The Multiple Discussions about the Politics of Viewing: A Reading of CHI Chien’s Passing Through The Post-Garden

Written by Fang Yen-Hsiang

artist / curator at Taipei Contemporary Art Center

We are lost in words in the face of politics, but we simply ask too much about painting.

What is the dialectics of image in today’s contemporary art about?   Facing the invading capitalism, does image still hold the ability to coerce?  When it comes to “participation,” does the discourse still allow “picture” to participate?

Here, I am raising several questions in the beginning: has the dialectical discourse concerning the ideologies of image accomplished its mission? Does “image” still have any power of silence (if it is not about some captivation, sensory gathering, or the strategy of capital recruiting)?  When participatory art becomes a trend in today’s contemporary art, does the discussion of “viewing” still suffice?  Does image-making (including painting as a conventional artistic form) still has the ability to narrate?  Does painting still serve as a question-raising field to excite any discussion?

If these questions raised above are understood as agreed consensus, they at least make it clear that the dialectics of image in today’s contemporary art is no longer the private sphere limited to artists’ individual will, but a political field, if not a political one based on a democratic structure.   It involves multiple political wrestles, including the various conflicts between the politics of viewing derived from history and the experienced politics in reality.

It is not easy to encounter the answers to these questions. In today’s contemporary art, it is even more risky to become an “image creator.”  However, the risk can be discussed from different perspectives: first of all, it means a gesture, through which artists declare their participation in “originality” as a modern system – an artist needs to confront how the history of painting questions and verifies itself while s/he also has to be extremely aware of that his/her only resistance depends on how s/he should deal with – as well as multiply, complicate, and reverse – one’s “uniqueness” through “the history of one’s life;”  secondly, it means that, when  facing the threat of capitalist images, the “picture” an artist produces has to (as it is left with no other option) change its place and be evaluated under the context of global cultural capital and, as a result, the artist has to fight every battle of image; thirdly, it is the opportunistic risk of spectacle/speculation – to be more precise, when every partial view of the picture or image can be regarded as the product of capital flow, how should we find our role in property privatization or how should we adopt a more public perspective to take part in this twining relation between economics and life?

The threat of image: testimony of a battle

CHI Chien’s exhibition Passing Through The Post-Garden consists of conceptual and sensory works which provides traces allowing us to explore or to observe the solutions to the questions mentioned above.  At the first glance, the scenes depicted in Passing Through The Post-Garden may be misinterpreted as the ash remains of the concept that “painting is a self-revealing genre of art.”  The patterns of degree-zero and scenes with military aircrafts demonstrate certain kind of “image theatre” related to Clement Greenberg’s (1909-1994) idea that “painting is not the abandonment of figuration, but the conquest of the surface” as an ongoing struggle with modernity in terms of form.[1] Jacques Rancière also gives a clear description in “Painting in the Text in Le Destin Des Images that painters highlight authentic paint to demonstrate paint as “a practice of certain technique” and “art itself” (also understood as anti-technique). These two concepts, the equation between “the material of painting” and “the form of painting,” simultaneously destroy both “reality” and “autonomous field.” However, the interference also guarantees the materiality of “the painting itself.” The so-called modern painting verifies itself on the base of self-restating tautology. It can exemplify itself as painting, but it is also established on the mutual destruction and mutual justification between two contradictory systems, “the connection between two conflicting concepts” as how Rancière puts it. [2]

CHI Chien’s Passing Through The Post-Garden arrives at the reminiscence theatre of confrontation. It even takes advantage of it, stubbornly stepping into the deceitful tricks entangled with the multiple complexes of historical images.  In fact, we would rather realize the modern painterly practice in his painting as a “double image revealed” than an action of painting.  On the one hand, it reveals the imagery which has not been viewed yet; on the other hand, it serves as the description and testimony of the image revealed.   A similar concept can be noticed in the previous series Theatre of the Century. No matter it is a glance of the backstreet shadow play in the candlelight or the unidentifiable blurry face in the portrait, CHI’s works attract ordinary images and ordinary objects into the scenes of visual conflicts.  The silent battle appears in front of us as if it were evoking a “powerless being” in history. [3]  It seems that the silenced, either the fabric patterns sneaking in from the age of colonization or the anonymous but yet identifiable WWII aircrafts, suddenly appear as the testimony given the power of “non-language.” The artist seems to search for a politically subjective position to reconnect the aesthetic-political relation between viewing and expressing following the ages of modernity and conceptualism.

