Chen Chieh-jen’s artistic practice reflects the complex trajectory of Taiwanese history, from thirty-eight years of martial law and cold war through the transition into a global, neoliberal economy. Born in Taiwan in 1960, Chen Chieh-jen grew up during a time of censorship, social and political oppression, and cultural and artistic deprivation. He received no formal art training, and his earliest artistic activities, in the early 1980s, when political dissidence, public discussion, and assembly were still suppressed by the national government, were actions staged in public places in Taipei.[i] These performances—not defined as such at the time—emerged not out of the desire to make art, but, as Chen Chieh-jen explains, from “an emotional impulse” for his body “to collide with the prevailing system.”[ii]
In the period following the lifting of martial law in 1987, Chen Chieh-jen watched Taiwan struggle to come to terms with modernity and democracy, and become what he sees as a forgetful, dehistoricizing consumer culture.[iii] As the country entered the post-authorian era of the globalized economy, actions became, for Chen Chieh-jen, inadequate responses to social transformation. The work for which he is now known emerged out of his search for a critical position that would allow him to make sense of his own role in Taiwanese culture and history. In the cinematic image, he found his space of resistance.
Chen Chieh-jen’s practice, as it has evolved over the past ten years, is driven by the desire to restore vision to what has been overlooked, to make present what memory has displaced. Although all of his films to date were shot in Taiwan, each work bears witness to historic changes with global economic and political implications.[iv] Well-versed in recent theories that problematize Taiwan’s geopolitical position and identity, he has consistently resisted didactic and deconstructive visual models. The visual language that he employs does not aim to “tell.” Instead, his work operate through a “critical poetics”: a careful withholding of the information that informs it.[v] Rather than make visible the political through the documentary form used by many contemporary artists, Chen Chieh-jen’s films attempt to get at the invisible: how years of domination and current neoliberalism have erased Taiwan’s history, and disabled Taiwanese society’s ability to fully reflect on its present situation.[vi]
In all of his films—nine to date—the passing of time takes on an almost physical presence, achieved through very still images, long takes, and, in many cases, the absence of dialogue and sound, or the presence of ambient sound alone. Although he cuts between shots, the editing does not juxtapose images to make a story progress. Rather, Chen Chieh-jen uses extended shots to foster a reflective viewer. In the extended shot, time can, as Suzanne Gaensheimer has pointed out, “unfold in its innate poetry,” an apt description of Chen Chieh-jen’s cinema.[vii]
The silent flow of time: Factory (2003)
Chen Chieh-jen’s 2003 film Factory is characterized by its silence, a feature it shares with five other films the artist has made to date.[viii] Like Bade Area (2005) and The Route (2006), Factory is concerned with the consequences of global economies for local workers.[ix] The film focuses on a group of women, all of whom had worked for more than twenty years in the Lien Fu factory. The factory suffered the same fate as many others in the 1990s, when Taiwan’s manufacturing industry migrated to countries with cheaper labor, such as China. The workers lost their jobs and their livelihood when the owner closed the plant and refused, under fierce protest, to pay retirement pensions and severance pay.[x]
Derelict buildings and discarded objects become, in Chen Chieh-jen’s films, aides-mémoires, triggers of the memory of past technological moments and events.[xi] The film unfolds over thirty minutes. Comprised almost entirely of long, static shots, its pace feels slowed, resistant to the speed of images and information to which a viewer in the twenty-first century has grown accustomed. Unhurried, the camera moves across rows of linked, worn plastic chairs in what looks to be an empty waiting area but is in fact a small Taiwanese stock exchange. Columns of moving green ciphers, indicating stocks decreasing in value, shift subtly on the screens of bulky black monitors, remaining, however, unintelligible from a distance. Chen Chieh-jen moves with the same unhurried pace across the interior of an old factory. As in the stock exchange, the empty seats evoke the absence of the workers who once sat in them. In the background, a large pile of carelessly stacked wooden tables towers against the stained and chipped ceiling. Two elderly Taiwanese women appear, staring motionless with blank faces straight at us. The unused furniture and the women in front of it seem a monument to a fast forgotten history. A white megaphone, an emblem of protest, lies as if muted on one of many wooden chairs.
