Taiwan Mon Amour

John Haber
in New York City

Chen Chieh-Jen: Condensation

Translucent, Transparent, Transported

The five videos in "Condensation" run a good thirty minutes apiece, and they might well belong to a single feature-length film. One could imagine it running in art houses around 1960, the year of the artist's birth.

How did the costs of globalization become an art film, with an Asian cast? Chen Chieh-Jen finds loveliness, pride, brutality, and numbingly obvious messages, but also touchingly real faces. As an afterward, I look at three New York artists who force a collision between their Chinese heritage and modern art. Chen Chieh-Jen's Factory (photo by the artist, Asia Society, 2003)

Global cinema

Chen's videos have the slow pans, slower action, and dislocations in time of those "foreign films." They have the characters wearied by poverty, ordinary life, and the suffering of a saint. Actors may adopt the tableau of an epic or a freeze frame. When someone does takes action, one cannot always know when the video has shifted into slow motion. Faces speak ambiguously of exhaustion, incomprehension, emptiness, stoicism, or pain. Gestures may belong to a street entertainer as easily as to a garment worker.

Subtitles occasionally translate a sign, and title screens divide some videos into numbered chapters. They only underscore the two and one half hours of unbroken silence. One video, which stages a 1905 photograph, sticks to black and white. The rest have the heavily muted color of factory roofs, bare interiors in a night of driving rain, and transcription from sixteen-millimeter film.

If one wanders between rooms, one might be catching moments from the same DVD reissue. Forms slump over a desk. Faces turn upward in search of understanding or relief. On one screen, men scavenge abandoned chairs, while another screen lingers over a ceiling-high pile of them. Elsewhere a man bundles political magazines into a truck. They carry as little meaning or order as the desks and chairs.

These first three videos enter factories and offices in Taiwan put out of business by cheaper overseas labor. Chen casts people who actually lost their jobs, obliging them to return after years to the scene of the crime. Women rise from a hooded sleep to look toward the light. They hold in grim solidarity a coat that they may once have made. They labor over sewing machines that they can no longer bring to life. Even threading a needle has become a burden or a triumph.

As if to make their pain that much more explicit, the fourth video reenacts lingchi, or "death by a thousand cuts." As the 1905 photo documented, the executioner drugged a young man with opium before dismembering him with a knife. The last video stages a picket line, precisely where Taiwanese in reality had acted as strikebreakers in a British-led protest against globalization. It could end the exhibition with a glimpse of futility or hope, and who is to say?

Chen obviously admires European and Asian film. In Europe alone, Michelangelo Antonioni had the blockage of meaning, Alain Resnais the sense of disaster cut short only by the looping in time. Jean-Luc Godard had the chapter intertitles, to signal film as anything but unfiltered events. Italian Neorealism had the factories, and Federico Fellini turned that into a dark comedy of the streets. You can probably tick off the debts to many others.

Carrying the message

The pace and sixteen-millimeter format have a debt, too, but to underground film and early video art. A static shot of an immense, polygonal atrium may have another art referent as well, a well-known photograph by Andreas Gursky. One might also describe Chen's striving for austere perfection as Gursky or Bill Viola with a social conscience. Conversely, Viola's search for timeless truths may suggest the limits of Chen's rootedness in events. He, too, is concerned for matters of life and death, the proverbial human condition.

I dwell so much on form because the five works do, too. Nothing within the video identifies the magazines as political. In fact, when explicit commentary does slip in, it seems obvious to the point of hectoring. A billboard identifies one deserted industrial setting as "The Majestic City." A pocket American flag blinks on and off like a dashboard light. America, it seems to say, which so long propped up the island's independence from China, has sold it out.

A TV set occasionally displays fighter planes and their exploding payload. At other times world leaders toast a trade agreement, as the subtitles dutifully explain. Exactly the intrusions of found life seem tacked on. Chen seems most at home in the world when he pays less attention to the details. Maybe he has to forget what he sees and what he knows, so that he can simply stare.

