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Taiwan Panorama / Editors' Choices / Article:The Aesthetics of Between-ness: Contemporary Artist Wu Tien-chang
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Editors' Choices
 
 
2011/10/p.094
The Aesthetics of Between-ness: Contemporary Artist Wu Tien-chang
Eric Lin/photos courtesy of Wu Tien-chang/tr. by Josh Aguiar
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Wu Tien-chang is a member of the "first wave" of Taiwanese contemporary artists.

When during the martial law era he participated in the establishment of the 101 Painting Society, his unbridled style sounded a clarion challenge to the era's predominant minimalism, and also helped throw open the gates to the unfettered diversity of today.

From his earliest days, Wu has waged constant aesthetic revolution. Never has he contented himself for long with any single creative vocabulary. His path has interconnected points as disparate as oil painting, photography, installation art, and video. His oeuvre is richly imbued with Taiwanese local custom and character, and like a conjurer's tricks, his works all stretch the boundary between reality and fancy.

His latest work, Luan, confronts the taboo subject of pederasty, presenting to the senses mankind's immoral primal desires. Through absorbing images, Wu points again and again to the possibilities of an "in-between aesthetic," in which viewers are forced to recognize that man is a combination of darkness and light. Moreover, this duality is preordained by God, and therefore perfect.

Luan created a stir in Taiwan's artistic circles from the moment it premiered, an astonishing achievement considering that it was Wu's first creation in the video medium!

All of this summer the artistic community has been abuzz with talk of Luan.

This entire calendar year, the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts is hosting an ongoing series entitled One Piece Room that showcases different artists on a revolving basis. The featured artist faces the challenge of exhibiting only one piece within the confines of one room. The setup of the gallery offers additional difficulties with its two floors, eight-meter-high ceiling, and semicircular shape.

Wu Tien-chang's showcase arrived in July. He turned the first floor into an ad-hoc theater with curtains serving as an entrance that were securely closed behind visitors for the broadcast of a video 15 minutes and 20 seconds long. In the video, a lace-clad inflatable figure appears in front of a floral wallpaper background.

Repression and desire

The figure appears as though under a spell. At first only its upper torso is visible, perched lightly on top of a round table. Its sex is difficult to distinguish, though one does become vaguely aware that it is being animated beneath the latex membrane by a flesh-and-blood actor. Looking more closely shows that the figure has three arms! In addition to the two plastic arms, one can make out the third, nearly invisible, black hand in the darkness behind the left plastic arm, tracing ballet-like gestures and playfully fondling the other two.

With a sudden swoosh the figurine tears off its lacy garment, showing a person naked save for a sailor's collar, and at this moment, there is no mistaking the individual's maleness. The mysterious figure abruptly shoves the two-piece table off to either side and, lo, beneath the spot where the table sat are legs, three of them, splayed out in a sitting position.

This time the nearly invisible third limb is on the right side of the figure (the viewer's left). The person rocks back and forth in a way that becomes by turns more and more eerily suggestive. Then the middle leg is suddenly raised between the other two in a gesture that resembles an excruciating yoga pose or the erect phallus in an autoerotic scene.

But the real shocker is yet to come. The young man turns his head to the side, and suddenly the scene transforms into a youth sitting atop the legs of another individual, all the while engaging in coquettish banter.

All of the elements of the installation-the suffocating Adonis mask, the repressive oil-slick latex bodysuit, the lascivious probing of the black hand, the unsettling silence caused by the lack of musical accompaniment, and the body language alternating between innocence and salaciousness-were captured by high-speed camera recording 90 frames per minute, but played in slow motion in which oozing desire seems to halt the passage of time.

Blurring fantasy and reality

This is isn't the first time Luan has been exhibited, but by taking full advantage of the museum facilities, Wu has been able to present it in a fresh light.

"Seems as though whenever I premiere a work that reflects a change in my artistic approach and choice of media, it always ends up being regarded as a classic. But don't think for a moment that I'm able to conjure these things out of thin air! The success only comes after endless experimentation. I couldn't begin to put a number on how many of my video pieces turned out to be abject failures that have been closeted away on my hard drive never to see the light of day!" he says with more than a trace of self-satisfaction.

He's not a tall man, yet he always cuts a striking figure at art gatherings. Despite being 56 years old, he still projects the confidence and libidinal energy of a young buck.

His studio, at the foot of Yangmingshan, is long and narrow, its shape similar to a dumbbell.

"Let me explain the character 'luan,'" he says. "Its core meaning is physical beauty. The word luantong refers to beautiful young male objects of sexual desire. Ancient Greece, Japan, and China have all gone through periods in which sexual relations with teenaged boys was a common practice." As evidence of his assertion that "youthful male innocence and flawless beauty transcends all cultural boundaries," he points to the Peking Opera Farewell My Concubine, in which a young male actor who specializes in female roles flits and flirts about the stage, and Thomas Mann's novella Death in Venice-now recognized as part of the Western literary canon-the story of a heterosexual writer who becomes so infatuated with a beautiful youth that, when he chooses to remain in cholera-ridden Venice so as not to be parted from the object of his affection, it ultimately costs him his life.

