CHEN SHUN-CHUKing-Do Relic,1996 Nine wooden sculptures with image-transferred tiles, each 192 × 32 cm. Black-and-white installation view of “King-Do Relic” at IT Park Gallery, Taipei, 1996. Courtesy the artist. 

Kacey Wong on Chen Shun-Chu

Also available in:  Chinese

At the time of writing this article, I was in Taiwan and fond memories of my artist friend, Chen Shun-Chu, had resurfaced. 

Shun-Chu was soft-spoken, with a gentle smile, squarish face and big, black eyes that are difficult to forget. I had known him for close to 20 years; we met up frequently in Taipei and Hong Kong. We shared similarities and differences in many conversations. Unfortunately, our exchanges ended when Shun-Chu tragically passed away in 2014. 

Shun-Chu was a well-known Taiwanese contemporary photographer who drew on the concept of “home” in his artistic practice. Death, memory, family, home and identity were themes that reoccurred in in his work. Although he studied painting when he was at university, he considered himself a photographer. In my mind, he was a master of installation, in which he incorporated photographs. 

I first met Shun-Chu and became familiar with his art when I was working at Para Site in Hong Kong. We had invited him to exhibit his photographic series “Conference: Family Parade” (1995–96) in the space. For this series, he captured family members in full-body shots. He presented these photos with picture frames, and hung them on the exterior walls of buildings in tightly-packed grids. On one occasion, he had hung these family portraits on the exterior of an abandoned fisherman’s cottage. When I saw the work installed among architectural ruins, I was overcome with a sense of loss. Photographs are usually exhibited and hung on interior walls, and the flipping of this concept created a haunting effect. Later, I read that the abandoned fisherman’s house is actually located in Penghu, where Shun-Chu was born and raised. This site-specificity gave the work power in its layered meaning. 

Born into a family in the construction trade, Shun-chu was familiar with architecture and materials from a young age. Even his name, Shun-Chu, literally translates into English as “smooth construction.” I first saw one of his large-scale installations, King-Do Relic (1996), in mainland China, and then again in Taiwan. The work comprises randomly placed architectural columns and resembles a labyrinth. On the surface of each column are ceramic tiles printed with images of Shun-Chu’s father, Chen King-Do, dressed as a policeman. The spatiality of the installation is monumental, like the ruins of a large temple, and the viewer is surrounded by repetitive images of the artist’s military-figure-looking father, who died of a heart attack in front of Shun-Chu when he was 17 years old. The act of layering policeman’s clothing over someone’s portrait can be interpreted as a projection of heroism or masculinity. The fragility of life echoes from the ceramic tiles, juxtaposed with the emotion of the artist’s longing for his larger-than-life father. I am sure every son who loves his father will understand. 

But where is Penghu, Shun- Chu’s birthplace, you might ask? If you look at a map of Taiwan, you will see a group of tiny islands just southwest of the mainland—that’s Penghu. Perhaps such physical isolation provides the mental space necessary to reflect upon one’s relationship with heritage and identity. Once, I remember vividly, Shun-Chun and I were discussing the political future of Taiwan at a coffee shop across from Taipei’s Museum of Contemporary Art. We were engaged in a heated discussion about a hypothetical military attack from China. Shun-Chu said: “If that ever happens, I will re-enlist in the army immediately!” He said it with such determination. I was totally puzzled by him back then. It was only years later, after experiencing the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong firsthand, that I finally understood his emotional response. It is one that comes out of genuine love of a place one calls home, and demonstrates a willingness and readiness to sacrifice one’s life defending it. That is what Chen Shun-Chu taught me. 

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