Do we still need Objectivism as a matter of fact for observing apparatus?  

The artist does not paint a painting, but the “painting as a matter of fact.” In other words, an objective aesthetics has always existed in CHI’s works, sometimes even well-proved. It might more or less compensate the realism vanished in the gap when it proceeds from modern image to contemporary art.  A way to look into the reality, perhaps we can call it that.  It seems that certain foundation to look into the “matter of fact” is missed in our aesthetic-political discussion.

Here, I would like to bring up how Bruno Latour explains the dimension of discussion as he talks about “aesthetics of matters of fact.” In “The Aesthetics of Matters of Concern,” he raises a question: “how could matters of fact depend on any sort of aesthetic?” Theoretically speaking, “matters of fact” are always there. “Matters of fact” are the only things which can get away from the treachery of representation and the subjective bias. However, the more important “matter of fact” is how to meet “a matter of fact face-to-face,” which means how to represent, how to stage, and how to express a matter of fact.[4]

Unlike Jeff Wall’s works, according to Latour’s article, which directly look into the process of scientists drawing the anatomical details based on their observation, CHI Chien’s works are more like followers of Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906) observation skill when representing the observing apparatus of an object or the field to view “matters of fact.” [5] Take his work “The Object in the Mirror: Apples” (2014) for example; the artist juxtaposes the object and image in the installation of mirror reflection.  The purpose of the work is to tell us a process unrelated to interpretation and depiction:  if painting is regarded as a technique, a technique of viewing, all it can do is to bring us face-to-face with the matters of fact.   The objectivism of “viewing based on the basis of materials” does not lead to its social criticism through any figurative or realistic form, but challenges the viewing and re-production of real life as a continuously changing “matter of fact” to conduct a radical experiment on the politics of viewing.

In the installation scene in Passing Through The Post-Garden, we see several cones of cement, whose shape originate from traffic cone – the objects commonly seen in public in the Taiwanese society to separate pathway or to encircle a space taken, scattered around the exhibition space, along with bunches of flowers of copper casting, cement bonsais, and a fragment of broken cement brisk hung in the center of the exhibition space, echoing the intact cement square on the wall and the fragmentized cement blocks on the ground. The purpose of the artist transporting the reality and presenting such a real-life reproduction is far from to broaden our daily experiences through artistic representation.  Instead, CHI attempts to unveil an easily ignored fact about life-regime, the space deployment based on the matter-of-fact-revealing observing apparatus to establish the power play and political system of our life (as democracy). Behind it is the visually and politically democratic equality on the basis of certain “equivalent” political awareness.

Apparently, the real realism involves a position to exercise its subjectivity, which allows itself to depict the matter-of-fact-revealing observing apparatus and to observe how a space-of-order, concerning the division, exhibition, and regulation of life politics, is established. Take CHI’s work “Bamboo House for example; the field of painting becomes an impassable border while it also questions its own self-revelation – who “reveals itself?”  Whom does the border belong to?   Does the “line” on the MRT platform or the “line” encircling the Congress really impassable?  Why is the border set here?  What is it behind the border?   Do we get to see the truth (jurisdiction) once we pass the border?

“The agreement is to agree to disagree”: what else can art say about sovereignty?

The American artist Jasper Johns has created a series of works about the national flag. In the series, Johns borrows the “composition” of the American flag and repetitively paints the images through different techniques (in terms of media, colors, strokes, or amount). Among the variations, the identifiable characteristics of the Stars and Stripes as a common object are never lost. Borrowing the image of the flag saves the artist the trouble to create a new one.  The “concept of the flag” becomes an ordinary ready-made.  Meanwhile, Flag also raises several questions to American abstract painting as the work steps away from it: what does visual image signify when image becomes something to be “seen” instead of something to be “viewed and examined?”  What is painting really dealing with if images can be easily created based on certain proportional principles?

