Landing in the Frontier- Chi Chien 2020 Solo Exhibition Landing Place

Text by Chen Kuang-yi
Ph.D. in Contemporary Art History, Université Paris X Nanterre/Professor at the Department of Fine Arts and Dean at the College of Fine Arts, National Taiwan University of Arts

The exhibition, Landing Place, is unique in that it brings together the distinct themes of Chi Chien’s solo exhibitions from 2014 to 2018. Ostensibly disparate, they are each in fact related to the ideas of “territory” and “boundary.” Since his early artistic and curatorial endeavors in 2007-2008, the artist has consistently been concerned with issues of framing and of boundaries in regard to painting. He has since expanded this into the delineations between the public and private arenas, between artworks and exhibition spaces, and between the artworks and artistic institutions, and has established a set of contemplative methods and creative techniques for this purpose.

Issues of boundaries are not internal to art alone: radical changes the post-Cold War world since 1989 in have reshuffled alliances between friends and foes, with national borders dissolved and redrawn. Internal borders (administrative regions, local politics) have become less important, while external borders are continuously shifting and reinforced. Territorial and boundary issues have suddenly become a hot topic under post-modernity and globalization. The opening, shifting, and sealing of borders are in continuous flux, propelled by prevailing events. For instance, economic agreements and the environmental crises have prompted nations to open up borders in order to confront a shared fate; but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced nations to seal off borders in 2020, harkening a new era of regionalism. Ironically, these restrictions on human movement seem to have become a solution to environmental issues. Boundaries are not limited to the invisible borders between regions, districts, or dominions. There are temporal continuities and legitimacies of power beyond spatial divisions. A seemingly insignificant boundary actually embodies historical disputes of division/violent conflict, or annexation/peace agreements. With the status quo undergoing constantly change, the world map is ever-changing too. Natural boundaries reflect terrain and conjure the higher power of nature and Creation, and are ostensibly more legitimate than human boundaries. Moreover, boundaries don’t only restrict human movement but also affect human social spheres and modes of behavior. Life in the borderlands have always been different from that in other areas, tensions and pressures can be easily discerned, and any change in the boundaries of the land triggers dramatic emotional reactions in its people.

Traditional concepts of “boundaries” are cultural as well as ideological. Its designation is determined by our reading of history and judgement of values. But concepts of boundaries under globalization are more secular and cartographical than in the past. Jean Beaufays believes that the new functions of borders are more for defense and protection, for control and politics, for revenue and economy, and for identity and religion. In reality, boundaries are not easily crossed as they are strictly controlled by power. And at the borders, not everyone is equal: intellectuals dream of crossing them as a demonstration of freedom; the wealthy cross borders to flaunt their wealth and gain more riches; the privileged classes use their power to challenge the existence of borders; ordinary citizens require the protection of borders; while refugees will cross borders at any cost to escape bad governance.

The purpose of political or physical territories and borders are to protect specific ethnic groups with a shared identity; however, erecting barriers also brings isolation and ignorance, and conjures fear and suspicion about the Other, becoming the greatest obstacle in ethnic harmony and globalization. Under the influences of post-modernist thought and globalization, people are more interested in “deterritorialization” and “reterritorialization”, individual races/cultures/languages/religions/societies/occupations are always changing, even as the above described identities frequently transcend territories and boundaries. Even so, a world without borders is difficult to imagine, especially when a pandemic has suddenly tightened previously loosely held borders and launched a certain post-pandemic imagination of borders, such as remote border control, or borderless condition achievable only in a virtual world.

The geopolitics mentioned in Chi Chien’s artist’s statement is actually closely related to visual culture. Geopolitical discourse is jointly created by politicians, the media, education systems, and popular culture. In order to legitimize its action, governments must think of ways to allow intellectual elites to construct a “high geopolitic” that more or less corresponds to the “low geopolitic” of popular culture, and that which achieves a level of compromise with public opinion. The so-called “low geopolitic” is formed through re-presentations, symbolism, or imagery in the media such as advertising, films, or comics.[1] These visualized geopolitical discourses are elements and weapons necessary for constructing the national and ethnic identities that forge thoughts and concepts in the daily lives of people, and await artists to identify and expose. In the globalized and decolonized world of contemporary art, the disintegration of cultural hegemony and transfer of artistic power has itself become a hot topic of geopolitics. We can only conclude that contemporary art and geopolitics are inextricably connected.

