By Double Flame of Art: Chen Hui-chiao for Chen Hui-Chiao (陳慧嶠)

For more than two decades, artist and gallery operator Chen Hui-chiao has nurtured a creative space for avant-garde art.

Cloud, sphere, bird and sea, encompassing both form and sound … I am the space where I am. 
—Chen Hui-chiao, 2012

In 1988, 24-year-old Chen Hui-chiao (陳慧嶠) became a cofounder and the planning director of the IT Park Gallery & Photo Studio, which was named after the nearby Yitong Park in downtown Taipei. The gallery was conceived as a noncommercial, open space for artists working in a more experimental, avant-garde vein. For more than two decades, Chen’s efforts in that direction have made her a leading light in Taiwan’s contemporary arts scene. “While we’ve had more computerized and digital modes of art creation due to advances in technology in recent years, we’ve done basically the same things since the gallery opened,” she says. “Among our 10 exhibitions each year, four to five of them are for young artists who are usually students or recent graduates.”

Many of those who started their art career at IT Park have seen their careers progress at home and abroad. “It would be fair to say that IT Park has been a major springboard for local contemporary artists who then went on to gain a presence at art museums and international exhibitions,” curator and art critic Wang Chia-chi (王嘉驥) notes in a tribute to the 20th anniversary of IT Park’s founding. Since the early 1990s, Chen has been invited to exhibit her works in countries and territories including Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, Scotland, South Korea, Turkey and the United States.

For Wang, now a lecturer in the Department of Arts and Design at National Hsinchu University of Education in northern Taiwan, IT Park plays a unique role among local art institutions. On the one hand, public art museums in Taiwan usually lack a clear focus on either traditional or contemporary art, while on the other, private galleries tend to be operated according to the taste of collectors and usually at the expense of more experimental works, he says. In contrast, “IT Park presents mostly groundbreaking artistic styles and offers quite different perspectives and room for creation,” Wang says. IT Park’s notable creative spirit can be attributed in large part to Chen, who is not only the gallery’s central administrator, but also a prolific artist. She insists that working in gallery management and creating art at the same time help rather than hinder each other. “Artwork might be a solution to the artist’s own problems or a reflection of the artist’s internal world,” she says. “But when works go on public display, they must be considered in relation to the space and be responsive to interpersonal exchanges.” In other words, the creation of an artwork might be done at a distance from society, but after that it also has an inherently social dimension, she says.

With respect to her own artistic journey, Chen says the beginning of her involvement with IT Park marks a clear dividing line between her earlier love of drawing and later serious practice of fine art. She says she had a great interest in drawing during childhood and already knew that she wanted to pursue it as a career by the time she was a junior high school student. In 1979, Chen entered one of Taiwan’s first specialized fine art classes for regular secondary school students at You De High School in Taipei, where she received standard art training in subjects such as sketching, watercolors and ink painting.

Relying on Instinct

While many of her classmates went on to study at the National Institute of the Arts (later renamed Taipei National University of the Arts) or National Taiwan Normal University’s Department of Fine Arts, Chen did not take those schools’ entrance exams as she “feared” regular academic subjects. “I was quite incapable of memorizing the things required for passing those tests,” she recalls. “It’s probably because I couldn’t stand the possibility of failure.” The artist and art administrator says that her lack of an academic background just reflects the fact that some artists are more theoretically oriented and have the potential to be good teachers, whereas others, like her, rely more on instinct.

After graduating from You De, Chen worked for several animation companies and as an illustrator. “At that time there was an art trend for neo-realism or photo-realism and illustration works couldn’t be very abstract or geometric,” she says. In the mid-1980s, her artistic style began to develop after she met abstract artist Tsong Pu (莊普) and took a number of his classes on art materials. Chen gradually began creating multimedia and minimalist art installations, as did Tsong and many other artists later connected with IT Park. Tsong went on to become the leading founder of the art space.

In a broader context, the emergence of a wide variety of artistic styles around the time when nearly four decades of martial law ended in 1987 reflected Taiwan’s progress toward a more liberal society. In fact, avant-garde movements in literature, theater and art at the time can be viewed as a revolt against the prevailing social conventions and political authority of the martial-law era. Chen says she has never had any inclination for social criticism, however. “I don’t want to be just a mouthpiece [speaking empty words],” she says, explaining that she prefers to concentrate on art.