Dwelling on the objects that constituted the women’s reality for over two decades—worktables and manufacturing equipment—Chen Chieh-jen imbues these “relics” of the past with presence. While the film suggests the time frame of a workday, ending with the women leaving on a bus and the factory lying empty, the regulated “on-the-clock” time of labor appears suspended. Through the combination of long takes, short takes with very little movement, and fade-outs between images, Chen Chieh-jen denies any sense of narrative or historical progression.[xii]
Throughout Factory, Chen Chieh-jen splices his images with official archival footage that documents Taiwanese factories in the 1960s, a montage that points to the oversights of official history and its collusion with the notion of societal progress. The archival sequences appear as small ruptures in the film’s aesthetic flow. The first sequence blends two different time periods: some images are from around 1949, when the Kuomintang (KMT the Nationalist Party) withdrew to Taiwan from mainland China, and some are from the 1960s, when the manufacturing industry of Taiwan flourished. Several images depict young industrious women working side-by-side on sewing machines, and gathering and laughing together at the end of the day outside the factory gate or on bunk beds in their shared quarters. Propagandist in nature, these images express the collective potential of the workers in the country’s thriving export economy. The black-and-white images make clear the discrepancy between the optimism that framed the women factory workers’ youth and their current unemployment. Unlike the slowness and stillness that pervades in the artist’s vision of the abandoned factory, the found footage moves abruptly from image to image of rotating machines and bodies that move efficiently and purposefully. The black-and-white images of young, able female workers stand in stark contrast to the solemn and melancholic images of the tired faces and wrinkled and calloused hands of the present-day women.
Through these archival images, Chen creates a powerful visual metaphor for the exploitation that lies at the core of society’s relentless strive for growth and profit through the perpetual search for cheaper labor. The women, like the machines they work on, have become obsolete. Reified, they become invisible—green ciphers on the monitors of the stock exchange. The leitmotif of the red megaphone appears again in the end of the film, encapsulating the women’s muted protest. In a strange twist, however, Chen turns the women’s silence and immobility into an act of resistance against the unrelenting forward movement of capitalism. He repeats the theatrical image of the two women, who in demonstrative stillness hold a jacket, the product of their former labour, between them. By re-contextualizing these images from the past, the artist questions the history they depict and the ideological vantage point from which it was written.
Empire’s Borders I – to utter is to witness
In Empire’s Borders I (2009), the urgency of bearing witness is more literal and more dramatic. Inspired by the artist’s own experience, the film focuses on personal stories collected from tourist visa applicants from Taiwan to the US, and immigrants from China to Taiwan.[xiii] In an empty and starkly lit set, resembling a visa office, individual women stand, their faces reflected in the numbered opaque windows, as they one after another share their experiences of attempting to acquire visas to the US. The women’s accounts collectively illustrate the impact foreign policy has on individual lives: the nation-state legitimizes some and rejects others. In the second half of the film, another group of women stand with luggage carts in what appears to be the immigration line of an empty airport. From their stories, we gain a picture of the discrimination and scrutiny women from mainland China endure from Taiwan's National Immigration Agency when entering Taiwan on marriage visas. As in Factory, the silence and vacuity of the artist’s images open a testimonial space, a kind of cinematic witness—here to the bureaucratic and architectural structures that reinforce and govern Taiwan’s political isolation.
Empire’s Borders I sets itself apart from the artist’s other films, which are characterized by their silence, by the many words spoken by the women who share their stories. From these testimonies, we gain a more direct understanding of the critical position that is the beating heart of the artist’s practice: he wants to reveal how history continues to affect the identity of contemporary Taiwan.
