Chen Chieh-jen’s Realm of Reverberations: Tree Planters, a Screening with Jane DeBevoise and Pan An-yi

Chen Chieh-jen, still from Realm of Reverberations: Tree Planters, 2014. Part of four-channel video installation, approx. 23′, B/W, sound, Chinese with English subtitles. Image courtesy of the artist.

May 21, 2015
Columbia University
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé, edited by Berny Tan and Jane DeBevoise

A screening of Chen Chieh-jen‘s Tree Planters, the first part of Realm of Reverberations, followed by a conversation with Jane DeBevoise (Chair, Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong and New York) and Pan An-yi (Associate Professor at Cornell University). This program is part of My Camera Doesn’t Lie?: Documentary Aesthetics in East Asia, a panel and screening series initiated by the Department of Art History of Columbia University, co-organized by Asia Art Archive in America.

Jane DeBevoise (JD): Welcome everyone. This series of screenings was kicked off several weeks ago with a panel, called My Camera Doesn’t Lie?: Documentary Aesthetics in the Art of East Asia. For this panel we brought together scholars and experts from the Getty, MoMA, ICP, Harvard, and the Film Department here at Columbia. It was kicked off with a screening of a work by a Japanese artist and documentarian from the 1960s, and since then we’ve screened a recent work by a Korean-born artist named Sung Hwan Kim, followed by another work by a Mainland Chinese artist named Zhou Tao (again his most recent work), followed by a work by Wang Jianwei whose practice was recently showcased in a solo show at the Guggenheim Museum. For our screening of Wang Jianwei’s work, we chose a work from the 1990s that was quite ‘documentary’ in nature.

Today, sadly, is our final screening in this program. But happily, we are able to conclude this series with a very intriguing work by an artist from Taiwan named Chen Chieh-jen. It’s his most recent work, and we’ve been in direct conversation with him about it. In fact, he chose the work that we’re screening today. We are also delighted to have Professor Pan An-yi from Cornell University to introduce and discuss this work. Professor Pan is one of the foremost experts in the United States on modern and contemporary art from Taiwan, and we are honored Professor Pan, that you were willing to come down and join us today. An associate professor at Cornell University, Professor Pan specializes in pre-modern Buddhist Art, but, as I just said, he also has an expertise in modern and contemporary art, particularly art from Taiwan, where he was born.

Pan An-Yi (PA): Jane told me this is informal at its best and I like that. My job today is to stand in for Chen Chieh-jen who cannot be here to introduce this film that he has just finished. I would like to introduce him in the way he likes to talk about himself. Usually, he will use a map and mark several important sites. By looking at these sites, you can tell how he likes to identify himself and how he likes people to know who he is and the issues he cares about the most.

Imagine that the map is on the screen: the first place is the military court, where the government judged and sentenced its opponents during the martial law period. The second place he labels on this map is an area where indigenous people lived on a riverbank, before they were classified as illegal occupants by the government. The third place is an industrial district where, in the 1960s and 1970s, Taiwan became the subsidiary of international capitalism and there were a lot of small factories in this area that produced goods for the global economy. The fourth is a military factory, a weapons manufacturer, and he talks about how this place supplied weapons for the Korean and Vietnam Wars. And the fifth place is the military village where he grew up. This is where the government housed low-ranking intelligence officers whom the government sent back to China to gather information. Oftentimes these were secret missions that dovetailed with U.S. policies; if they died, no one recognized them or acknowledged their existence. The last one is a retirement home for retired military personnel, particularly Chinese soldiers who fought in the Korean War and later went to Taiwan. Putting all this together, the six places present six under-represented classes in Taiwan which are connected with the country’s post-war history, with the United States, with global capitalism, and with indigenous people. All of Chen Chieh-jen’s films are about these underclasses.

Today’s film is a work that he started making to coincide with the protest against the government takeover of a leprosy hospital. This place was established a long time ago, but when the government wanted to begin urban redevelopment and build the transit system, they decided to use this area as a train depot. There were still some leprosy patients living at the hospital at the time, and they were forced to move away from the facility. Young activists supported these patient/residents, and many artists as well, including Chen Chieh-jen and Yao Jui-chung, became part of this movement to protest against the government. This lasted for a few years, but in the end the government demolished the building. I won’t talk too much more, but keep in mind that the film is rather slow and it might be minutes before you see any movement, so be patient and we’ll go through this together.