But Wu hasn't set out to explain transgender politics, nor does he advocate sexual liberation. It is only aesthetic considerations that concern him, namely the exploration of fine art's outer limits, and the freedom from political prerogatives inoculates him against accusations of depravity from sententious critics.

His art is a kind of sorcery that blurs the distinction between reality and fantasy, and in Luan we have a masterwork that could rightly be described as the quintessence of his creative philosophy. It forces us to visit the realm of our deep-seated yearnings, secreted within ourselves and sequestered by our moral impulses. Watching the playful swipes of that black hand in silence stirs our latent desires, confounding our hearts with a flood of exhilaration and guilt.

Homegrown aesthetics

Around the time that he graduated from Chinese Culture University in 1980, the decades-old martial law was starting to fray as social movements began to gather steam. Wu identified with this turn of events, and pitched his services to several oppositional party magazines, for which he rendered the cover art.

"I guess my work was pretty exciting, because even the KMT was calling me to request submissions. But I knew how tense things were, plus there was the 'Chiang Nan Incident' [the assassination of a writer who had published a biography critical of then-president Chiang Ching-kuo]. Even if you were broke and indifferent to politics, there's no way you'd stick your neck out trying to play for both sides!" he recalls. He claims that his political involvement was never especially deep. He and fellow artist Yang Maolin concerned themselves with aesthetic, rather than political, revolution, creating an outlet for their rebelliousness by founding the 101 Painting Society. They sought to import the neo-expressionism then reigning in the West, harnessing it to their own experience and social consciousness to challenge the ideology and artistic orthodoxy already under attack.

Two large-scale series from that time were Syndrome of Hurting , describing how society was changing despite the authoritarian system, and Four Eras, depicting political strongmen from both sides of the Taiwan Strait (Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, Mao Zedong, and Deng Xiaoping). Both series possessed such trenchant topical relevance that visitors thronged to his solo exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, jostling one another to catch a glimpse.

This "angry young man" phase was short-lived. When the grandmother who had brought him up single-handedly passed away, he quickly forsook political topics and shifted his attention to the theme of mortality. At the memorial service, the Taoist priest incanted a phrase from a Buddhist poem in Taiwanese: "The green hills mourn silently the passing of human life / Evanescent morning dew brightly sparkles / Though people pass on, the hills remain / All is but a fleeting dream."

The experience made him aware of how quickly life passes-how many religions teach of life's illusory nature yet are unable to break our worldly attachments? All of our successes and failures, highs and lows, our love, desires, and hate suffuse life with ineffable beauty.

This epiphany came when he was 40 years old, and it solidified the "in-between aesthetic" and "beautiful life aesthetic" that form the nucleus of his creative philosophy.

In 1993, he premiered Until We Meet Again! Spring and Autumn Pavilions, a mixed-media work that won a prize for contemporary art the following year at the Taipei Biennial held at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Transcending the usual single-time-frame limitations of two-dimensional painting, he fashioned a work whose effect was akin to combining all four panels of a comic strip into one panel, stacking temporal layers to form a well-structured narrative.

Encased within a frame bedecked with fake diamond studs is a photograph of artist Hong Donglu dressed in a sailor's uniform and standing in front of a background painting of the popular Kaohsiung scenic spot the Spring and Autumn Pavilions. Fair of complexion, his lips besmeared with rouge, he stands at a rakish angle, his left hand stroking his sailor's tie while his right hand steadies a guitar leaning on the ground beside him. His eyes are covered by a bow tie and his trousers seem to be distended by an erection.

Until We Meet Again! Spring and Autumn Pavilions has been heralded as a representative work of Taiwanese contemporary art. It is a highly textured piece replete with symbolic criticism.

On the cultural front, Wu exposes Taiwan's unique penchant for allowing tawdry efficiency to trump cultural substance. Nowadays, Taiwanese typically use concrete as stand-in for lumber and bamboo when building gazebos in landscape projects. Sheet metal replaces traditional tile for the roofs. The completed buildings evince a meretricious beauty that cannot hope to conceal the core fakeness.

Politically speaking, even though Taiwan had by then ostensibly rid itself of authoritarianism, the juxtaposition of the 1990s with the bogus 1950s retro motifs recalls how prone people are to eulogizing "the good old days," as well as pointing to contemporary Taiwan's ambivalent interpretations of its history.

Finally, in aesthetic terms, the artist warns that desperately striving to preserve one's youth in photography is like pickling memories in formaldehyde: all that will remain is a faded, bleached version of the beauty that once was.