Taiwan is a state of exception, recognized as an island territory and a people, but not as an independent state.[xiv] During the Cold War, the US forged relations with Taiwan because of its strategic position within the theater of operations in the East Asian and Pacific region. In the aftermath of the Korean War, the US signed the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty in 1954 to form a military alliance with Taiwan (the ROC) in an effort to contain communism and maintain peace in the region.[xv] In 1979, however, the U.S changed its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, China (which still does not support Taiwan’s claims to independence), terminating all its former diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Subsequently, President Carter signed the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA), allowing the continuation of unofficial “commercial, cultural relations.”[xvi] Although Empire’s Borders I provides only fragments of this bigger picture, its melancholia produces a visual correlate of the elusive impact of Taiwan’s lack of official recognition from both China and the US—the empires—on Taiwanese collective consciousness.
The weight of history – Empire’s Borders II: Western Enterprises
Empire’s Borders II: Western Enterprises (2010), picks up the historical thread of Empire’s Borders I, probing a largely undocumented chapter in Taiwanese-American history: the story of Western Enterprises, an operation established by the CIA in the 1950s to help the Kuomintang train a local Anti-Communist National Salvation Army (NSA) for an attack on Mainland China. The film was inspired by personal artifacts left behind by the artist’s father, a member of the NSA, when he died. His father’s old uniform, an empty photo album, and a fabricated autobiography, intended to ensure the impression of his loyalty to the state, all appear in the film’s opening sequence. As in Factory, a derelict building and discarded objects become proxy witnesses, making up for a collective silence. This is encapsulated in the elegiac image of a young man wandering slowly through the abandoned interior of the imagined headquarter of Western Enterprises in Taipei. In search of the ghosts of previous generations, the solemn figure roams through the forgotten building. Inside he finds an old man, and several others, who utter “without the files, our papers, we cannot go anywhere.” Limbering in a strange non-space, they seem to speak from somewhere deep within a history left out of official accounts.
The returning wide angle shot of a burning incinerator in the middle of a room filled with heavy filing cabinets and bundles of papers, some scattered loosely across the floor, seems an ominous allegory for the destruction of historical evidence and bodies. Again, an interspersed sequence of archival footage remind us that Chen Chieh-jen’s fiction is always rooted in historical reality: we see Bob Hope, a comedian who entertained US troops, along with images of officials signing papers and shaking hands, against the backdrop of flags from ROC and the US. These images from another time flair up to remind us of the forces of cultural amnesia.[xvii]
Returning to his characteristic visual idiom—the slow, silent image, with little speech—Chen Chieh-jen makes us feel as if only extended duration can counter the speed of erasure and restore consciousness. Rather than insert images that reveal that Taiwan is still a vulnerable piece in the geopolitical strategic puzzle, Chen keeps the focus on individual figures locked in Sisyphean wanders.[xviii] Scene after scene we encounter the ghosts of the past, who walk with slow heavy steps through the abandoned building. They carry the weight of history, embodied in the frail body and worn-down spirit of the older man, whom the youth carries on his back for much of the film. Giving few signs of resolution, Empire’s Borders II feels at times as if will give in to its own elegy. The image remains suspended in its critical reflection. It is only the very beginning of the work needed to come to terms with the cultural trauma Chen Chieh-jen has spent his artistic career tracing.
Sections of this essay appeared in Milena Hoegsberg, “A Time of Critical Reflection: Chen Chieh-jen’s Factory Revisited” in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, volume 10, Number 3, May/June 2011. Reprinted by permission of Yishu.
[i] See Amy Cheng’s essay for a more in-depth discussion of the formation of social intervention art in Taiwan. Amy Cheng, “Return to Society: The History and Politics of Art as Social Intervention—A Look at Taiwan’s Four Phases of Development Since the Fall of Martial Law,” in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 9, no. 5, (September/October 2010), 28–39.
