Chen Chieh-jen, A Field of Non-field, 2017, digital video, black-and-white and color, sound, 61 minutes 7 seconds.

Chen Chieh-jen, A Field of Non-field, 2017, digital video, black-and-white and color, sound, 61 minutes 7 seconds.

Chen Chieh-jen


Chen Chieh-jen, A Field of Non-field, 2017, digital video, black-and-white and color, sound, 61 minutes 7 seconds.

In his solo show “A Field of Non-field,” the Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen elaborates on what he calls “dhammic leftism,” a term he’s been using for some time. The concept is based on Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka (“middle path”) school of Buddhism, in which Chen sees a kind of negative dialectic manifested through its so-called eight negations––“neither birth nor death, neither end nor permanence, neither identity nor difference, neither coming nor going.” The doctrine calls for a synthesis of strict criticism and speculative consciousness, which is also embodied on the level of visuality: The slow-motion shots in Chen’s videos remain ineffable, without any clear beginning or end, and represent a sense quite different from Bill Viola’s religious experience of awakening. But pace is not Chen’s primary concern: His long takes are anti-immersion and anti-ritual, as if in service of a contemplation of a history that needs to be fully stretched and revisited, exposing all the subtle gestures and sounds that are otherwise overlooked; yet this slow tempo also contains a kind of dialectic, its poetics situated in a middle path between history and fiction.

The show’s title work, 2017, presents an hour-long funeral procession. Unlike Chen’s previous works, the film does not refer to any specific historical context or social space. Instead, everything takes place in a nameless wasteland, real but at times rendered abstract. The procession resembles the traditional Chinese funeral ritual, with the deceased lifted up, surrounded and followed by the living, who carry the sacrificial vessels. Women chant lamentations. Flags used to call back the spirits are scattered among the group. In voice-over we hear the words of the dead: “Are we just rotting corpses drowning in endlessly manufactured products?” They speak of their deaths as a journey. Their question, “When did we accept being sentenced to at-home exile?” echoes the choral group’s question, “What can we do, nameless?” The crisscrossing of the living and the dead forms a larger community or, rather, a kind of ghost dialectic that is at times nonexistence and nondeath. The ghost is a critique of the general power-knowledge structure; the netherworld and earthly being form a dialectical synthesis.

Almost all the actors have collaborated with Chen for a long time, many of them appearing in his previous works. They are from the margins of Taiwanese society—female factory workers, taxi drivers, the unemployed, organizers in Taiwan’s subcultural scene. Working with these individuals gives Chen the chance to understand how the gap between the periphery and the mainstream was shaped as a historical construct; moreover, such collaborations allow him to connect with the real as a field of social-historical research. As we can see, when the characters who appeared in Factory, 2003, or Friend Watan, 2013, reenter the space of A Field of Non-field, the artist conjures a new kind of collectivity. In fact, such collectivity had already begun to emerge in Chen’s early practice. For instance, in Dysfunction No. 3, 1983, also shown in the exhibition, a performance plays out in downtown Taipei, with the artist and friends wearing masks and imitating the gestures of prisoners about to be executed. Taiwan was still under martial law at that time; this was an enactment of resistance. Yet, unexpectedly, the crowd of onlookers obstructed the police and accidentally created a sort of protection for the performers, turning the scene into a collective political rally. Over time, however, the artist changed his working method, focusing on collectives that last longer than these spontaneous, transient assemblies of strangers. In his later works, Chen would emphasize the deep and long-standing emotional connections within a group, hoping to surpass the general logic of resistance based on dualism and to inspire new motivation for historical narratives. In the last scene in A Field of Non-field, the women circle together and clap their hands while singing a folk song. Their bodies, their voices, and their emotions coincide with their stories—this becomes our starting point for reenvisioning the history and social imaginary of Taiwan.

—Beichen Yang

Translated from Chinese by Zi'an Chen.