A dynamic installation imitating complex relations:
Analyzing Chen Chun-Ming’s conceptual installation solo show, ‘In between’
By Hai-Ming Huang
Chen Chun-Ming originally was a painter, as were many other members of ‘Taipei Painting Association’ in earlier times. After he went to study in the United States, however, his interests evolved to encompass additionally conceptual installations, which utilize industrial materials as media forms, and which place emphasis on audience participation and interaction. Although some of the political and power issues that were the common concerns of those involved in the Taipei Painting Association still remain in his compositions, the works have been transformed into a purer art form, with their presentation taking place in more indirect ways. The immediate response of simple contrast is still adhered to, but Chen’s major focus has shifted to a more pervasive and unconscious usage of value judgments, focusing upon the varying aspects of life, as well as on the uncertainty and complexity inherent within the extremes of positive and negative. We can infer from this that Chen is now more interested in keeping an open and flexible attitude with regard to the many relationships existing in the world, rather than the simple maintenance of a perspective of having these relationships simply confronting one another in a fixed and stubborn manner. Furthermore, it appears that Chen now intends neither ‘representation’, nor ‘presentation’ in his work, but rather, hopes to create an open condition, wherein different elements’ relations develop ‘naturally’.
In the current show, Chen pays much attention to the display and disclosure of the meanings of the various works represented. The more one views them, the more interesting they become. Though sometimes, due to a particular work’s necessitating a multi-layered cross-reading, what is being viewed initially appears to be somewhat confusing and difficult for the audience to comprehend, this situation is actually an intentional attempt by Chen to draw out higher levels of ‘openness’ and ‘uncertainty’ from his works. Such an exquisite process is difficult to apprehend coherently, but succeeds in granting the audience a personal experience that transcends into a playfully dynamic seesawing balancing game. This involvement, in turn, acts to successfully yield, for the viewer, the realization of each individual work’s significance.
Additionally, if one hopes to fully appreciate the elements of this show, he/she cannot just deconstruct a particular work, analyzing its parts separately from one another. Because Chen has been influenced by structuralism, and intends to transcend further the ‘qualitative relational structure’ of his displays, he has designed many pairs of contrasts among his scattered works, strewn about the very large display area, requiring the audience’s more attentive scrutiny of the possible relationships among these pairs. Such relationships include the matching elements assigned to the works, the display of the entire space as a whole, and comparisons between the indoor and outdoor seesaws. Taking into account these relationships yields a better grasp of what Chen is trying to say.
The Arrangement of Space and Contrast Elements
The show space is a big display area at the Wu Mei Winery, Whashang Art District, a space containing characteristics of hardness and coldness. Chen used aspects of symmetry to arrange his works within this rectangular area. The audience, entering from the two ends of the room, may view two symmetrically alike, but contentially different scenes. From one side, is a trelliswork woven with ropes, and beyond it, five seesaws resting on the reflecting metal floor. Further on are black grids painted on a big glass panel, along with violent images of two electric fans of different sizes projected onto the wall at the other end.
From the other side, the view begins with the black grids on the big glass panel, beyond which are the 5 seesaws positioned on the reflecting metal floor. Then there is again the trelliswork of ropes. On the wall at the far end, three projections are aligned. The center one projects an empty-white image, while the other two alternately exhibit pairs of contrasts, such as: unity/separation, let go/control, bondage/freedom, cheer/melancholy, … and Speech/Silence, Center/Border, Up/Down, Exit/Entrance, Free/Restrict, Black/White, …etc. These pairs total one hundred in number. The empty white portrayal in the center is like the fulcrum of a seesaw. It is able to make the audience feel a void space that represents the ambiguity existing between the two extremes. The whole space may not be a heavy one, but is unquestionably strained, energetic and unsteady. The integral relations emerge as a result of the audience’s differing forms of comprehension and the linking of these understandings.
Within the exhibit space, starting with the weight-bearing point of the seesaw, Chen develops a set of all-encompassing, multi-layered contrary relations between and in each of his respective works. Additionally, there is another intended relation he develops, which the audience usually ignores. This is that existing between the seesaws in the show and those ever-present in a public area of downtown Taipei. Here the artist uses television screens to make the juxtaposition.
The meaning of Chen’s works is also derived from among the themes of energy dynamics, sociological power and semiotic value. Looking at the artist’s statement, it is apparent that the concept of entropy draws heavy emphasis. The relation of entropy to the works is not easily understood, however. In fact, even the knowledgeable observer might ask, how much the intended comparisons relate to ‘entropy’ as opposed to ‘anti-entropy’? Still, it does seem that Chen ceaselessly introduces different systems of contrasts and items of unbalanced relations to distill out the conditions for a sense of artistic dynamism. However, this conclusion might be applied not only to the creation of the artwork’s energy, but also more widely to the shifting human relations of productivity and creativity. A resulting question is one questioning whether such simple and fixed forms of comparison are able to resolve problems of ‘entropy’? This becomes the key question in Chen Chun-Ming’s work and one of my reserved opinions relating to the present exhibition.
