HS Award for Art Criticism: Denise Kwan; A story of the voiceless: The work of Chen Chieh-jen

On 06/01/2015 by CFCCA Administrator

A story of the voiceless: The work of Chen Chieh-jen


Denise Kwan,  Royal College of Art, London

In the Confucian doctrine The Recitification of Names, Confucius stressed the importance of language and its relationship to justice in the world. In order for human beings to live in harmony, language and meaning must be clear and understood. Ambiguity with language will undermine action and therefore misunderstanding and wrong doings will be rife in society. Confucius suggests,

 If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately.

With an increasing amount of social media channels and internet, language remains on the forefront of these technological advancements. However the meaning of words and language alter and in the age of the internet, these changes are more readily recorded than ever. In a barrage of language, it can seem that meaning can be easily released from words and what is left is the husk of a word, like a shirt without a wearer. This sense of emptiness in words is apparent through phrases such as globalisation and migration; while they attempt to reason the suffering of people but however without context, these terms remain vast and abstract. In this way, language risks becoming a convenient shorthand for condensing complicated experience into digestible and unfortunately dismissible packages. 

 In 2009, Chen Chieh-Jen was nominated for the Artes Mundi prize for his work Factory which documented the remnants of an abandoned Taiwanese garment factory. Since his practice has been known as dealing with ‘global’ issues such as migrations, labour relations and exploitation; the very words that are so casually exchanged and passed on. 

For Chieh-Jen, filmmaking has become a method of ‘resistance against forgetting’ about the history of Taiwan and especially for those voices who are absent from the mainstream of society. At Art Triennial Manchester, Chieh-Jen presents his latest four part film titled ‘Realm of Reverberation’ (2014) and transports his viewer into the ruins of the first ever leprosy hospital in Taiwan. Each film follows an individual with a personal relationship with the place: a political activist, a nurse, a visiting volunteer and a resident of Losheng. Built in 1929 during the Japanese occupation period, the hospital was named Losheng Sanitorium and served as a quarantine for leprosy patients. In 1994, the isolation of the patients was further exacerbated as the Taiwanese transport department constructed a train station through the site of Losheng Sanitorium and displaced its residents in the process.  

Entirely filmed in black and white, the interior of Losheng Sanitorium is doused in monochromatic tones and evokes a sombre atmosphere. Through the lens, the viewer enters the remaining dilapidated site of the hospital grounds. Like a disembodied eye, we roam through the vast halls, abandoned surgical suites and sleeping quarters. Clothes hang; waiting to be worn, suitcases tossed open, televisions sets placed in front of plastic chairs waiting to be used. The rooms are tethered to its previous life as a functioning hospital and its residents. The stark absence of people reveals the actuality of the situation; these rooms were created for inevitable loss.

The video ‘Tree Planters’ follows an elderly resident as she glides in her mobile scooter behind the backdrop of an industrial site. Seemingly she appears serene and weightless as the camera follows her every move. Her cheeks are full and round and her eyes are heavily lidded as she stares ahead with an impenetrable gaze. During the entire scene, there is a distinct absent of sound. It is soundless as though bloodless like an essential token of existence has been extracted. Seclusion cuts deeper as she eventually arrives atop of a hill overlooking the high rises of the city and a scarred construction site of the train station. The lone figure sings over the city that has left her behind and her lyrics ring with injustice, “Those who have money, have power, whatever they say is right.” 

There is an undeniable sense stillness in the films and it creates a meditative quality that is comparable to the medium of painting. In another film ‘Keeping Company’ we witness a young female figure surrounded by vacant metal hospital beds. The camera frame is fixed on the female, she begins stroking the mattress and gathers futile mounds of dust. Her movements are slow and methodical as she recounts the hardship of the residents. However the strength of Realm of Reverbation is not solely on its capacity to submerge the viewer into the atmosphere of Losheng but rather through its capacity to give identity to those who have been ousted from society.

In one of its most striking scenes, we see the residents individually pose against a black background. They stare from the darkness and directly towards the audience, fearless and unflinching. Their portraits are accompanied with a simple tagline noting their name, year of birth and duration of their isolation ranging from thirty to fifty years. There is no dialogue or music but yet this is the most powerful aspect of the film. Their steely gaze and softly winkled faces escapes any language or explanation about the time lost and contained within the walls of Losheng Sanitorium. They are no different, they could be you or I but most importantly, we see the person on their terms and without the usual commentary about their repression. In Making and Breaking Stories, the environmental historian Rebecca Solnit suggests, ‘A place is first of all a story, and stories are geography. And empathy is first of all an act of the imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of travelling from here to there.’ Through the lens of Chieh- Jen we remember that suffering belongs to people rather than concepts and language and the age old cliché runs true; a picture is worth a thousand words.

Leave a Reply