Through his photographs, performances and video installations, Chen Chieh-jen (陈界仁) engages with Taiwan's recent history of martial law and the effects of globalisation on the lives of marginalised people.
As a young artist in the 1980s, Chen was primarily known for his guerrilla-style performances that challenged Taiwan's martial law system, which subjected civilian life to strict military control from 1949 until 1987. Staged in October 1983, the performance Dysfunction No.3 saw Chen and some of his friends don white khaki pants and pull cotton bags over their heads in a protest against the elections for Taiwan's Legislative Yuan, which the artist considered to be undemocratic. He chose the popular Ximending district to stage the performance, as it was observed closely by the police. There, Chen and his friends were joined by others, and the performance grew into a large public gathering that briefly suspended the usual activities in the street. The crowd also outnumbered the police, who became a subject of surveillance themselves and were compelled to allow the artist and his party to leave peacefully.
Following the lifting of martial law in 1987, Chen turned his attention to the impact of globalisation and consumer society on Taiwan's working class. Interspersed into his works are his own family's history as workers (his brother was a street vendor) and life in the industrial areas of Taoyuan, where he grew up. It was also during this period that Chen began experimenting with video, often combining archival and current footage and photographic images to reinterpret Chinese and Taiwanese histories. Most of his films are silent—a reflection of the lives of his subjects who were sidelined in the process of Taiwan's rapid urban development and industrialisation.
Chen's first video, presented at the 2002 Taipei Biennial and titled Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photograph, derives its name from a form of ancient Chinese execution known as lingchi in which the condemned is slowly put to death by marking his body with 1000 cuts. One photograph of lingchi—taken in the early 20th century by a French soldier and later disseminated by the French philosopher Georges Bataille—forms the starting point of Chen's film, which seeks to embody the process of slow death through slow motion. At the same time, the artist intermixes the photograph with images of the ruins of historical sites, factories and workers disabled by industrial accidents to draw parallels between the historical execution and contemporary scenes of violence and mistreatment. In contrast to many of his video works, Chen included small sounds in Lingchi—produced from the electromagnetic waves emitted by the artist's skin—as a way of situating himself within the film.
Chen drew attention to a historical moment featuring workers in Taiwan again in The Route—a video installation commissioned by Tate Liverpool for the 2006 Liverpool Biennial. The film consists of footage about the Liverpool docks dispute, which began in 1995 when more than 300 dock-workers were fired by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Company for showing support for labourers sacked by another company. Gaining international attention, the incident led to dock-workers in Vancouver, Yokohama and Kobe refusing to allow the container ship Neptune Jade—which had departed from Liverpool—to unload at their ports. The Neptune Jade eventually sailed to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, where it was dismantled and sold.
Chen's interests in Taiwan's rapid industrialisation and economic reforms has taken the form of collaboration with young people as well. Happiness Building I, screened at the 2012 Taipei Biennial and Guangzhou Triennial, is a film about the occupants of a fictional rental apartment scheduled for demolition. A result of working with recent university graduates and graduate students (some of whom also appear in the video), Happiness Building I portrays the difficulty of Chen's collaborators to find jobs, despite the high level of education they have received. The sets used in the film were inspired by the cheap residential areas throughout New Taipei City and Taoyuan County that the artist encountered, while the title is derived from a common name for such establishments in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. At the Biennial, Chen transported the sets—constructed by the students from discarded materials—to the exhibition space alongside the video, to bring the site closer to the audience.
Chen has held solo exhibitions internationally, notably After the Financial Crisis and Automated Production, Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei (2018); A Field of Non-Field, Long March Space, Beijing (2017); Factory, The Route, Empire's Borders I & II, Mudam Luxembourg (2013); and Condensation: Five Video Works by Chen Chieh-jen, Asia Society, New York (2007). He has participated regularly in the Taipei Biennial since 1996 and other international fairs such as the 20th Biennale of Sydney (2016); Venice Biennale (2009, 2005, 1999); and the 6th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (2009), among others. In 2018, Chen was awarded the 12th annual Artist of the Year award at the Award of Art China.
Chen works and lives in Taipei.
Chen Chieh-jen's exhibition at Lin & Lin, After the Financial Crisis and Automated Production, featured a selection of his old and recent works exploring ways in which Taiwanese have been affected by neoliberal capitalism and technological developments. The show revealed how Chen's approach to these themes has changed since the 1990s.
On May 21, Taiwanese artist and filmmaker Chen Chieh-jen received the prestigious Artist of the Year honor at the Award of Art China (AAC) ceremony in Beijing. In its 12th year, AAC is an annual award founded by Chinese art media group Artron, recognizing the best of contemporary art within Greater China. Chen was presented with a trophy for his...
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