revisiting the historical scene, the film deals with the present, which is the culmination of history. Through the method of « extension » (the slow motion of the film and the inter-cutting of scenes of different time and space), he magnifies the trance and prolongs the present. Only by staring at the open wounds can we step into the vestiges of history and experience the pain numbed by the film’s slow motion.
The film is full of references and symbols relating to contemporary reality, showing a cycle of past and present. Chen Chieh-Jen has used the idea of the nie ching (hell mirror) in Chinese culture as a metaphor and symbol in his discussion of image and power. In the images of hell used in funerals and funeral services in Taiwan, there are descriptions of nie ching. It is said that dead people who have fallen into hell have to face its judgment. This mirror will reflect images of their deeds and desires .during their lifetime as evidence for judgment of their sins.
Cheng: Before discussing the film Lingchi, maybe we should start with your previous series Revolt in the Soul and Body of altered historical photos of criminal executions. While working on this series, you used the idea of nie ching to discuss image and power. How do you see nie ching and power?
Chen: It is a paradoxical mirror. On the one hand, it seems to objectively record the past life of the dead. On the other hand, it seems to be eternally watching. In folklore, it can also reveal the various desires in the subconscious of the dead. I am very curious about this mirror of judgment in hell. In the image of hell, it is never really depicted or represented. What I am curious about is how does it mirror people’s desires? Or how do people affirm their own memories through the images? Who controls the images and how are they recorded? This reminds me of the beginning of martial law during the Cold War. It was only many years later that I understood what I saw on television as a child. Whether they were cartoons, historical or war movies, films about the invasion of extraterrestrials, or love stories, their purpose was to rationalize the Cold War and educate by brainwashing with entertainment. Images were transmitted for a reason. The same goes for today. nie ching also exists in this world. This was one of the reasons why I wanted to alter historical images. Cheng: In the Revolt in the Soul and Body series, you put yourself into the images and assume the multiple identities of the victim, the executioner, and the onlooker. How did you choose the historical photographs to be altered and why the multiple identities? Chen: I tried to choose the photographs of executions with unknown history as much as possible. The executed is someone who could not escape from being photographed. He could not speak and could not even escape in death. I am not interested in national history. I am interested in the « trance-like » character of historical images because of the uncertainty of the event and the silence of the person photographed. While looking at the images, we become lost in the maze of images and participants in the maze of images. According to the Daoists, a person has ten different selves. From my experiences growing up during the Cold War and the martial law period, I feel we are in a trance with multiple identities, and while in a trance, we look at ourselves and find that we are in fact the ones being photographed.
WINDOW/WOUND: THE BEGINNING OF THE GAZE
The process of going from « looking » to « gazing » proposed in the series Revolt in the Soul and Body as derived from the metaphor of nie ching is still the basis for an understanding of the film Lingchi. The film opens with the image of a ruin. In the scene of destruction, we see « windows. » This foreshadows what Chen Chieh-Jen wants us to reflect on regarding the process of lingchi.
The most stunning image in the film is the two wounds left on the chest of the tortured after being dismembered. It is the beginning and focus of the gaze. It is also the beginning of the colonialists look at the exotic East, a metaphor for colonization. This metaphor runs through the whole film, from the window to the wounds and from the wounds to the hole of the camera lens. The process is being continuously recorded and observed. As the film unfolds, time also moves forward. The late Qing onlookers become a group of modern women workers. Their silent and concentrated gaze suggests a kind of historical parallel.
The most speaking passage in the film is when two modern women gradually appear through two wound-like windows. They slowly open up the clothes of a young man between them, who also has two wounds inflicted by lingchi. When the camera enters the body of the tortured, the historical « ruins » also appear. Whether it is the site of Unit 73I in Harbin, the Luchou Village on Green Island, or the heavily polluted RCA electronics factory in Taoyuan, they are all seen in relation to the symbol of the ruins of the Summer Palace in Beijing. The Summer Palace, destroyed by the eight-power allied forces, stands for all those ruins of modern factories that were the sites of political and economic domination. These sites tell the same story and suffer the same damage. Chen Chieh-Jen sees and shows the present in the light of history. All the ruins he saw in the pro cess of filming sing the elegy of the weak. In this film, history is cyclical and keeps repeating itself. Chen Chieh-Jen says he is concerned about the women workers’ loss of orientation after being eliminated in the pro cess of globalization. Contemporary history is characterized by this trance-like disorientation.
Cheng: If the aesthetics of the black-and-white photographic series Revolt in the Soul and Body is based on the reworking of historical photographs, what do you think of the film medium and the relationship between the inside and outside of the body?
Chen: The Daoists have an « Internal Medicine Diagram;’ that uses lands capes and seasonal division points to illustrate the balance between the internal organs of the body and external nature. But what is the inside of our body like today? In my view, the mutilated body of the tortured in- the historical lingchi photo is also like a ruin and is the centre of dizziness. That is why I let the camera enter the inside of the body. There, we see the historical ruins and the modern ruins of the factories outside the body. To me, they form a kind of continuity. Most of the actors in the film are unemployed workers. A few of them are students. For most of them, this was the first time they had acted in a film. Their bodies hardly move in the film. I am interested in the bodies that cannot move. Taiwan does not really have a film industry. Everything is fragmented. I wanted to construct a fragmented narrative so that the audience would ask who these people were because of the fragmented narrative. I hope the questions will begin where the film ends because to me, fragmentation is both the form and the content.
Cheng: How about the slow rhythm from beginning to end?