[ii] Chema Gonzalez, “Chen Chieh-jen Talks About his Work,” ArteContexto no. 17 (2008), 65.
[iii] Ibid, 67.
[iv] All of Chen Chieh-jen’s films to date are shot on 16mm or 35mm film, albeit always shown transferred to DVD (or in the case of Empire’s Border II, blue-ray). I use the word “film” rather than video, as his visual expression is more closely linked to a cinematic tradition.
[v] I am indebted to writer Jean-Francois Chevrier’s suggestion that it is perhaps “poetic language . . . [that] allows us to make the political visible, to produce it.” Jean-Francois Chevrier, “Of Poetics and Politics,” in Documenta X: The Book (Ostifeldern: Cantz Verlag, 1997), 767. Chen Chieh-jen has used the term “re-gaze” to discuss this aspect of his work. Email interview with the author, December 2007–February 2008.
[vi] This is also noted in the small booklet, published on the occasion of the artist’s retrospective On the Empire’s Borders: Chen Chieh-jen 1996–2010 (Taipei: Taipei Fine Art Museum, 2010).
[vii] Susanne Gaensheimer, “Moments in Time,” in The Cinematic: Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. David Company (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2007), 76.
[viii] I include in this also Lingchi (2002), which is for the most part silent.
[ix] As Chen Chieh-jen points out: “At exactly the same time we were jumping for joy because of our economic development, the local workers of Europe were experiencing the pain of unemployment due to industry relocating overseas.” Chen Chieh-jen, email interview with the author, December 2007–February 2008.
[x] Chen Chieh-jen, “Artist’s Statement: Factory,” trans. Brent Heinrich, provided by the artist, unpublished.
[xi] I borrow the words of Jane Connarty, “Introduction,” in Ghosting: The Role of the Archive within Contemporary Artists’ Films and Video (Bristol: Picture This Moving Image, 2006), 9.
[xii] Long shots—uninterrupted shots or pans that extend the conventional editing pace—is characteristic of most of the artist’s films.
[xiii] Chen collected stories on his “Illegal Immigrant” blog in Chinese only: http://ccjonstrike.blogspot.com.
[xiv] The issues of “exceptional” identity are far more complex than what I can account for here. See, for example, Jon D. Solomon, “Taiwan Incorporated: A Survey of Biopolitics in the Sovereign Police’s Pacific Theater of Operations,” paper presented at “Alternative Modernities” conference, Seoul, September 2000. Chen Chieh-jen cites this text, which tracks also the semantic aspects of Taiwan’s status & Taiwan-US relations, as one of the many texts, which he has read on the topic. Author’s conversation with artist, Taipei, November 2010.
[xv] See for example: “Taiwan-U.S. Relations,” published by Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). Post Date: 2010/3/4. Updated: 03/14/2011. http://www.taiwanembassy.org/US/ct.asp?xItem=11444&CtNode=2297&mp=12&xp1=12. Accessed, June 5. 2011.
[xvi] Taiwan Relations Act, January 1, 1979. Public Law 96-8 96th Congress. Available at website of the American Institute in Taiwan:
[xvii] Milena Hoegsberg, “Chen Chieh-jen: Border Empire 1996-2010,” Critics Pics, Art Forum China (online), November, 2010.
[xviii] The risk of conflict between the United States and
China over Taiwan (for example, over the arms the US intermittently provides
Taiwan) is still a sore political issue and recommendations continue to be made
for US “abandonment” of Taiwan. See for example: Thomas J. Bickford,
“Opportunities, Risks, and the Issue of Taiwan,” ed. John Gershman, August 15,
2005. Available at:
Daniel Blumenthal, “Rethinking U.S. foreign policy towards Taiwan,” Wednesday, March 2, 2011, 11:30 AM.
John Copper, “Could US policy abandon Taiwan?” in Taipei Times, Home Editorials, Wednesday May 11, 2011: 8.