2011 / 5月
Eric Lin /photos courtesy of courtesy of Chen Hui-chiao /tr. by Scott Williams
It is difficult to speak about contemporary Taiwanese art without mentioning the name of Chen Hui-chiao. In addition to producing her own work, Chen heads planning at IT Park Gallery, a leading light of the contemporary arts scene that has the power to make new artists. Her keen eye guides her selection of cutting-edge works for exhibitions, works that invariably create a splash on larger stages within just a few years.
Chen's own work has earned her the reputation of a brilliant enigma on Taiwan's contemporary arts scene. She is known for pushing extremely simple materials to their limits, using them to explore new territory.
Chen frequently exploits needles, needlework, rose blossoms, and ping-pong balls in her work, using them to create complex narratives and layered metaphors. One doorway leads to another deeper within. Prepare yourself for a trip down the rabbit hole!
IT Park gets its name from its location in an apartment building next to Yi-tong Park, which lies just south of Tai-pei's Nan-jing East Road. Entering through a steel door, you climb a narrow stairway that opens out onto a broad exhibition space. Quiet and brightly lit, the gallery is currently exhibiting Wang Wei-ho's "Ten Years" solo show.
Another flight of white stairs takes you to the third-floor exhibition area. If you then pass through an open door, you'll enter the third floor of the neighboring building. That's where we find Chen Hui-chiao, sitting behind a long, alcohol-free bar, opposite a row of tall barstools. She raises her head as we enter, looking too cool for words.
"I'm not cool! I just don't like smiling!" exclaims Chen. But she sometimes offers a different take.
"Hey, I've always been this cool and this hip," she says cheekily.
Chen sports a relatively simple look: a head full of short, disheveled hair atop jeans, a T-shirt and a leather jacket. Coffee and cigarettes are always near at hand. She speaks quickly and eloquently with an aggressive edge. But beneath the sharpness, hints of her passion for her art and her friends peek out.
When the conversation turns to astrology or comic books, a youthful, girlish exuberance quickly surfaces.
"There's no separating an artist's character and personality from his or her work," says Chen. "Bland people don't produce brilliant work." Chen doesn't beat around the bush. When she speaks about people and art, she leaves you feeling it's all very simple, but also -wondering how, if it's so very simple, there is nonetheless so much depth.
Asked about the inspiration for her own work, she gets right to the heart of the matter: "Each of my works relates to an emotional experience." "Dreamscapes are the starting point for every one of my pieces." "Beauty is everywhere, but it always has a sting."
Chen, born in 1964, was overwhelmed by her dreams in childhood, leaving her with no outlet for the romantic fantasies that filled her breast. She graduated high school with a "major" in art around the time that martial law was being lifted and Taiwan's contemporary arts scene was taking off. She then spent three years working a nine-to-five job, learning that you don't achieve your ambitions by being ordinary. At the age of 22, she met abstract artist Tsong Pu, from whom she began to learn about multimedia art, which was just catching on in Taiwan.
That experience changed everything. Suddenly she knew how Alice felt. She'd fallen down the rabbit hole and found herself immersed in fantasies and conundrums, her body huge one moment, tiny the next. Chen had finally discovered the key to the door between dreamscapes and reality, and set off on a journey that would topple the mechanical "black and white," "this or that" categories of sensory experience.
"Creative works are agglomerations of dreamscapes and imagination, interpreted through physical materials," says Chen. She argues that dreams aren't limited to the dream world; real-world ideas are dreams, too, as is art. She even regards IT Park as a fantastic dreamscape jointly created by contemporary Taiwanese artists.
Chen's idea that the work reflects its creator is plainly apparent in her early work.
Her most iconic piece may well be 1993's You're the Rose, I'm the Needle. For it, Chen pierced a thousand or more brilliant red dried roses with acupuncture needles to form "beautiful hedgehogs." She then scattered these needle-impaled roses across a glass table, the floor, and even the walls to create a beauty the viewer could neither touch nor trample.