JD: And be aware that the first six minutes are silent, and you should read the introductory text that you’ll see on the screen that will provide you with some historical background. Much of the film is also in Taiwanese.

PA: The part when the actress sings is in Taiwanese.


Chen Chieh-jen, Realm of Reverberations: Tree Planters, 2014. Part of four-channel video installation, approx. 23′, B/W, sound, Chinese with English subtitles. Video courtesy of the artist.

JD: The four videos in this series were not installed in the two times I’ve seen it as a four-channel video, i.e. on the four walls of the same room. They were in fact installed in separate rooms—small, somewhat claustrophobic, somewhat airless rooms, or at least that is how I experienced them when I saw them in India and in China. You couldn’t see all four films simultaneously, but I believe he meant to have them screened at the same time, unsynchronized, within the same environment. These films were also part of a larger installation that included a slide show, didactics, and still photographs that were presented in an adjacent space, next to the four small viewing rooms. This film today, therefore, is one of a series of four films, and the artist chose this one as the one he wanted us to see tonight. Again, it’s called Tree Planters; the other ones are called Keeping Company, Suspended Room, and Tracing Forward. They all engage slightly different themes and stories.

Professor Pan, tonight we’re in this quiet space at this quiet moment, and you are a scholar of Buddhism. The handout that we’ve given to the audience is a translation by Berny Tan of a talk that Chen Chieh-jen gave in Beijing. In this talk the artist speaks a lot about Buddhism. He talks about bianwen, bianxiang, and su jiang seng; bianwen being the vernacular version of esoteric Buddhist texts, bianxiang being pictorial illustrations of Buddhist stories, and su jiang seng being what Berny translated as a ‘monk who speaks vulgar speech,’ meaning a vernacular or translation of something complicated in Buddhism. I don’t know Chen Chieh-jen; I’ve never spoken to him. But my question to you is: how much of this work or his work is informed by Buddhism? Is he the monk who is translating for us this very complicated story, this very complicated teaching or lesson? Or is he a documentarian? Or an artist? Or an activist? As a Buddhist scholar and someone who just watched this meditative film that seems to transcend art and documentation, I wonder if he is perhaps delivering some sort of spiritual lesson. I am wondering what your thoughts are.

PA: I think the film itself of course leads you to just sit there and ponder what has happened to the residents of this facility, and how the rich and powerful used their influence to change the lives of so many helpless people who were placed there initially to plant the trees. That’s the title of the work; to plant trees on the mountain, to support growth—that was their purpose and job. And if you think about these people with no fingers because of their leprosy, holding the shovel to plant trees, you can understand how difficult the task was. So calling this Tree Planters, and of course seeing these branches and trunks and trees at the end of the film (which I think is intentional but that’s open to interpretation), there’s a reference to the people who used to live there and have now been forcibly evicted.

I think it’s quite meditative, which goes back to Jane’s question about bianwen, bianxiang, su jiang seng, these pictures and stories told by monks. These play the role of interpreting historical events; the very complicated Buddhist Sutras had to be reinterpreted for the common people, and therefore the synthesized, condensed, and simplified version of these original texts and pictures allowed monks to actually play out the drama in the Buddhist sutras for the general audiences. You see this most commonly in illustrations in Buddhist cave sites; that was where the monks were performing these talks.

I think it goes back to Chen Chieh-jen’s ideas about these transformations. Using text and images, this video shows belief in the power of image as a technology, a technology that the powerful, who in this case were Westerners, first used to document the Chinese. In Chen Chieh-jen’s work Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph, he uses the lens to focus on the Chinese and play out the narrative from the past to the present, including the Japanese colonial power establishing itself in Northeastern China, and the abandoned factories in Taiwan today. The thing that goes back and forth in history is that power structure that he revisits over and over in this work, and so for him as an artist, he takes over this lens and begins to tell the story of the disadvantaged people. And of course he also knows that when the work is done, it’s up to the audience to interpret it.

Once, he talked about an early Taiwanese documentary-maker documenting the funeral of a doctor who became an activist during the Japanese occupation. The film was about the funeral, which was attended by over 5,000 people, but through research, Chen Chieh-jen found out that by the end of the colonial period the family had lost everything and couldn’t have afforded to have this many people there. Just because of who this man was, he was able to draw together that many people at his funeral. Chen Chieh-jen views these 5,000 souls as vehicles for this man’s legacy. And so in Chen Chieh-jen’s view, every viewer will continue to tell this story, maybe in different ways, but they will still be transmitting the narrative and continuing the discussion (like the su jiang seng).

