Taiwanese artist, Chien-Chi Chang, introduces his photo sequence, The Chain, with a quotation from Dostoyevsky’s Diary of a Writer: “It is not by confining one’s neighbour that one is convinced of one’s own sanity.” He almost certainly found the line in the preface to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation (1964), where it is paired with a quotation from philosopher, Blaise Pascal: “Men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness.”
The Chain (1993-99) was one of the most acclaimed works in the 2001 Venice Biennale, and it has gathered plaudits everywhere it has been shown over the past decade. Now the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) has brought the work to Australia, where it has been installed at the National Art School Gallery as part of an exhibition called Home. The second part of the show may be seen as the SCAF gallery in Goodhope Street, Paddington, where another Taiwanese artist, Chen Chieh-jen, has a four channel video installation called Realm of Reverberations.
Gene Sherman warns that this is probably the bleakest show the Foundation has hosted, and I can only agree. Given the forbidding nature of the work, the title, Home, takes on ironic overtones. There is nothing warm and cosy about either artist’s version of this concept. “Home” is the place where we live – it doesn’t mean we have to like it. For the homeless the anxiety of not having a permanent base is an ongoing trauma. For the refugee who has lost his home and cannot return, every day is filled with uncertainty. A home is not just a roof over our heads, it helps define our sense of identity.
In The Chain, Chang has concentrated on a group of people whose ‘home’ is both sanctuary and prison. The series consists of 45 black-and-white, life-sized portraits of inmates at the Lung Fa Tang Temple, in the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung. Ostensibly a Buddhist institution, the temple houses some 700 inmates, most of them suffering from mental illness, the others committed for drug offenses or other forms of socially abhorrent behaviour. Lung Fa Tang is also Taiwan’s largest chicken farm, for which the inmates provide the labour.
The most controversial aspect of the temple’s program is that inmates are chained together in pairs, with one reasonably stable person matched with another who requires constant supervision. Violent temperaments are yoked with peaceful ones, talkative people with silent types. The two are joined by a “chain of compassion” around their waists, and never separated. Once they have entered the temple, many will spend the rest of their lives in this state.
This novel course of treatment was devised by the Master of the temple, Hieh Kai-feng, in the 1970s, when Taiwan had hardly anything that passed for an asylum. The rough-and-ready idea was that forcing a patient to take responsibility for another is good for his or her mental health. The other ‘healthy’ aspect of the treatment is constant work – for 365 days a year – in conditions that resemble the most Spartan of prison camps. The Buddhist rituals have been reduced to a minimum, with images of the Master largely replacing those of the Buddha.
With such ideas about ‘lifters versus loafers’, not to mention the efficient management of detention centres, Hieh Kai-feng could have been a senior policy advisor for the Abbott government. His mistake may have been to believe his own propaganda that Lung Fa Tang was bringing about a “miracle” in Tawainese psychotherapy – without either doctors or psychiatrists.
By allowing Chang to photograph the prisoners over a long period of time, Hieh enabled the artist to put together an archive that has generated widespread outrage. Chang soon realised that the only way he could operate without interference was to stage a series of formal portraits. The results are devastating, with the entire story of life at Lung Fa Tang being told by the faces and body language of the inmates. It is a far more effective critique than a John Pilger-style exposé, because our responses are not managed and directed. We can look into the eyes of an anonymous patient and try to imagine the horrors of life chained to another person, and condemned to perpetual slave labour.
Chang’s project may be put alongside pieces by other artists working in mainland China who have sought to bring attention to the country’s disastrous mental health record. Lu Zhengyuan’s Mental Patients (2006) in the White Rabbit collection features life-sized grey statues of seven patients, whose faces and postures attest to the hopelessness and misery of their lives.
Even more significant is Lu Nan’s 15-year project of photographing Chinese psychiatric institutions, collected in his book, The Forgotten People (2008). The infernal squalor that Lu Nan captures makes Chang’s portraits seem almost classical in their simplicity. But the impact of The Chain is cumulative as one slowly completes a circuit of the room, looking at disparate groups of patients responding to the camera in different ways. Incidentally, both Chang and Lu Nan are members of the Magnum collective, which points to the esteem in which their work is held.
For this show the SCAF has commissioned Chang to make a brief film called Side Chain, which explains his relationship with the Lung Fa Tang temple. Chang has a second series on show at the NAS Gallery called China Town (1992-2011), which documents the lives of Chinese immigrants to New York, and the families they have left behind. In the attempt to find a better life and raise money for their families, many of these men have condemned themselves to a decade or more of abject poverty. The shots of the wives and children back home, usually suggest a happier, more balanced existence.
For the immigrant workers New York has become a second “home”, but one that resembles a state of suspended animation. Like migrant workers everywhere, they have pulled together into makeshift collectives to make their money go a little further.
Chen Chieh-jen’s work at the SCAF Gallery looks at an abandoned sanatorium through the eyes of four different women. Their memories are mingled with shots of the dilapidated state of this building, which once served as a home. It’s another sad, slow-burning, experience that shows how people can form an attachment to even the most austere, unhappy environments.
The four films are beautifully presented in blackened wooden booths. As we watch each piece we are enclosed by these structures, being asked to identify imaginatively with the subject of each piece. In other booths we can listen to interviews with homeless women, recorded at the Wayside Chapel. It’s hardly a conventional presentation for an art gallery, but it’s a timely reminder that those who find themselves at the bottom of the social heap should be dealt with compassionately, not punished.
On the evidence of this show, we may still be a more compassionate country than Taiwan. In a catalogue essay Sophie McIntyre suggests that the work of both Chang and Chen may be related to the recent social and political history of the island. She argues that “the effects of martial law and censorship, as well as the international de-recognition of Taiwan” have led to an idea of ‘home’ that is analogous to the desire for individual freedom and national self-determination.
It’s a seductive socio-cultural explanation for an unusually challenging body of work, but it still shows Taiwan in a rather grim light. With the transition to democracy that began in the 1980s it might be imagined that artists would have reason to celebrate. Yet a change of political system, with its promises of freedom, seems to have exposed many deeply rooted problems.
There is a pervasive sadness in this work that one rarely encounters in the contemporary art of mainland China, which prefers a more aggressive, satirical form of social critique. It’s the sadness of a country in which social attitudes are lagging behind political progress; where the issue of an autonomous Taiwanese identity, distinct from the Chinese motherland, is still being debated. It’s a lesson for the world that freedom is more easily achieved than embraced.
Home: Chien-Chi Chang, Chen Chieh-jen
National Art School Gallery & Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, until 2 August.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 5 July, 2014