The word “landing” in the title of Chi Chien’s exhibition, Landing Place, conjures an airplane making its descent. A plane cannot land where it is not allowed to land, and the only plane that appears in this exhibition space (in the painting Lillies of the Field) is a fighter jet which points to airspaces, air battles, and air supremacy. With this title, the 2020 exhibition lifts the curtains on the longstanding discussion on boundaries and territories among artists. Unlike artists such as Hans Haake of the 1970s, or Fred Wilson of the 1990s, or Yinka Shonibare, Emil Goudal or Zoulikha Bouabdelah in the 21st century, or any of the Taiwanese activist artists who deal with geopolitical issues of borders through methods of survey and exploration, Chi Chien’s methods are abstract and subtle, but absolutely powerful.

A certain level of understanding for Chi Chien’s body of work is necessary for audiences to understand the relationship between the works in this exhibition and those from his recent exhibitions. Elements in the work Woman Jumping Rope and the Yellow Line series come from the 2014 solo exhibition “Prima Facie Exhibit: Park,” and Grand Aquarium: Tabernacle is a composite of the 2017 solo exhibition “World Aquarium” and the 2018 “Live-There and Then / Then and There.” Though his approach is unlike Duchamp’s Boîte verte initiated in 1934, or Boîte-en-valise, initiated in 1935, where Duchamp reproduces past works and drafts and combines them; Chi Chien does demonstrate a Duchampesque artistic technique and perspective, first of all in the process, connectivity, and integration of his creative conception: Duchamp once said in an interview that whenever he has an idea he would “write it down on paper; I would let it simmer. Like that, for eight years (je la notais sur papier, je la faisais mijoter. Comme ça pendant huit ans).”[2] This habit of continuously reproducing and re-contemplating one’s own work with the intention of maintaining the original state of the moment of inspiration for deeper, continuous, and consistent exploration also explains why Duchamp has always maintained an interest in collecting and preserving his own works (including drafts). Boîte-en-valise directly realizes Duchamps declaration of integrity: “Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase.” Chi Chien’s spirit of “revisiting” four of his exhibitions held over the past six years, and of recreating and “reheating” concepts or details from his own works, seems to coincide with Duchamp’s creative methods.

Secondly, there is a critique of the mechanisms for preserving and disseminating art works: Duchamp only allowed a few collectors access to his work. He came up with the idea of creating a hand-carried museum in 1935, and he began in 1941 to reproduce smaller versions of his works made between 1910 to 1937 which he collected in the Boîte-en-valise, and offered them for purchase in handwritten letters to collectors. Duchamp played every role in the art mechanism without involving anyone else, and regarded this as part of the creative endeavor to point to the path and principles of how artworks become works of art. The approachable and playful characteristics of Boîte-en-valise reflects Duchamp’s concept of exhibiting works outside the gallery and museum system. Chi Chien has consistently explored the boundaries between artworks and the exhibition space. In this exhibition, the exhibition space can be regarded as a “white box” in which collected past works are exhibited, but it is also an indispensable element of the works, especially since Chi Chien has a proclivity for using in situ methods of production, so that the works and the exhibition venue are unified and indivisible. The playfulness in Chi Chien’s work are clear in the elements from familiar childhood games such as hand shadows (or the humorous “foot shadows”), building blocks, and Monopoly, etc. The only difference is, Chi Chien doesn’t reproduce his work and seal it in a state of completion, but “re-actualizes” or “updates” the work to better respond to a new context and to produce new meanings that initiate dialogue with the new exhibition.

Chi Chien’s concise method of discussion on the issues of boundaries begins at the entrance wall of the exhibition, where the artist uses his son’s building blocks to construct a wall: could it be the Great Wall, the Berlin Wall, or a neighbor’s boundary wall, or any wall? A flag is erected beside this: might it be the one planted at the moon landing, during a tragic and heroic battle, or one planted at any campground? Next to this is the work Grand Aquarium: Tabernacle, a large-scale painting that covers the entire wall flanked by a monochromatic painting. The wall, the monochromatic painting, and the background of the large-scale painting are all of the same color; and additionally, the translucence of the tent, the corporeality of the female model, and the illusion of an aquarium perspective created by a gold fish swimming across the canvas, and the gold blocks on the ground; all combine to complete an arena and dimension where the differences between fantasy and reality, between the internal and external, are difficult to discern.

Along with Woman Jumping Rope (jumping rope is a metaphor for crossing boundaries), we enter into another area in the exhibition venue where traces of splattered paint lead to the work Accident, an overturned paint can in a pool of paint. This “accident” points to the painting practice of abstract expressionism and neorealism, but also immediately transforms the venue into the setting of a construction site. A block of asphalt painted with a yellow line is placed on top of a laminate board mounted on wheels. On one hand, this makes it a footnote to the painting above the “mobile” shelf, and on the other hand, the asphalt road alludes to the public arena, which propels this part of the gallery into a site of ambiguous identity. In the work hung on the wall, Painting Corner, is a realistic depiction of a leveling tool on the upper portion of the otherwise the blank canvas, which perfectly superimposes the internal/external construction setting of the art system. The purpose of a construction site within the exhibition space is to prepare a glorious vista, but what about the construction site outside the exhibition space? The planning of roadways, the endless excavations in preparation for roads, and the perpetual paving of asphalt — always glimmer with promises made by politicians, and the maintenance, repair, and designation of administrative districts by the public powers that be.