JD: What you’re saying is interesting and relates to the title of this film (Realm of Reverberations). In his writing he also uses the word ‘after-image.’ He also talks about the idea of rumor/yaoyan meaning rumor, but ‘rumor’ not in a malicious or gossipy way, but in the sense of the trajectory of information, ideas, and feelings through time and how that trajectory (that echo) resists the forces of erasure, the forces that might mute that power and that moment. I thought that this concept of yaoyan (or after-image) might be likened to his idea about the role of art as an agent of social change, as a reminder of history, as a vehicle through which we can re-imagine and perhaps pursue a more enlightened future. Could you talk a little bit about how Chen Chieh-jen sees himself? Does he see himself as an historian, a documentarian, or as an agent of social change?

PA: The way I introduced the artist was by using this imaginary map to identify the six key locations. One thing I didn’t talk about was his early years. He only had the equivalent of a high school education, so really he’s self-educated. He studied in the library, learning about filmmaking, and he participated in some events later on to develop his art. But he was also deeply influenced by communist members in Taiwan. These were not members of the Communist Party in China; they were the remaining members of the indigenous Taiwanese Communist Party from the colonial period. Obviously, this influenced his upbringing, but this is a part of himself he seldom talks about. I think his films and his interpretations of these historical events and sites inform us where his heart is. He continues to bring up these issues in Taiwan, and also brings out the effects of global changes on Taiwan in his films.

Audience Member: I would like to return to the question that Jane asked. I am actually interested because I understand the work originated from and was inspired by the personalities he met, his experience as a human being, and the collective experience. For me, this work unfolds, first of all, as an absolutely breathtaking aesthetic image, but also as a work that ‘quintessentializes’ its subjects, by slowing down time. It just keeps taking me back to the esoteric. I can’t help thinking that. Maybe it’s a part of him that’s not conscious. In this work there is an element that goes beyond just the humanitarian. To me, the work, as sad and as critical as it is, is really incredibly hopeful and beautiful because it made me think about the spirit and the survival of the spirit that consistently transcends the regular human experience. I’m really interested in this question of how much Buddhism comes into the aesthetics of the work, whether or not it was a conscious part of his spiritual journey.

PA: I know him very well, and I can say that he is not a Buddhist per se. But his early works were actually inspired by Buddhist Hell Scrolls; these are purgatories that people go through after death. If you go back to his early photographs, they have a lot of references to purgatory in them. I talked to him last year, and in all these conversations we have had, never did we engage in a Buddhist discussion (nor Buddhist influence in his work). I am a Buddhist, and I would love to interpret his work in that way, but I also respect him as an artist. He has his voice, and he probably doesn’t mean it that way. He also says very clearly that the interpretation is open; he encourages people to take it and go with it. I understand that he used Buddhist references in his speech in China, but I think all these references to bianwen, bianxiang, and su jiang seng are meant to emphasize the issue of translation and how stories/history are being carried over through time and space.

Audience Member: I have a comment about openness of interpretation. Because of the lack of motion and the way the artist focuses on certain things that extend for a long time, this film feels to me almost like a photography exhibition, [where the works are] viewed in a certain order. He is like a curator or director, deciding the order of watching, and how long we should stay in front of each photograph. It feels like the openness of interpretation is actually somewhere between a photography exhibition and a documentary film. Was the artist previously a photographer?

PA: He used photography before, but it was in the 1980s when Photoshop wasn’t yet developed. He would take an historical image and then he would alter it. But I think his work is more than just the images; there is also the sound. You can’t really tell what the sound is but you can tell it’s crucial to the story. In another work, he actually used amplified sound from his skin in places he deemed to be important in the film. Sound is also something you should consider beyond just the visual image, both moving and still, in this work.

Audience Member: I’ve only watched maybe a total of three films by Chen Chieh-jen and they were all black and white and they were all shots of ruins. I would love to watch more films of his, but can you maybe say a little bit about this black-and-white aesthetic, which in a way feels so colorful in its depth and high resolution. I would like to know more about his aesthetics and his attraction to ruins that seem to be part of his style.

PA: It’s a good question. It speaks to the site that’s very important to him and usually he will go to that exact place. In a way, taking over a place and having the story told a second time from the point-of-view of the disadvantaged, is important to him. When the site is not known, not found, or has disappeared, he will actually recreate a site to retell the story. For example, there’s a company called Xifang Gongsi, a Western company that’s supposed to exist in Taiwan somewhere around the Taipei Fine Arts Museum today, right near the airport. That was also the US military base in the 1960s and early 1970s. Xifang Gongsi was actually a CIA-operated company that also sent soldiers to China, but we don’t know where that place is and whether it’s still standing or not. So Chen Chieh-jen found an old place in a forgotten site to make his film, but I think to him, recreating the site is his right to take over the narrative and to speak.