The Experimental Field of Multiple Changing Relationships
Of course Chen’s seesaws are intended to emphasize his interaction with his audience. As viewers enter the display space, similar in size to that of a theater or gymnasium, however, they also seem somewhat analogous to animals in a laboratory. This is an instinctive feeling that emerges from among several factors. Firstly, the measurements on the metal floor, surrounded by the measuring grids, are like experimental instruments. All human movements among the works seem to have been pre-measured and dictated by deliberate arrangements. The fact that participants literally have to take off their shoes, and walk on the sharp-edged, ice-cold, and electrified-like reflecting aluminum plate, simply adds to this sense. Secondly, the grids at the nearby ends are like wire netting or a kind of formless clamp for thoughts, enclosing all human movements within their boundaries. It is as if participants may only participate in some kind of wrestling or balancing games within their confinements. In the middle of the crayon-drawn grids there is even a pictorial representation of a human shape, acting to symbolize an exit from which to escape the power games of society. Beyond the grids, however, is a glass wall, indicating that people cannot get out of the confinements after all.
Each seesaw normally carries a pair of participants on both its ends, alternately moving up and down. The pair combinations differ. In some cases there are one male and one female, one old person and one young, one strong and one weak, or other mixed pairs with different characteristics. Regardless, the two ends are designed to be in ‘alternative’ dominance, this to get the seesaw moving. However, I also witnessed one pair of participants, who intentionally tried to keep their balance on the seesaw. They succeeded for a while; but for one second of negligence, one end began to rise. It was this balancing state that expended the two most effort, because when either one of the two individuals relaxed, their balance evaporated to become non-balance. From this we may conclude that non-balance is a norm. Or, should we alternatively say that the relation of this alternate dominance between individuals is a natural one, offering up a maximum of energy and productivity? What on earth is Chen’s seesaw’s game trying to tell us?
An answer to this question may be found from the actual interaction of the participants with the seesaws. During this interface, the exchanges unveiled more possibilities for understanding beyond those mentioned above, introducing another aspect of meaning, which we will discuss in the following.
While the seesaws may be viewed as a stand-alone work, it is actually more interesting to look at them in combination with the nearby nets. In fact, the two separate nets, themselves, also embrace a subtle contrast. For instance, although the one woven with white ropes of cotton yarn provides a feeling of substantiality, in reality it can be pulled apart revealing bigger holes; and the other net, which is painted on the glass pane, appears to have no substantiality, but it thoroughly obstructs escape. Chen deliberately made this arrangement of contrast, while retaining its open possibilities. Still, regardless of whether focus is on the seesaws or the netting, the contrary relations between them remain modest. The result is a beautiful picture of lines and artistic construction. In contrast, the video work of ‘electric fans’ conveys a strongly unequal relation, combined with a violent visual effect.
The violent relation between two over-rational machines
Chen uses 3 red rubber bands of 3 meters long each to link two different sized electric fans. When turned on, the fans generated a very loud sound, seemingly ripping apart the environment. With differing power capacities, the fans began moving in unequal ways, turning clockwise and counterclockwise respectively, buffered by the elasticities of the rubber bands. After being twisted too many times, however, the effect of the rubber bands changed, and the small fan began to lose its turning direction, operating as if totally out of control, turning in directions in opposition to the bigger one’s movements. An analogy might be that of a child’s arm being grabbed and turned by an adult, regardless of the danger that the arm might be dislocated. This strongly violent presentation often was accompanied by the sound of the machines’ vibrations, a loud deafening noise. Sometimes when this noise was silenced, however, the violence seemed to dissipate, revealing an image of flying red rubber bands, that might even be termed beautiful. Even so, the unbalanced energy relations made non-recognition of violence difficult. One might therefore conclude that Chen hopes to convey a multi-level violence, encompassing both the visible and invisible, and a kind of violence that is hidden by the aesthetic form.
Looking back to the relations of the two partners on the seesaws, it appears that these relations cannot be viewed in too casually nor too optimistically of a way. But this gives rise to another question, did the hundred pairs of contrary terms at the other end of the hall really represent an equal relation? Should we say instead that the manner of showing the pairs grouped set by set with their time shifts lasting for seemingly too long acted to hamper the generation of a multiple and ever-changing relation, in turn, making this relation uninteresting? What would be the result if the contrary terms were presented in 2 or 3 sets simultaneously? It is my opinion that such a situation would correspond more greatly to the unsteady feeling of Chen’s other works.
A dominant relation that is concealed in contradictory terms?
The three projections aligned on the white wall are displayed in three parts: one left, one right, and one in the center. When the left portion presented one term, the right showed a contrary term. All the while, the center continued to remain blank, but the blankness of course wasn’t real. Instead, every time the contradictory terms showed up, there always flew from the center a kind of energy or inter-relation leaving the viewer undecided as to whether the right or the left was the dominant one, or whether such dominance took turns. In fact, Chen may not even be concerned about which side is dominant, only emphasizing a state of discrepancy. Still, we are not very sure about this either.
