It Matters Little How Bleak Life Gets: Chen Hui-Chiao's Geometry of Passion

By Jian Tzu-Chieh for Chen Hui-Chiao (陳慧嶠)

Chen Hui-chiao's exhibition title The Geometry of Passion brings together two seemingly unrelated elements: passion with its hard to follow irrationality, and geometry with its coolly constructed calculus. This random marriage, however, offers up an array of coordinates which can be used to map meanings in the artist's work; work that never reveals much, yet makes a few things abundantly clear.

Offered up to our eyes are things that could not be more ordinary: ping pong balls and enameled metal panels. If these elements merely create an air of reticence and frustrate our understanding due to their ordinariness, then we could just casually look around the exhibition as if hanging out in a shopping mall. If this is the case, we might choose a few items, make our purchases and then wearily take our packages away. It is possible to live this kind of drab life, allowing ordinary things, day after day, to evenly permeate our long-ago disintegrated reality, and no longer worry about, nor ever again question, the meaning of the geometry of passion.

Take Us Away

Focusing our perception, however, makes entertaining questions about Chen's seemingly simple artwork possible. We may wonder, for example, why she inlays a ping pong ball here rather than there, why she arranges her rectangular panels in such a way on the wall, or how she chooses the color of the enamel baked onto these panels. As the veneer of reticence produced by ordinariness starts to crack, stars emerge from eternity, appearing before us in the form of ping pong balls, and the blackness of night reflects back from the shiny surfaces of Chen's various colored panels. The spatial relationships among the panels, and placement of balls all seem ambiguous and unplanned, but at the same time we sense there is no other way that they could have been arranged.

Perceiving in a way that deviates from our habitual way of seeing things can spirit us away from the work's repetitive ordinariness. This is hinted at in the Chinese title of the exhibition, whose double meaning also suggests the queryhow much? and in this way Chen is posing a quantitative question whose answer necessarily relies on perception. Adding the notion of perception into the mix makes Chen's ordinary objects interact, producing a series of lines that weave the work into a whole. But soon our thinking casts doubts over “how much” and the connections that we thought were so firmly within our grasp start to slip away. In the exhibition The Geometry of Passion, everything seems so painstakingly placed, yet we are still left with a feeling of arbitrariness; there is nothing that states “exception” in the work, yet it is still located beyond known laws. In this sparse, minimal installation, even areas of the walls left unfilled are illuminated by Chen's small objects, which seem to draw the entire space together into an integrated whole. The artist's use of space has never lacked this paradoxical consideration for both integration and escape, which at times, in certain works, has been in response to some psychic wound. More recently, however, Chen has used escape to indicate transcending the present reality, for example in her public artwork The Dreamer and the Dreamed- Starry Moment, installed under an overpass of Taipei's Civic Boulevard, where escape reclaims a lost urban space and transforms it into a milky star-filled sky.

Objecthood in The Geometry of Passion

Although heightening our perception can draw us away from habitual ways of seeing when faced with Chen's minimal use of materials in The Geometry of Passion, ping pong balls remain as ping pong balls. While Chen does transform her materials, to a certain extent she also maintains their original features and real-world contexts, thus introducing non-art or ready-made elements into her work. She uses the literal qualities of her materials to express objecthood, whose function is described by American critic Michael Fried thus: “It is as though objecthood alone can, in the present circumstances, secure something's identity, if not as non-art, at least as neither painting nor sculpture […].” (1)

Fried's perspective belongs to the modernist paradigm, which plays an important role in differentiating art from non-art, non-painting or non-sculpture, and satisfies formalist art critics' requirement that discussions stay focused on considerations of art's essential attributes. This paradigm, however, has lost much of its significance for us, as now we can be convinced that artwork is a commercial/cultural product, and as such is expected to enter more quickly into any of various autonomously operating systems of equivalence (such as Benjamin's exhibition value), where distinctions between insider and outsider art no longer exist.

Nonetheless, The Geometry of Passion offers an immediate impression of objecthood that appears closer to Fried's concern with aesthetic paradigms. There exists true objecthood in this exhibition, one which is also subordinate to a system (her works possess a certain identity), but not a system of equivalence (the works do not seem superficially commercial). Furthermore, the question of whether Chen's work belongs to art or non-art is still present, and is a distinction highlighted by the work in this exhibition. Perhaps Chen's objecthood is a result of pondering what can or cannot be art (even if very few people still take this inquiry seriously), but no matter what, the collection of works presented in this show upholds a hierarchy of value, but one which hearkens back to Fried's insistence on quality. I think it is better to say that Chen's recent work presents difficult to characterize experiences that are transcendent, that is, not of objective reality, in the gap that always exists between objecthood and ontological questions regarding art.