The selection and exploration of materials are crucial to Chen’s work. While she appreciates Tsong’s teaching for giving her confidence in her own potential, she has also tried materials different from those used by her mentor. “The inspiration you receive from your teachers can lead you to challenge them,” she says. Among other things, needles—usually those used for sewing—have become a signature of Chen’s installation works. For example, her 1998 piece Then Sleep, My Love… is an inviting double bed covered with fake fur, but a closer inspection reveals numerous needles throughout the fur. The artist says the work is intended to convey a sense of conflict and contrast. Wang points out that such a dualistic or contradictory arrangement of materials characterized many of Chen’s works from the 1990s. “She often contrasted roses, feathers, cotton wool, water and thread with stainless steel, acrylic board, glass and needles to show the antagonism between life and lifeless matter, the temporary and the eternal, random and geometric shapes, what flows and what is static, as well as between the hard and the soft,” Wang explains. He compares such juxtaposition of opposites to the style of European surrealists in the 1920s. Sometimes, such arrangements recall religious rituals or sacrificial offerings. “The dried roses pierced with needles are perhaps an allusion to suffering in life or martyrdom in faith,” notes the art critic, referring to Chen’s 1993 work You’re the Rose, I’m the Needle.

Noting the surreal elements of Chen’s art, Wang describes her as an “active dreamer.” “I try to represent my subconscious in my artwork,” Chen says. “Some of the symbols in the work come from dreams,” she explains, adding that she is in the habit of recording and studying her dreams. “My dreams can come very frequently and repeat themselves a lot,” the artist says. For this reason, she says dreams can signify innate knowledge or intuition, and while they are open to various interpretations, they can help one better understand oneself. Similarly, creating art also helps Chen in the journey of self-knowledge.

In general, the artist prefers expressing herself through “simple, perfect shapes” like those she used for Geometry of Passion, her 2011 solo exhibition. Chen’s minimalist style has been interpreted in a variety of ways. The ping-pong balls she has used widely in recent works have been compared to both stars and ovum, for example. In the work Beyond the Tree from this year’s exhibition of the same name, 12 pink PVC sofas surround a white table covered with sewing needles and thread. Read one way, the chairs can be seen as representing the 12 zodiac constellations. “You could also say they stand for the 12 knights of the Round Table,” Chen says.

“Some interpretations go beyond anything I would ever think of, while others are in line with my intention,” she says. She welcomes the variance of opinion and sees it as a natural part of artistic production. “Anyway, I’m not like those artists who know exactly what they want to express when they start creating a work,” she adds. “I think an artwork must, first of all, convey a sense of beauty that can interest viewers.”

Indeed, Chen’s work displays an aesthetic that art critic Wu Chia-hsuan (吳嘉瑄) praises as being “tidy, neat and poetic.” Wang says Chen’s 2008 solo exhibition The Double Flame marked her transformation of what she learned under Tsong and other senior abstract artists, as she infused their geometric shapes with her own cosmic view and dreamlike visions. Of Chen’s latest show, Wu says that it conveyed the artist’s progression away from somewhat closed systems of “hidden meaning” toward something more open and welcoming to viewers. Beyond the Tree, for example, “invites viewers into it, to sit on a sofa, rest, chat with others, look up at the sunlight or just meditate,” Wu notes. Coupled with Bon Voyage, a cloud-shaped piece of board to which small airplanes are affixed, hanging on a wall nearby, the two artworks create a relaxed, cozy feeling of easy composure. The feeling is conducive to what Wu calls the ability to “dream freely” or, citing British poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850), allowing images to “flash upon that inward eye.” Chen has turned her inward eye on the various materials she uses, combining them into meaningful, new forms.

Art over Business

Local efforts to promote the cultural and creative industry and the booming art market in mainland China have become significant factors affecting the current environment for Taiwanese artists. Chen says she is not particularly interested in either of those aspects of the art world, however. “The promotion of cultural creative businesses is basically a political move targeted at mass markets with a focus on the development of products and production lines. Art, however, as a system of philosophical or aesthetic thinking, resists quantification or duplication,” she says.

“Many of Taiwan’s artists moved to China and then came back,” Chen says. “Our art education is ahead of China and we actually have little to learn there.”

Instead, she focuses on works that embody “fundamental” ideas that transcend temporal and spatial limits. This is true of both her own work and that of the artists she invites to hold shows at IT Park. “Aesthetics must be viewed in relation to social context. Now, aesthetic knowledge is receiving much greater attention than before. Meanwhile, there have been advances in art technology, but young artists must avoid conceptualizing too much in their works,” she says.

In her role as art administrator, Chen says she will continue to organize exhibitions at IT Park, while as artist, she will keep on producing her own works so that they too might flash upon the inward eye of viewers.

(Taiwan Review Vol.62 Byline:PAT GAO Publication Date:No.9 September 2012)