Chen: The punishment of lingchi is a slow and endless process. At the same time, I want the audience to gaze at every face in the film. The actors are not only reconstructing a historical execution, but also expressing their present plight. That is why I let the actor playing the tortured keep his modern haircut. I do not think we can really « represent history. » What I wanted to do was trace the origin of our « trance » and the beginning of fragmentation from our present feeling, in order to think about how we entered an endless cycle from there.
PAIN AND TRANCE
The person being tortured represents the subject of the history of the weak. But as part of historical development, are we conscious of the pain ourselves? This is probably one of the reasons why Chen Chieh- Jen wanted to explore and present the state of « trance. » In the film, the tortured is given opium to prolong the trance and delay the pain. The moment between life and death is extended to the present. The face of the tortured going from trance to ecstasy remains etched on our memory. If the historical truth is all too obvious under Chen Chieh-Jen’s gaze, is it also the most accurate reflection of our situation? Taiwan is undergoing a modernization and globalization process. The coming of the world of consumption and technology may have brought some optimism about the future. But that may be because we are in such a trance that we are unable to feel the pain of the present moment. Chen Chieh-Jen aptly described the state of « trance » or even « ecstasy » we are in: In my view, Taiwan is perfectly happy to play the role of an end-receiver in the world of consumption created by multi-national enterprises and the media. It is happy to be dominated. In fact, it is even difficult to differentiate between our pain and our happiness. The post-colonial period is an extension of the colonial period. Third World countries continue to be dominated by the cultural, capitalist, technological, and globalizes ideology of the colonialists. Although the post -colonial period also signifies a turning point, nurturing the growth of ideological opposition in Third World Countries, such opposition cannot stop the continuation of manipulation. If history repeats itself again in the future, can we escape from this destiny?
Cheng: If the trance has become internalized, can we break away from this « trance? »
Chen: The trance has not merely been internalized. We are in a collective trance. We cannot be anywhere else. We are not even in the East .We are merely inside the consumer society created by multi-national capital. There is no escape. But this does not give cause for pessimism. Due to the Cold War, Taiwan became a downstream processing site for multi-national capital. While making this film, I went to the processing sites and saw factories, which had closed and fallen into disuse, as well as a growing number of unemployed workers. We once got rich by serving multi-national capital. Now, we have been dumped after the globalization of multi-national capital. The bubble has burst. This is a very important lesson for us. Taiwan once helped to rationalize the Cold War. We served the interest of multi-national enterprises and Western hegemony and discriminated against the poor, non-western countries. We called these the values of progress and believed in them. We let ourselves be completely alienated. The trance to a state of ecstasy of the lingchi victim is to be differentiated from the trance caused by alienation. The trance of the tortured was caused by passive taking of opium. But the ecstatic smile was active. There is potential energy in the trance to state of ecstasy experienced by the tortured. In making the film, wanted to re-examine and explore this energetic state. The faint smile of the lingchi victim in the historical picture was an active smile while being given opium, while being dismembered, and while being photographed. It was not just ecstasy, but also a small active smile full of defiance. It is a hundred-year smile captured on the photograph. To me, this smile suggests a mad, active cultural strategy to escape from the value system of the consumer society. With a mad smile, one renames oneself.
NAMING THE FUTURE
For Chen Chieh- Jen, history is cyclical and not linear. He uses the Buddhist concept of reincarnation to explain this cyclical view of history. In his eyes, time has to do with causality. As such, there is no real past, present, or future. What the historical photograph shows is a moment. If we can use it as a starting point, we can transcend the chronology of time, the power relations, and the position of viewing. We may be able to understand the present and the future. As a portrayal of the present, Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph opens up a gap in the present for energy to flow through and open up possibilities for the future. As a result, it is no longer impossible to re-define the future actively.
« The Asia Society has included none of Mr. Chen’s photographs, out of which evolved the artist’s first video, the 21-minute film « Lingchi-Echoes of a Historical Photograph » (2002), the most complete work in the exhibit. « Lingchi » refers to the punishment of death « by a thousand cuts » for the crime of murder. The film is a fictional account of a real event. It was inspired by a series of photographs of an actual execution, taken by a Frenchman in China in 1905 and made famous when it was reproduced and meditated upon in Georges Bataille’s « Tears of Eros. »
Projected in slow motion and in black-and-white on three screens, each tinted with color, the video walks a fine line between disturbing snuff film and homoerotic dreamscape. It suggests brutal and inhuman torture and methodical, religious, sacrificial ritual. The victim, tied to a post and stripped naked, is given copious amounts of opium. The drug is also massaged into his skin to prolong the execution — the process whereby his flesh, genitals, and limbs are gradually sliced away at the center of a crowd of clamoring, yet respectful, onlookers. « Lingchi, » which includes the original photographs, on which it is based, is tastefully cropped. The film’s hide-and-seek framing adds to its horror and — provoking us to bob and weave in a futile attempt to see the action — turns viewer into bystander.
« Lingchi » is a political artwork brimming with browbeating messages: Entrancing to watch, it reminds us of our institutionalized and civilized brutality, our cultural prejudices, and our morbid sense of curiosity. Yet, mixing eroticism with murder, it also plays on our weaknesses. I guess this is fair game. But I could not help but wonder: Is this film, which pushes all of our contemporary buttons — I was reminded of the cell phone images of the Kurdish girl who was recently stoned to death in Iraq, as the authorities stood idly by — fueled more by artistic or manipulative prowess? »
LANCE ESPLUND-The New York Sun – 10july 2007