For his work on female laborers in Taiwan, he actually went to the site and negotiated with the caretaker of the factory to use the storage area. They allowed him to film at the site for a short period of time. For him, the setting is important and oftentimes these are ruins. For the sites that he recreates, he will create the feeling of a ruin. Here you see Chen transforms an original incident to become a new story (bianwen) and he makes a film from it (bianxiang); he as the director is similar to the su jiang seng. I think it is best to think of the Buddhist references in his speech this way.

In terms of black and white, you are right, that is his primary artistic expression, though not exclusively. He has produced color photos and color films. In some cases, color is used in film where he wants to highlight an important point.

JD: You see ruins, you see abandonment, you see dust, and empty chairs throughout much of his work. He also often re-imagines history, taking liberties with it, to reveal hidden histories that were perhaps not photographed or documented. He uses and changes documents in order to make intelligible or visible things that weren’t recorded or have been suppressed. It’s as if he is using his imagination to retell histories that may have fallen into ruin, but can now be developed or revived. Professor Pan, I know you resist seeing the Buddhism in this, but there also is cyclicality to his work that I see as hopeful. The individuals in this film may look miserable at first, but at the end of the film, the woman who rides the cart moves into the light, determined and possibly hopeful. The trees were cut down but the final image is of leafy trees. Is this an accident? Or might it be Buddhist, or a reflection of a certain kind of dialectic where one thing finds its opposite?

We have time for one more question.

Audience Member: I noticed the dialog about missing fingers, but the woman riding in the cart seemed to have all of her fingers…

PA: If you watch the last part when she was going up the mountain, you can see that her finger is actually shorter.

JD: Please note that the artist often (if not always?) works with everyday people. They are not professionals. He doesn’t use professional actors or performers. The people in this film actually lived in this sanatorium, and he considers them his collaborators, his partners. This is an important part of his practice.

Audience Member: I had one more question or comment. I wanted to explore the issue of using people like this. We have talked previously about the agency of art and the ability of artists to act as agents of social change, but what is the agency of the people participating in this film?

JD: This is a big question and difficult to discuss well in a short period of time. But as we all know, photographing people who may be less advantaged than the person doing the filming is very complicated and presents a lot of questions. We all need to be alert to these questions, and I think Chen Chieh-jen is very alert to them. It speaks to his practice of working with the people in his films, his ‘actors,’ as collaborators.

PA: He’s very alert to that. He is friends with these people and negotiates with them, and listens. He wants these people to speak and record their voices, but they were shy, so he says, okay then, there will be no sound. He respects the ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ he works with, and sometimes he uses his filming team as actors and actresses as well.

JD: With that I think we have to conclude this screening and this series. Thank you very much Professor Pan, and thank you all for coming, and to all the students in the audience who are lucky enough to be on vacation, have a great summer break.

Chen Chieh-jen was born in 1960 in Taoyuan, Taiwan. From 1983 to 1986, Chen challenged the limits of expression under the Martial Law system and the conservative art establishment with guerrilla-style performance art and underground exhibitions. After martial law was lifted in 1987, Chen stopped producing art for eight years. During this period he was supported by his brother who worked as a street vendor and started to examine his family history and the military court and prison, ordnance works, industrial areas and illegal shanty areas in the environment where he grew up. Chen also explored the trajectory of Taiwan’s modern history: from colonial domination, the Cold War/Martial Law period, and Taiwan’s time as a key base in global capitalist production; to its gradual transformation into a consumer society, entry into the neoliberal global infrastructure after the end of martial law, and variations in zeitgeist under Taiwan’s status as a state of exception in international politics. Chen currently lives and works in Taipei.

Pan An-yi researches Buddhist Art with special interest in the relation between Chinese intellectual participation in Buddhism and Buddhist painting, Buddhist architecture in relation to precepts, monastic hieratical structure, liturgical as well as spiritual spaces, and trans-continental blossoming of Buddhist teachings and art. He also devotes research to modern Chinese art and contemporary Taiwanese art, investigating the impact of colonialism and current geo-political influence on Chinese and Taiwanese art from the late 19th century to now.


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