Since the early 1980s, Chen Chieh-jen has been a prominent figure in the development of Taiwanese conceptual art. A self-taught artist during Taiwan’s martial law period, he challenged the limits of expression with guerrilla performances, underground exhibitions and interventions in public spaces. Chen’s practice continues to reflect on the historical events through which he has lived, though he is now best known for ambitious video works that address contemporary social and political issues.
Chen’s films typically rely on conventions of documentary filmmaking while weaving together actual and fictional history, past and present, ultimately prompting the viewer to consider the distinction between the real and the illusory. While critically assessing social and economic inequities in contemporary society as well as issues of accountability, the films offer elegiac commentaries on human resilience.
For the 20th Biennale of Sydney, Chen presents an iteration of one of his most complex and multifaceted works, The Bianwen Book I (2002–14), within Carriageworks’ Embassy of Disappearance. The work is an installation inspired by bianwen, a popular form of storytelling originally developed in the Tang Dynasty (618–907) to spread Buddhist teachings through vernacular art forms.
In The Bianwen Book I, Chen creates a three-dimensional spatial book that comprises videos, photographs, objects and text. Collaborating with factory workers, migrant labourers and unemployed youth, Chen gives a voice to these rarely heard communities, revealing hidden personal histories to complement the dominant narratives, and making visible stories that have either never been recorded or have been deliberately suppressed.
The central work within the Bianwen Book I archive is Realm of Reverberations (2014), a four-part black-and-white film installation housed in a
temporary, makeshift cinema. The work is inspired by the Losheng Sanatorium, a hospital for lepers that was established in Taipei in the 1930s during the Japanese colonial period but which has lain in ruins since the Taiwanese government decided in 1994 to renovate the site and move its residents elsewhere. Characterised by dream-like slow-motion and accompanied by a minimal soundtrack, the highly cinematic films revive the collective memories of the sanatorium’s displaced former residents, chronicling the singular lives of those who inhabited the building and acknowledging the trauma caused by the government’s demolition of it.
Realm of Reverberations features four protagonists: an elderly former patient who sings a lament to the poor and powerless as she looks over the devastated valley of her home, in Tree Planters; a young female companion to sanatorium residents, in Keeping Company; a hospice nurse from China who lived through the Cultural Revolution, in The Suspended Room; and a fictional political prisoner who travels through Taiwanese history from the Japanese colonial period to the present, in Tracing Forward. Through bringing these four neglected perspectives together, Chen re-narrates the history of the Losheng Sanatorium, imagining new forms through which a ‘people’s history’ of the building might be told.
Chen Chieh-jen has exhibited widely internationally, with solo exhibitions that include ‘Chen Chieh-jen: Factory, The Route, Empire’s Borders I & II’, MUDAM Luxembourg, Luxembourg (2013); ‘On the Empire’s Borders: Chen Chieh-jen 1996–2010’, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei (2010); and ‘Chen Chieh-jen: Military Court and Prison’, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid (2008). Chen has also participated in major group exhibitions, including ‘Social Factory’, 10th Shanghai Biennale (2014–15); and ‘Whorled Explorations’, Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2014).