At 50 years old, Chen Chieh-jen is one of Taiwan’s leading artists, having in recent years exhibited in the Liverpool and Sydney biennials (both 2006), the Guangzhou Triennial (2008) and the Asia-Pacific Triennial (2009) in Brisbane, Australia. He works mainly in film, video and digital imagery, and he has repeatedly claimed that his work relates to issues of those marginalized by state institutions. He continues this theme with two video installations, Empire’s Borders I (2009) and Military Court and Prison (2008).
Empire’s Borders I (27 min.) portrays women trapped in the institutional space of present day immigration interviews. In the first of the film’s two parts, Taiwanese women stand at numbered windows on a set built to resemble the fluorescent-lit space of the visa office of the American Institute in Taiwan, America’s de facto embassy since the late 1970s, when the US ended formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Chen’s camera focuses on the women’s faces reflected in the black, opaque visa-application windows as they recount how their applications were rejected, some because it was feared they remain in the US illegally, others are given no reason at all.
In the second part of Empire’s Borders I, another group of women are shown lined up, in a re-creation of the immigration section of Taoyuan International Airport in Taipei. These are mainland Chinese women who married Taiwanese men; at present, there are more than 100,000 in Taiwan. These characters also take turns telling stories. One placed her ailing, elderly husband in a home, and was denied entry to Taiwan because they no longer lived together. Another, with children in Taiwan, was refused entry because her husband had died.
These and other such stories and comments have been collected on Chen’s interactive “Illegal Immigrant” blog [http://ccjonstrike.blogspot.com], which he set up after being denied a US visa to attend the biennial exhibition Prospect New Orleans in 2008. Chen’s insistence here is that international power structures actively marginalize some individuals in global society, and that visa offices and similar bureaucratic spaces function as the starting point of this exclusion. In the case of the mainland brides, his presentation is especially powerful. In the case of Taiwanese who cannot visit the US, his work is less effective, especially since the film admits at the end that the US is preparing to give citizens of Taiwan visa-exempt status in 2010.
Military Court and Prison (62 min.), originally commissioned by Spain’s Museo Reina Sofía, addresses similar themes, but with less success; one is unsure whether the work is meant to be funny or serious. The work begins with a group of ragged men in an abandoned warehouse space, while text on the screen tells us that this is a military prison that will shut down in five minutes, at which time it will be converted to a human rights museum. Later, in one long, crucial sequence of slow-motion shots of hands, straining faces and eerie creaking sounds, the men push against a structure of corrugated-metal about the size of an upended shipping container. It is a depiction of futility—but of what kind is not made clear; the symbolism is vague, and neither the accompanying installation nor the rest of the film sheds much light. The installation includes framed documents and photographs that relate the history of an actual political prison near Chen’s childhood home. Text on the screen at the end of the film makes an abrupt and tenuous link between the political prisoners of Taiwan’s past and the one million people currently in Taiwan without workers’ rights—mainly immigrant brides and laborers from Southeast Asia. While Military Court and Prison’s imagery is powerful, it is apparently also a weighty discourse on human rights, although one that is poorly argued and not always deeply felt.
As in his earlier works, Chen’s motives are noble and his technique is refined. But he makes his strongest statements when he presents facts, not magical realism, and real injustice, not simple unfairness. If his aim is to give voice to the voiceless through his art, he must more clearly focus his energies there.