The work is a bright red exercise in asceticism. Roses may have thorns, but in the everyday world, the thorns grow from their stems. Chen likes to say that "I" is a needle that always wants to pierce "you," the rose. This "you" can be love, love's object, a beautiful dream, or life itself. Don't we always stab at the most beautiful parts of our lives with our overweening willfulness?
Her 1998 piece Then Sleep, My Love goes a step further. The work, the title of which is drawn from a song by Hsu -Ching-chun, consists only of a bed and pillow covered in white fur. When viewed from a distance, the softly lit scene is gently inviting, calling to the viewer to jump into its cozy embrace. But when you approach, you discover that the fur is covered with long, thin sewing needles that resolutely reject any and all advances.
Using just two simple materials-fake fur and sewing needles-Chen layers multiple opposites: extreme softness and sharpness, extreme beauty and harm, invitation and hesitation. -Shih -Jui--jen, curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Tai-pei, has argued that Chen succeeds in refuting Tom Wolfe's "How can angels dance on the head of a pin?" dismissal of minimalism. Chen speaks for women, who have traditionally been "mute," using "feminine materials."
Oppositions such as "yielding/contrary," "fantasy/danger," and "desire/loss" echo the coquetry and acquisitiveness of women. The progress of Chen's work can be read as a parable for feminine awakening.
A 1982 graduate of You De High School, Chen was among one of Taiwan's first classes of high school students put through an experimental program in the arts. Enamored with comic books and illustration during her high-school years, the young Chen had a graceful, romantic style similar to that of manga artist Kyoko Ari-yo-shi. Her grades were poor and she says that she had enough "insight into herself" to avoid the National Institute of the Arts entrance exam. Instead, she went to work in animation post-production and saved money for a trip she hoped to take to Paris.
Three years later, she was visiting a gallery with a friend when she met artists Jun T. Lai, Tsong Pu, and Richard Lin, who had just founded the Studio of Contemporary Art. Chen showed them some of her own illustrations in hopes of a critique and was stunned when Tsong asked if he could have one. Tremendously encouraged, Chen decided to take SOCA's installation art course.
The fact that her classmates in the course had all had formal university training in the arts left Chen feeling insecure in her own background. But her lack of formal training also made her something of a blank slate, unencumbered by any baggage. Unconstrained in her choice of materials, her classmates came to think of her as the boldest of them all.
For the course, Tsong had students seek relationships between materials and artistic intent, then attempt to create works rich in meaning from very simple materials.
Chen recalls that she began by fooling around with nails. Though she thought she was being very original, Tsong told her that the German artist Gunther -Uecker was already a master at working with this particular material. The information struck Chen like a bolt from the blue.
"My first reaction was that I didn't want to do it if someone else already had," she says. "But I quickly realized that there was no way people hadn't already made use of pretty much every-thing. The key was to use the same language to express your own uniqueness. You use your teacher's ideas to surpass your teacher." Chen says that she switched to using needles, playing with them until she knew them inside and out. Once you make something an element of your style, people can make the leap from observation of this simple style to the complexity of you, the artist.
Virtually every artist experiences a moment of revelation. When Chen began exploring minimalism in the context of materials, she discovered what had been a constant source of turmoil in her life-dreams.
"I've dreamed almost every day since I was a child," says Chen. "I used to puzzle over dreams all day long with classmates." She recalls her dreams being like soap operas, their plots extending over three days. On the first day, she'd be thrust into a strange place where she'd walk around lost. On the second, she'd begin to find her way. On the third, she'd finally find an exit and travel back to wherever she'd originally been. The progress through the cycle was hypnotic: set out on a strange journey, get lost, get oriented, rediscover her starting point.
One of these dream cycles placed her in a large body of water where, after swimming for a time, she saw a television. Curious whether it would turn on in the water, she investigated. When she flipped the switch, the TV emitted a powerful white light that pulled her inside. There she found gemstones, shells, and spirits, as well as a fog-shrouded forest.