Maybe reference to an earlier Chen’s work, “Taiwan / U.S.A.,” can more clearly express this sense of anxiety. On the floor and the short ends walls of a rectangular room, Chen displayed about 50 pairs of ‘contrary terms of concept’; while on the long walls of the room, a small-sized black shape of Taiwan on one side, and a large-sized white shape of America were hung. The sizes and the colors, even here, exhibited an asymmetric ‘contradictory relation.’ A small toy car’s tires running through these contradictory terms acted to represent the relations between Taiwan and the United States, which were simultaneously ongoing, but continuously shifting along. The work delivered a highly political and socially relevant expose, while also revealing a group of anxieties inherent in the relations. The contrast sets were:
Taiwan / U.S.A.
Liquid / Solid
Ocean / Continent
East / West
Local / International
Traditional / Modern
War / Peace
Danger / Safe
Earth / Sky
Moon / Sun
Difficult / Easy
Closed / Open
Pessimistic / Optimistic
Nervous / Relaxed
Real / Virtual
Friendliness / Aloofness
Here the artist seemed to convey a fixed relation, combined with a view of the characteristics linking the two political entities. This makes the relationship between the two more easily understood by his audience; however, it also resulted in an outcome that asks for more imagination on the part of the audience.
But in the work, “In between,” the hundreds of contrasted terms didn’t intentionally possess the direct links found above; still we doubt, is there anything that we are not yet aware of? Under his cross combinations of supposedly open relations might be concealed a dominant relation. I’ve carefully compared the two opposite concepts and found that at least three fourths of the concepts reveal the left to be possessing positive characteristics. Though Chen tried to avoid such tendencies, still, for whatever reason, they unconsciously remained.
But, this work of contradictory terms was still somewhat incompatible with the other parts of the show. This was due to its elements. These were quite dissimilar from the nets, electric fans, men and women found in the other parts of the show, and which could be interpreted in different ways. Rather, in this part of the show the elements were adjectives, encompassing definite meanings, making the open and complex relations found elsewhere unable to be applied. Here, such relations failed to work and appeared dry, extorted, and, even worse, rigid. A solution to this problem might have been a few more pairs of the ‘contradictory terms,’ appearing at the same time.
Multi-crossed open relations vs. dominant and fixed relations
Summing up, in his show Chen randomly displayed different contrary concepts with the intention of forming these concepts into sets of various relations. He used eight seesaws to generate random interactions between different individuals. He built an open relation between white grids of rope netting and grids drawn by pastel on the glass panel. He also attempted to draw an interesting contrast between the movements of the indoor seesaws on the laboratory-like floor and the three seesaws at a removed, public outdoor place. He let different relations develop in the indoor space and in the outdoors, exemplified by an expanded big-scale crossed net.
My observations of the show relate that when the audience members in the indoor space were many, they became more relaxed, and created more special combination and movements. Suddenly the machines for measurement and experiment were transformed into a playground; and the audience played merrily in it. Such an outcome only could be achieved via a changing of the fixed balanced relation between the two ends of the seesaws, with each pair of players developing their own ways for play. It is perhaps up to this grade that the ‘everlasting dynamic relation’ of ‘anti-entropy,’ which Chen took so much attention could be eventually achieved.
Chen once said that the kind of art creation he likes best is one that reflects his own personal experiences, and expands this reflection into a broad and wholly new conceptual field, in turn, developing this into a pure art concept. Since what he dealt with was an ‘in between,’ which was not easily conceptualized, achieving his goal proved difficult. Chen’s work doesn’t try to ‘represent’ various points of definiteness, but rather attempts to mimic the change and complicated relations existing between multi-centers or individuals of various roles. The ‘contrast combination’ in his work is like a machine mimicking complex relations, which by means of partial change can stimulate, unexpectedly, omnipresent ‘everlasting dynamics.’ In such a way, Chen generated a momentum, solely by linking, combining, juxtaposing, and interpreting different elements, without real energy transmission.
Such a tactic might be thought of as a new dynamic principle for the era of a post-cold war, post-dualist and multiple-centered world, a fresh scientific approach to the current world. In his artist’s statement, Chen used a great many physics-related terminologies, words such as ‘entropy’ and ‘anti-entropy.’ Because of this we might infer that the statement reveals a connected but unique form of artistic approach. But drawing such a linkage reveals a certain amount of dryness and staticness, particularly with regard to the expressiveness and the imagination of the contradictory terms. These didn’t live up to the precision expected of them. If Chen had introduced a few more ambiguous elements of poetic and imagery terms, or had juxtaposed some contradictory sets of ‘contrast terms’ together, the shortcomings might have been resolved. There might have also been some other simpler and more precise ways to convey Chen’s ‘dynamic complex relation pattern,’ relations that are extremely difficult to express. Even so, despite any possible shortcomings, Chen’s laborious endeavors and efforts to induce a whole new vantage point deserve praise. It also was clearly evident that his efforts won him great appreciation and applause from his audience, and merit comment here.
2001 『In-between』Five Seesaws in Public Space, Taipei
2001 『In-between』Whashang Art District, Taipei
1998 『In-between』Student Gallery of Queens College N.Y.