As for the works on the next wall, including Here No. 1 and Here No. 2, they establish the location of the gallery for the audience through its land, architectural registration, property value, global satellite positioning, landmarks, and a “YOU ARE HERE” sign. Chi Chien posits at least two inquiries here: the location of the gallery and the scope of its territories; as well as the location of the audience and the scope of their activities. Within the exhibition arena, the gallery’s private areas limit interventions by the artist (library area), and prohibit entry by the audience (storage room). These two areas have been clearly marked by yellow lines that say “Do Not Enter.” The entrance to the storage room has also been emphasized with the wording “Staff Only,” to point out the public/private domains within the arts mechanism, as well as the boundary between art/non-art. As for the gallery’s position on the global satellite map, it confirms Nicolas Bourriaud’s preposition in curating the 2003 exhibition “GNS (Global Navigation System)”: that topography is a key issue in the contemporary artistic creation, and is also a necessary path to understanding contemporary art. In an era when satellite photos of the Earth and the universe saturate the media, how can artists re-present the world? Information collected in the process of investigation, exploration, and probing must be privileged over image, form, and reproduction. Hence, Chi Chien uses satellite maps to create In Situ, a beautiful painting with the silhouette of a tree; and the work Between Two Points. However, next to these paintings is the gallery’s large glass curtain which provides a clear vista of the second-floor exhibition room, and give a clear view through to the urban jungle of high-rises outside the window. In front of this window, Chi Chien has installed barriers typically used in museums to protect works of art, as though the real world outside is a painting displayed in front of the audience, albeit this work is much rowdier than the spartan works inside the gallery. The LED light strip that separates the two also confirms the affluence of the neighborhood where the gallery is located. However, what almost escapes detection is the long rectangular black mirror on the window sill, on which the words “BACK OF BACK” has been written in silvered mirror. This black mirror periodically reflects beautiful views of the sky. But what is in the back of back? This is an intriguing question.

The exhibition culminates with the content and rules for the strategy game “The Landlord’s Game” designed by L. J. Magie in 1904, which has been framed as a document and hung on the wall. The game, on which the boardgame Monopoly is based, intends to teach through play, and to help players understand the societal harm caused by land grabs through applications of the theory of a Single Tax on land, first proposed by American economist and land reform expert Henry George (1839-1897). Players can opt to “win by bankrupting opponents” or “win by promoting societal prosperity.”[3] As a contrast, the painting on the neighboring wall is a typically Taiwanese floral fabric covered by paint to highlights a few stems of lilies above which a disproportionately-scaled fighter jet is in flight. Despite the intense political connotations, the painting is titled Lilies of the Field, which is an allusion to Matthew 6:38-29 from the Christian bible: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” The world is the realm of the Creator, and all beings proclaim His holy supreme power.

For someone who has researched Mario Merz and gleaned the strategy of “less is more” from international minimalism and minimalist art, Chi Chien may not be a thoroughly minimalist artist, however, he embodies the same ambition and the same unflappable character. The entire exhibition space presents a style that is calm, clean, meticulous, spare, and perfectly positioned, and which remains ostensibly peaceful and unfazed regardless of how hot the topic is. In his elevated metaphors, parables, and allegories, Chi Chien consistently uses texts and ordinary everyday objects and events. He is concise and precise, but there is a richness in the quantity of information that the audience perceives and comprehends. Entering his exhibition arena is like entering a mystery theater. The tranquil gallery space is filled with hints, symbolism, and clues that guide the audience in a game of decoding; in an adventurous journey full of twists and turns that ultimately arrives at the boundaries between painting/non-painting, the public sphere/private sphere, the work/exhibition space, the interior/exterior of the arts system, the art/non-art, the local/other, the local/global, and the world.

[1] Kolossov, Vladimir. « Étude des frontières approches post-modernes », Diogène, vol. 210, no. 2, 2005, pp. 13-27.

[2] Entretien avec Otto Hahn (1964) cité par Michel Sanouillet, «Dans l’atelier de Marcel Duchamp», Les Nouvelles littéraires, n° 1424, Paris, 16 décembre 1954, p. 5

[3] See