Between circles and ovals

Wu maintains that art is essentially objective; there are precise criteria that can be applied to evaluate it. A scientific experiment was once done in which dogs had to recognize shapes projected onto a wall. Whenever they saw circles they were to step on a button in order to receive a treat, but if they stepped on the button when an oval appeared they received an electric shock. It was an easy assignment for the dogs in the beginning, and they received all the treats they wanted. After a while, the experimenters altered the shapes so that it became progressively difficult to distinguish one from the other, completely confounding the hapless hounds.

"My 'in-between aesthetic' strives to find that disorienting territory between 'circle' and 'oval.' Somewhere between two poles is a midpoint where things are most nebulous-between life and death, night and day, virtue and desire-where an undeniable objective aesthetic exists," explains Wu. He puts tremendous emphasis on artistic craft, honing over a lifetime the special alchemy and technical wizardry needed to find that elusive, sublime middle ground where reality and illusion converge in an enigmatic swirl.

In 1997, he put out an installation work entitled Red Earth II: Homage to Lee Shih-Chiao, which used departed elder-statesman painter Lee Shih-chiao's painting Marketplace as its basis. In a large gallery, he hung up a simulation of Lee's painting, which depicts a scene at Taipei's Yongle Market shortly after the defeat of the Japanese in World War II. A stylish woman wearing a modified version of a cheongsam sashays through the marketplace, her look and demeanor completely at odds with the poor people around her.

When the installation begins, rotating neon lights mounted on the ceiling shoot out colorful beams. The lights die down and then, to everyone's surprise, the woman in the painting steps out and slithers her way seductively forward. As she approaches closer, it suddenly dawns that "she" is really a male transvestite. Then she slowly makes her way back to the painting.

Wu makes use of sophisticated optical projection devices to disorient his viewers, infusing elements of suspense, humor, glamour, self-indulgence, and sorrow. The senses are bombarded, and the viewer, being unable to disentangle the strands of information, is forced to accept it all at once.

This subtly political, gender-bending classic brought to a close the creative period in his work that also included Until We Meet Again! Spring and Autumn Pavilions. From this point on, with hardly a backward glance he strode intrepidly into the world of digital photography.

Dark redemption

After two years of intensive study, in 2000 he began showing works at the deliberate pace of one per year, beginning with On a Tandem Bike, then In the Same Boat, and Blind along an Alley, unleashing another volley of creative sensory mayhem.

All of these works focused on blind people, people with Down's syndrome, dwarves, and other disadvantaged individuals. Wu took full advantage of the resources of digital photography-copying, montage, editing-to compose images of eerie beauty.

In the Same Boat, for example, depicts four individuals with Down's syndrome. They are all dressed as clowns and standing on stilts while pantomiming the act of rowing a Chinese dragon boat. The gloomy backdrop is contrasted by the uncannily joyful expressions on the four faces. Wu reckons that while the sameness of twins, which he explored in On a Tandem Bike, is already strange enough, there is something much more unnerving about Down's syndrome and how it makes people of all different ages somehow look the same. What kind of fate dictates that these individuals should so resemble one another?

The inspiration for Blind along an Alley came when, sitting at a coffee shop, he chanced to see through the window a group of blind people dressed in white robes, their hands resting on one another's shoulders to form a single file as they crossed the street. "It was just beautiful, but since I'm an artist, I knew I had to take some liberties. So, I had them dressed like Dutchmen from several hundred years back, complete with wooden clogs-classic!" he says, reliving the creative ecstasy as he speaks.

Interestingly, his camera accommodates all the bizarre and grotesque things that most of society shies away from, because the black humor of pure art untrammeled by morality is able to redeem our earthly suffering.

When asked how he accomplishes what he does, his reply comes without hesitation: "Craft."

"Before I take a single photograph, I do a rough 3D mapping-out on the computer. I take everything into account right down to the finest details, like the facial expressions, the movement of clothing in the wind, the visual path a viewer will take when perusing the work. It's like using 3D techniques in the service of creating 2D photography. Each one of my works stands up well to intense scrutiny. The kind of craft and magic that I bring to the task makes it possible to win people over with my artistic vision." Given how rigorous and time-consuming his process is, no wonder he only produces one work a year.

Truth and beauty

At this point, he has license to create art unfettered by weighty moral concerns.

After the video Luan, his latest work-in-progress is a pointed criticism of the fear of aging that has swept the globe. Many elderly individuals are so obsessed with looking young that they undergo plastic surgery that hardens their features to the point that their muscles don't even budge when they smile.

"Everyone seems hell bent on preserving the flesh, but this means their hearts have already aged, and the scent of death cannot be staunched!"

It sounds morbid, to be sure, but Wu guarantees that it will be fun and interesting, too, because his craft and his magic have reached new heights.

Exploring latent desires is not tantamount to embracing original sin. The difference is in the way one approaches things. Wu takes the path that splits between the circular and the oval, using his dark wizardry to proclaim bright artistic truths and to illuminate for his viewers redemption above and sinking despair below.

For a good artist makes people exalt in art's transformative power.

 
 
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