The Pain of Others

Video artist Chen Chieh-jen offers a mesmerizing take on the politics of image-making

Globalization, we've been told, creates new markets and wealth, even as it causes widespread suffering, disorder, and unrest. At home, we've come to know the effects of globalization through campaigns like Live Earth and the United Colors of Benetton. But how is globalization pictured from abroad? What images are artists in marginalized countries marshaling to describe their experiences, and what do these say about us?

One answer is contained in "Condensation," an exhibition of five films by the Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen, now on view at the Asia Society. Chen's first major solo outing in the U.S., this exhibition heralds the arrival of a major new talent. An artist deeply committed to investigating the politics of image-making, this show demonstrates Chen's especially canny ability to recover haunting, memorable images from stories vastly underrepresented by the politics of mechanical reproduction.

Going where Magnum and AP have rarely gone before, Chen represents his native land as an isolated place, a nation unable to write its own narrative and largely excluded from the dominant flow of world history. "Taiwan has become a fast-forgetting consumer society that has abandoned its right to self-narration," the artist declares in the museum press release, "and this has spurred me to resist the tendency to forget."

Globalization and the needle: Factory, 2003
photo: Courtesy of the artist
Globalization and the needle: Factory, 2003

Details

Condensation: Five Video Works by Chen Chieh-jen
The Asia Society
725 Park Avenue, at 70th Street
Through August 5

A diagnosis that invokes less the "difference" of postcolonial academics than a trade unionstyle universalism, Chen's overt politics of image-making are of the kind once associated with the old humanist left. Examinations, even critiques of our present global economic system, Chen's films—whose work with non-actors recalls the neorealism of Vittorio De Sica while echoing the stylings of Michelangelo Antonioni—mesmerize the eye through long pans and gorgeous attention to human detail, while giving the ear what amounts to the silent treatment.

Deploying a brilliant strategy that activates the expressive possibilities of silent film, Chen amplifies the work's meditative nature by eschewing all spoken lines, voice- overs, and music. The opposite of an MTV video, Chen's works bulk up their sparse action with added, subtle symbolism, the better to underline correspondences between his poetic representations and the hardscrabble conditions they portray.

One work, for example, The Route, re-edits the 1995 Liverpool dockworkers strike—an event that gained transnational importance when longshoremen from around the world refused to unload a U.K. cargo ship in solidarity with English workers—while providing an alternative ending: a staged picket line staffed by Taiwanese dockworkers, many of whom participated in breaking the original boycott. Another video, Factory, is a textbook example of how to meaningfully dramatize real-life events and make extremely abstract phenomena, like multinational industry's relentless quest for cheap labor, painfully concrete. Containing footage of former garment workers perambulating inside their previous place of employ, Factory portrays its fiftysomething seamstresses through the kind of detail—nearly five unforgettable minutes are spent on one woman's futile attempt to thread a needle—that turns the essentially documentary nature of Chen's films epic.

But of all of Chen's works on view, one in particular is capable of an extended commentary on the nature and history of both the still and moving image. Titled Lingchi—Echoes of a Historical Photograph, the piece pitilessly reenacts a Chinese torture that in the West came to be known as "death by a thousand cuts." Based on a group of 1904 photographs taken by French sailors that Georges Bataille, among others, notoriously reproduced in his book The Tears of Eros, Chen's film takes as its subject a particularly nasty bit of history situated solidly within a clusterfuck of cultural misconceptions.

Images of a gruesome death sentence, photographs of lingchi traveled throughout Europe as shocking postcards whose purpose was both perverse entertainment and ideological education. Souvenirs of brutality, they proved uniquely capable of condemning those portrayed—torturer, victim, and spectator alike—to the status of inferior beings. The subjects of these pictures remained backward and exotic nearly until our present day. Rescuing them from objecthood via film is part of Chen's artistic mission; so is his querying of our contemporary ambivalence to the unending stream of real and fictional media violence.

An excruciating if gorgeous 24 minutes long, Chen's Lingchi makes affecting art from material that, despite its historical remoteness, is much more present now than it has been in decades. Crafted from images that echo the digital age's snuff stuff—think repeating 9/11 footage and beheading videos on the Internet—Chen portrays the dismemberment of a person as something happening not to abstract concepts (like white devils or Orientals) but to a human being, with both savagery and empathy (and everything in between) left intact.

 
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