Her dreams often placed her beside a cliff towering over a lake. Though she knew herself to be an excellent swimmer, she was reluctant to dive in. Was she afraid that leaping into the water corresponded to dying? One evening, more than a decade later, she finally got up the nerve to dive in and discovered that she was wearing only a bath towel.
"Dreams took me into a different world," says Chen. "But the me in the real world still existed, so what was the relationship between these two worlds?" She says dreams transcend logical categories of understanding. As Freud put it, they represent the fulfillment of wishes. But they may also provide insights into the future. With those thoughts in mind, Chen attempted to understand the world through astrology and found that its rich mythology and symbolism, fraught with metaphoric implications, provided ample fodder for her creative work.
Her 2006 solo exhibition Here and Now drew together all her various works into something of a retrospective of her career to that point.
The show incorporated three exhibition rooms, two doorways, and the twin themes of love and dreams. On the floor at one end was a schematic representation of Chen's understanding of the links between love and dreams, atop which stood a fiberglass thistle covered in spines. Passing through an arched doorway, visitors were drawn to what looked like a soft, glistening cloud on the floor ahead. When they got closer, they discovered that the "cloud" was actually silver thread strung through thousands of sewing needles.
Passing around this threatening bit of "softness," visitors came to a large bed made of orange ping-pong balls. On the wall beside it was an illustration of the "eight points" of self-actualization mentioned by the shaman Don Juan Matus. Beyond the bed, visitors passed through a keyhole-shaped doorway into an enchanting spherical star bathed in blue light.
Here, Chen built an Alice-in-Wonderland-style expression of her own unique worldview, pushing the boundaries of multimedia into territory that future generations will find it tough to surpass.
To Chen, these fantastic dreamscapes are both enchanting adventures and a kind of spiritual therapy. Just as embroidery once involved a kind of boudoir alchemy, Chen's thorny, evocative needlework also serves as a kind of calculated spiritual practice.
"Creating a cloud out of needles was difficult," explains Chen. "It required first threading each needle with silver thread without tangling or breaking the thread. It took skill and experience to figure out the maximum number of needles I could thread at one time without breaking the thread. If it broke, I had to start over from the beginning. Then I had to be able to poke the needles into a base of some sort to get the image I had in mind."
With 2008's The Double Flame solo show, Alice finally moved past the needle and thread as Chen began experimenting with computerized machine embroidery. For this show, she created still more minimalistic and abstract dreamscapes by having a factory embroider her patterns by machine.
In The Sky of July, she used a swath of pink fabric as a foundation. In the upper part, she turned a line from a poem into a bar of music embroidered on the pink flannel background. In the lower part, she hung translucent golden silk bags with feathers, ping-pong balls and dried flowers inside to suggest the barest hint of a falling sensation.
Interestingly, while her work is still sewn, it is no longer thorny. A number of critics say the new work suggests that the thorny rose has at last made peace with itself.
Though she's attracted attention with each of her efforts, Chen hasn't been particularly prolific. A number of critics have attributed this to her management of IT Park, which they say saps her creative energy. Chen herself disagrees.
"Producing creative work is also a test of your administrative skills. You have to work out how to deal with your materials and how much money to budget for your resources. I find it much the same as running IT Park. If you can't manage one, you can't manage the other."
The last chapter of Alice in Wonderland is entitled "Alice's Evidence." In it, Alice wakes up and discovers that she's been sleeping with her head in her sister's lap the whole time. Yet, her dream adventure causes her to question herself, thereby enabling her to grow.
"Art is a mystery," says Chen. "Creating means taking action. Life is abstract, but living it is romantic. And dreams are ultimately question marks." She says that her dreams remain perplexing to her even now that she's entered middle age. Her work doesn't fully explicate them, but it at least offers her an approach to interpreting and validating them.
In Chen's eyes, Alice may have grown up, but her dream adventure continues, moving ever forward.