CHI does not simply pick up the concept of Jasper Johns’ Flag without strategy.  Apparently, “Flag- There is one interpretation for which each side has its own interpretation” demonstrates a thinking quite opposite to Johns: under the base paint are the patterns of the Stars and Stripes being revealed (contrary to Johns’ Flag, where the newspaper from the real world – symbolizing the vehicle of information – is what under the flag); above it is the American flag, an object flying in the air, painted with perspective while the image becomes an installation-like space; images such as plants, clothes hangers, or planes are collaged into the virtual space of the picture. “Flag- There is one interpretation for which each side has its own interpretation” is playing an add-up game on Johns’ Flag: it steps away from the question “is this a flag or a painting?” to “is he painting a flag or painting a painting?” and then removes real national flag before painting another flag. It declares that the national flag is not the object to be painted, but it also argues that the flag can serve as the object to be depicted.

Johns’ Flag evokes the disconnection between gazing and viewing: if the object becomes an ordinary being, art is left with nothing but “message” as well as “media” which serves as the vehicle.  In Johns’ idea, the work involves the equality between the viewer and the viewed.  Neither the image nor the viewers should be examined.  There is no hierarchy of aesthetic experiences here.   What is being replaced is how image has been coded to exist in our knowledge as well as how viewing has been included in the whole process of culture encoding.   Therefore, viewing completes itself within a system, while viewers and paintings respectively take up the poles of the system to balance.

However, if the dialectics evoked by Johns’ Flag is a rebellion against American abstract art and it fully realizes the dialectical logic of the philosophy of language, we can thus argue that CHI Chien’s works step into the context of political vocabulary in contemporary Taiwan. In his works, the artist intentionally arranges and establishes a multiple-perspective, even nearly equaled, composition for the pictures, where objects compensate each other visually and indicatively.

The work steps into a local context we cannot be more familiar with: a language of “duality” – the Taiwan’s peculiar political context of “double meanings.” Here, it is not only the “doublethink” forcefully promoted by “Big Brother” (an example from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four) but also “doubleview” or “doubleexpress.”[6] Clearly, CHI again obscures the political significance, making pictures a field of re-definition.  On the one hand, CHI reveals the situation of the contradiction with certain implied criticism; on the other hand, he offers a liberated way of viewing and a playful power of interpretation, which in fact indicates the authority still possessed by contemporary painting:  the double emphasis on “the right of image” and “the right of viewing.”  It is the power of picture as a liberated narrator.   It is not about declaring the upcoming power but the way to connect gaze and language – “the way of history.”

As how Boris Groys argues that avant-garde gets hold of its “art power” through autonomy of art, CHI’s practice of Painterliness reveals that the self-revelation of painting (art) is not entirely uncrackable, since a more indirect dialectical discourse on such autonomy contrarily makes it possible to jeopardize the border, further demonstrating the political power hidden behind.[7] We can even say that painting (or any contemporary art genres) finds its political opportunity here.  Once image is granted with equality as well as the power to be destroyed, it makes itself a tool to fight against the present system.

[1] In the paintings exhibited in CHI Chien’s Passing Through The Post-Garden, we see three repetitive images interchanging through different methods as well as their relation to images/planes:


[2]  Jacques Rancière, Le Destin Des Images, trans. Huang Chien-Hung (Taipei: Artouch, 2011) 104-107.
[3] In Park Chan-kyong’s curatorial concept for Mediacity Biennale 2014: Ghosts, Spies, and Grandmothers, he describe grandmothers as “the witnesses of an age of ghosts and spies.”  The image of grandmothers is thus adopted as the “powerless being,” though they also transcend power, when discussing the trauma caused by colonialism and the Cold War.
[4] Bruno Latour, What is the Style of Matter of Concern?, Van Gorcum, 2008, p32.
[5] Jeff Wall, Adrian Walter, Artist, Drawing From a Specimen in the Laboratory in the Dept. of Anatomy at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1992.
[6] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four, trans. Lin Shu-Hua (Taipei: Wisdom & Knowledge Publishing Company, 2001).
[7] See “The Logic of Equal Aesthetic Rights” for Boris Groys’ discourse on the autonomy of art. Boris Groys, Art Power, trans. Kuo Chao-Lan and Vincent Liu (Taipei: Artouch, 2015).