To discuss these transcendent experiences in Chen's work, I would like to temporarily put aside aspects based on her interest in astrology, and instead concentrate on the formalist aspect of presence, which is produced by the artist's characteristic spatial compositions. Actually, the material-centric quality of The Geometry of Passion engenders the experience of presence much like minimalist art. When visiting this exhibition, it is impossible not to associate it with the present moment and place, and due to the context in which Chen's work is always viewed, the feeling of presence almost never stops. Her coolly unemotional, minimalist work is always installed in open, brightly-lit venues, where visitors are made to feel the actuality of the space (including its many attributes left unchanged by the exhibition), which is due to Chen's sparse distribution of objects and the care and constraint that her objects evoke. Furthermore, as visitors make various perception-based connections with the work, it is difficult not to become aware of the distance between Chen's objects and the physicality of the venue.

Although the cultural context in which Fried made his observations is completely different from our own, his description of presence is very close to what I believe when he writes, “Here again the experience of being distanced by the work in question seems crucial: the beholder knows himself to stand in an indeterminate, open-ended—and unexacting—relation as subject to the impassive object on the wall or floor.” (2) Regardless of what formal factors give rise to this kind of presence, the exact theatricality that Fried goes to great lengths to attack arises in an “indeterminate, open-ended—and unexacting—relation.” Literally speaking, his theatricality is the actual situation of the viewer standing before and observing the artwork, as Fried says, “In fact, being distanced by such objects is not, I suggest, entirely unlike being distanced, or crowded, by the silent presence of another person.” (3)

The Conjurations of Chen Hui-Chiao

Most likely the validity of Fried's perspectives is limited to the era in which they were conceived, but still his use of theatricality and anthropomorphism to critique Minimalism creates a notion of distance that is useful to us here. It reminds us that in this kind of art viewing experience, objects other than the artworks and the silent presence of other people are always close by—in other words, presence in minimalist artworks does not just frame the present reality, but rather by emphasizing indeterminate distance, also shifts consciousness to our own bodies and distorts our self image. This process produces awareness and subjectivity, ultimately transforming the relationship to the self.

If we say that this transformation or distortion leads to Fried's state of theatricality and diminishes the necessity for the artwork to exist, then his anxiety arises from the potential for an art world where aura has completely vanished and artworks, like ordinary objects, enter into systems of value. Perhaps Fried sees malignancy in an art that creates reflexive awareness of present reality through the espousal of objecthood, but I think the use of ordinary objects in art is in itself no mistake. If there is any mistake in Chen's use of ping pong balls and enameled metal panels, it probably lies in our lost ability to imagine something beyond the present when confronted with ordinary objects, which is indeed our loss: we lose out on what art can offer; we lose out on experiencing the stars Chen lights up in the blackness of a clear night. Nevertheless, the most fascinating aspect of Chen's work is that it conjures transcendent experiences beyond a present reality with objecthood. 

Regarding Passion

Through careful advance planning and industrial manufacture, Chen has created mature artwork with a sense of orderly precision for The Geometry of Passion, yet she also seem to cast a spell that blurs our vision as focus on the work. Chen's art manipulations, which include transforming objects and their identities, hasten us toward a perceptual map of how she constructs passion; Chen's icy and rigid metal panels express empathy and understanding through the enamel colors covering them, and just as they are transformed into something other than they are, their original features are restored. For Chen passion ebbs and flows in a similar fashion; when desire forsakes the mind, perhaps carnal desire is diminished, but an individual must still undergo trials before coming to rest regardless of whether satisfaction will be achieved or not.

This bi-directional flow in Chen's work also mirrors changes in her psychological state over the last few years. Looking at her round and variously sized enameled metal panels scattered about the exhibition venue, we become aware that the fierce rigidity of her past work, which has been replaced with plump and mellow shapes, is not all that has changed; the exacting order Chen used in the past to arrange her minimalist objects has become a rhythmical scattering that involves a sense of the human body. These works create a visual refrain continually repeating itself in an ambiguous distance when repressed emotion overflows from the objects. 

Perhaps Chen's geometry of desire refers to a reality that ultimately cannot be overcome, but we still are treated to hard to explain titillation and the warmth of objects in Chen's always cool and detached looking works. Perhaps the shortest route can be found in the most distant location, and in a place colder than death, we experience togetherness; or perhaps inquiring about the geometry of passion implies a simple oath: no matter how bleak life gets, we can still believe in the infinity of the stars and countless other mysteries regarding love, sex and death.

“It was a time when the unthinkable became thinkable.” (4)

1, 2, 3. See Micheal Fried, "Art and Objecthood" Artforum, June 1967, pp. 12-23.
4. This sentence appeared in an artist statement by Chen Hui-chiao, and was quoted from The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.