Earnestness this overwrought can grow just plain beautiful or as excruciating as the executioner's knife. Do not expect the dockworkers' strike to break out into the anarchy of Dada, Duck Soup, Godard's Weekend, or René Clair's A Nous La Liberté—or, for that matter, the firm, ugly conclusion of a military suppression. Chen uses images out of science fiction to describe global capitalism as a post-apocalyptic world. He might be describing the global art scene as well. The picket signs carry their message in both Chinese and English.

For art about globalization, crossing continents, and Asian American art with a New York audience, it also has a curious inwardness. French soldiers took the infamous photograph of lingchi, with troubling implications for the responsibility of onlookers and the claimed superiority of cultures. In Chen's video the gawkers, too, are Chinese, and they strain to catch every second. Few visitors to Asia society will identify their gaze with the anonymity of economic power or even the tawdry American flag. I tried to imagine myself putting the women out of work by buying a cheaper version of that coat. I could never detach myself from their world merely by contemplating art.

Yet that, too, has its insights. Where it comes to job loss, an American is likely to think of bleak Midwestern cities, as in Ed Ruscha's Course of Empire. Americans are also likely to blame unseen, voiceless Asian workers, with marginal sympathy only for African exiles. Chen's sewing machine factory, intercut with historical footage of perhaps the same women at work, gives their pride and struggle a new face.

Cracks are showing

The three artists in "Translucent, Transparent, Transported" share a Chinese heritage and subject matter peculiar to modern life, but not much else. However, each contributor has an attraction to varied materials and a sense of play. Unlike for Cai Guo-Qiang, the perspectives of China and America do not require the callousness of the Cultural Revolution and the spectacle of Times Square.

Lin Yan molds rice paper and soaks it in black ink, so that it takes the shape of sheet metal and exposed brick. She juxtaposes inherited and industrial materials, an artist's craft and her studio environment, and black and white, in order to propose conflicted meanings for fragile and lasting. I found the squares too uninteresting for that, but sometimes slim layers of white escape out the bottom, becoming more tactile and elusive.

Hu Bing does much better by letting the seams show, as well as in abandoning confining imagery of some past work. When she drapes white glass over black metal, to represent a towel on a hanger, the glass gains the weight and fluidity of an icicle. When she places cracked glass sheets through slits in empty bottles, the varied uses, textures, and degrees of translucency for a single substance play off one another. And the spidery cracks in their vessels resemble specimens in a museum of natural history.

As in "Oil and Water" at the Museum of Chinese in America, Zhang Hongtu juggles the greatest number of cultural referents, with the rare virtue of not shoving any of them down one's throat. His prints look like pages torn from a Christie's catalog, and it takes a moment to realize that he has not made the most obvious move of photographing the real thing, like an update of Louise Lawler for today's soaring market. One might notice the McDonald's logo added digitally next to Chinese characters before one even deciphers the object up for auction. A decorative surface connoting porcelain takes the shape of a Big Mac's packaging or a Coke bottle. A larger series backs further away from an obvious satire of consumerism. Here the objects have the green patina, animal heads, and devilish look of ancient statuary, but their style of clothing came into fashion only with Mao.

The text may describe a curator's dream, but the photographs show the artist's actual painting and sculpture. Zhang is appropriating himself, in a digital medium that notoriously commands lower prices. For a further degree of irony, some of it just went for sale at auction—and, I gather, did quite well. One might expect the additional move, past quotation in art to self-quotation on paper, to devolve into obvious satire, but the distancing tactic actually helps free the work from snark. I liked the series best, because it works together as a real auction lot. The Chapman Brothers have already exhibited altered fast-food containers and called it a political manifesto. By claiming less, these prints accomplish more.

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Chen Chieh-Jen's "Condensation" ran at Asia Society through August 5, 2007, "Translucent, Transparent, Transported" at Cheryl McGinnis through May 5.


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