press release

Chen Chieh-jen (Taoyuan, Taiwan, 1960) is one of Asia’s most prominent emerging artists in the international art scene today. In his work, he presents a critical reflection on the strategies of power, questioning his country’s recent history. By recapturing specific situations that bring to light mechanisms of control, violence, subjection and alienation, he explores the complex relationships between the image and power present in visual language. His work has been chosen to participate in renowned biennials, like those in Sao Paulo (1998), Venice (1999 y 2005), Kwangju (2000), Shanghai (2004), Liverpool and Sydney (2006) and Istanbul (2007). Recently, the Asian Society and Museum of New York dedicated a retrospective exhibition to his video art.

Chen grew up under the Kuomintang dictatorship, which ruled Taiwan until 1991. His father was a soldier in the KMT army, relocated to the island in 1949. As a child, the artist lived in a neighborhood inhabited principally by families made up of mixed couples, with a Chinese father and a Taiwanese mother. Located near his childhood house was a prison holding political detainees, which also served as a military tribunal during the years of Martial Law (1947-1987). Memories of this prison stayed with Chen, alluded to in the work he presents here, Military Court and Prison.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Chen participated in groups with alternative artists. He was interested in performance art during these years, which produced significant cultural activity in a context that requited the end of the military dictatorship under General Chiang Kai-Shek. The year 1987, when Martial Law was lifted, represents the point of departure that consolidated contemporary art after nearly thirty years of dictatorship, without forgetting the role Taiwanese intellectuals played since the 1960s in reclaiming democracy and cultural identity. Since then, Taiwanese society has changed very rapidly, and Chen attempts to understand, among other changes, the complex political, social and cultural underpinnings of this transformation by retracing places from his childhood and the memory of his country. With this aim, he returned to his artistic practice.

In 1996, he began working on a series of black and white photographs Revolt in the Soul & Body, in which he digitally altered historical photographs of massacres, inserting himself within them as a victim and executioner at the same time. In his second series, 12 Karmas Under the City, Chen proposes a future shaped by scenes from Hollywood science fiction films and analyzes how cinematic fiction is a tool that can condition our disillusioned perspective of the present and future.

In 2002, he created his first video, Lingchi - Echoes of a Historical Photograph, inspired by a famous photograph of torture that Georges Bataille also cited when reflecting on pain and ecstasy in his work The Tears of Eros. The image forms one of many photograph-postcards in circulation in Europe during the colonial era, shaping the Western view of Chinese culture, even though, paradoxically, it was relatively unknown in China and Taiwan. The photograph depicts the torture known as “death by a thousand cuts.” Chen reinterprets this image as a response from the “other,” reconsidering “history” and showing what has been intentionally hidden and forgotten.

The Factory (2003) shows the impact that globalization and relocation have had on workers in the textile industry in Taiwan. Bade Area (2005)reveals the same consequences on the urban landscape, where the process of transformation erases traces from the past and the perception of the future. On Going (2006) approaches Taiwanese politics in relation to the United States during the Cold War. In The Route (2006), based on the Liverpool shipyard strike during Thatcher era politics, Chen reproduces a fictitious strike of Taiwanese shipyard workers, denouncing the isolation experienced by Taiwan in the international scene.

Military Court and Prison (2007-2008) contains two videos, the first, one hour in length and the second, approximately five minutes. The longer of the two is more personally related to Chen’s memories of the prison and military court that existed nearby his family’s house in the County of Taipei. The other video represents the government’s official view of the dictatorship years and Martial Law in Taiwan. This is his first work with sound, given that his previous videos were silent, slow motion recordings, two technical features that characterize his work.

The video’s protagonist is a political dissident who has been incarcerated for a long time in this prison, as a symbol of a person forgotten by everyone—that is, a ghost. The actors turning in circles, under the watchful gaze of a surveillance camera, are temporary workers, a hospital caretaker from continental China, the poor and some social activists. All of these people represent Taiwanese society today. But, as Chen reminds us, his video’s protagonists could come from any other part of the world. The detainee from the political prison represents the past, the government’s control during Martial Law. The rest are present-day prisoners, confined by the law given their situation with temporary employment or simply because they are illegal immigrants. All of them share a common space among these ruins.

Recently, the Taiwanese Government has turned this prison into a Human Rights Memorial.

Chen Chieh-Jen
Military Court and Prison (2007-2008)