Dreaming Through Art: On Chen Hui-chiao

By Chia Chi Jason Wang for Chen Hui-Chiao (陳慧嶠)

Throughout the 1990's one common quality often seen in Chen Hui-chiao’s (b. 1964) work was its duality. As early as 1997, Wu Mali first noted the contradictions and antagonisms inherent in the Chen's work in an article entitled “The Skeptic Pursuit of Beauty.” Indeed, Wu went as far as to suggest that this characteristic was in fact a reflection of Chen Hui-chiao's emotional state of mind or subconscious.[1] At the time, Chen's work tended to focus on antagonistic elements in the material nature of objects. For instance, she often combined roses, feathers, cotton and water with the geometric shapes of stainless steel, acrylic boards, glass, needles etc and tied these to a universe built on dualism: life / inorganic matter, temporary / eternal, indeterminate shapes / geometric, flowing / static, hard / soft. Interestingly, this juxtaposition and combination of opposites is the same formal approach adopted by the Surrealists in Europe in the 1920's. Where Chen Hui-chiao differs is that her means of juxtaposition is not meant for the questioning of reason or as an act of subversion. On the contrary, in Chen's works, materials such as stainless steel, acrylic and glass tend to serve as a vessel or platform, mainly for the purpose of holding or carrying objects. In other words, they exist as a unifying mechanical framework. 

From a ritualistic point of view, these containers are akin to holy objects used in the presentation of sacrifices to the gods. The platform closely resembles an altar whereas the roses and cotton placed inside the containers are the sacrificial offerings (especially the roses). At the same time as Chen Hui-chiao dry processed the roses she also often pierced them with needles, an allusion perhaps to the trials of life or martyrdom for religious faith. The best example of this kind of work is the three dimensional installation piece “You are the Rose I am the Needle” produced in 1993.[2] Moreover, the overlapping nature of the needle holes reflects the complex encounters of life and alludes to the profound mystery of fate. In this context it is noticeable that Chen Hui-chiao's solo exhibition “Smile of the Unbeliever” held at IT Park Gallery in 1997 marked the beginning of her exploration of “consciousness.” At this point her earlier exploration of the materiality of objects was taken one step further and transformed into an allusion for consciousness. As such, although the exhibition area was filled with transparent mechanical containers, these were now vehicles of consciousness with particular emphasis on the transparency of the containers themselves. 

Since 1997 Chen began to move away from the geometric frames made of heavy metallic and glass. At the same time, the flow of consciousness was transformed into the fantasia of imagination. At the same time, exploration of materiality gradually gave way to symbolic manifestation, which then became the artist's main formal strategy. The imagery of needles, thread, cotton and fabrics used by Chen is elaborated into poetic association, signifying the sky, stars, day, night, wind, rain and even sounds from the natural world. In the piece “Whispering, I Pass Through the Darkness” (1997), Chen adopted a more direct narrative, using computer graphics to explore how the awareness and consciousness of human subjectivity operates as well as the significance represented by God and Nature in life and death. In this way the artist expressed both her interest in and concern for related issues. 

“Dreaming” lies at the very heart of Chen Hui-chiao's schemata of consciousness. In her statement about the 1997 solo exhibition Chen talked about an exploration of perception focused on the “body” and “spirit” and attempted to “focus on her own sense of awareness” wherein “dreaming” exits as a shortcut to “perception.” This new approach also enabled her to move from wandering and searching and return to “simple instinct.” Having been inspired by the work of Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998), Chen Hui-chiao's exploration of consciousness and self-awareness, especially her passion for dreams and astrology, is actually infused with the mysticism of shamanism.[3] In terms of artistic creativity, Chen’s installation pieces, such as “Never Shout or Trample the Dream Awake…”and “Then Sleep, My Love…,” all produced in 1998, are excellent examples of exactly this approach.[4]

If we take the human body as a mechanic institution then dreaming constitutes a form of liberation from physical constraint, a realm in which the consciousness is free to roam. In the same way, the world of dreams is always filled with struggle and even dissatisfaction with reality. Although Wu Mali has noted Chen's thirst for freedom in 1997, what is more intriguing is the expressionism employed by the artist in the 1990's, wherein freedom is invariably tied to a framework from which it cannot flee. In this context, awareness is restricted by the human form and the only way in can break free and soar is in dreams. In 2006, Chen Hui-chiao held a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei that focused on the subject of dreams – or to use her own words “A feeling that originates from inside one's own body.” 

Because dreams are a reflection of reality, conflicts and even danger are inevitable. In contrast, in the works of Chen Hui-chiao dreams are expressed as a return to truth and even Utopia. Both “Ancient Feeling” (2006) and “Inside of Memories” (2006) refer to a symbolic and spiritual realm, replete with romantic nostalgia about primordial nature and the origins of the cosmos. At the same time, such imagery is also very close to a surreal dreamscape.[5]

Although roses have thorns, these are found on the stalk and not on the flower itself. In her earlier work Chen pierced the whole flower with needles ensuring it was covered in “thorns.” The rose has long been used as a symbol of love in literature, whereas sticking needles in something is a clear declaration of pain or death. This act quite literally makes love something difficult to take hold of or seize control. It also makes it easier to be injured when trying to do so. In 2005, Chen Hui-chiao took up a position as an artist-in-residence in the artist village founded by Glenfiddich Distillery in Dufftown, Scotland. This experience introduced her to the Scottish thistle, which made a big impression. In the 2006 installation piece “Ancient Feeling,” she portrays tall-standing thistles with thorns on the stems as the guardians of “love” and “dreams.”[6] From her earlier roses of martyrdom to the more recent iron will of the thistles, Chen Hui-chiao has unyieldingly protected and guarded her own inner world of dreams. 

Chen Hui-chiao has always employed highly personal and intimate language in her work that could even be characterized as private. From there it is not a large step to note that Chen is an artist who dreams through her work. Although works completed in this way appear open, their inner workings are often comprised of hidden emotional codes, things the audience knows nothing about. Chen Hui-chiao named her 2008 solo exhibition at IT Park Gallery “The Double Flame,” a title taken from a book of the same name by Mexican poet Octavio Paz (1914-1998). The book depicts and discusses “love.” For Paz “eroticism” originates in “sexuality” and is fed by red flame. “Love” on the other hand is nurtured through “eroticism” and represented by oscillating blue flame. It is these two flames that combine create the double flame of life.[7] 

In “The Double Flame,” Octavio Paz describes the sublimation of emotion. In other words, inspiration or awakening in life starts by transcending the primitive instinctual passions of our physical selves. In this construct, “love” is the very essence of human emotion constantly being nurtured and refined. As a dreamer, Chen Hui-chiao sees this process as a process of “dream weaving.” In fact, Chen also takes the idea of “The Double Flame” and reinterprets it as a metaphor for her own progress in the world of art. 

In “The Double Flame” solo exhibition, Chen Hui-chiao utilizes needlework to make her own painting. There is no longer any use of the contradictions of duality from earlier work. At the same time, this exhibition was also an extension of the spirit that informed the 2006 “Here and Now” exhibition held at the Museum of Contemporary Art. As a dreamer, Chen continues to weave dreams through art, pointedly noting in her artist statement that she takes the earth, the sky and the oceans as her boundary. Astrology, sailing on the seas and flying are some of the means for weaving her fantasia that provide a boundless world in which the imagination can roam at will, thereby liberating the “Wings of Senses.”[8] Regardless of whether a scenario is found in reality or dreams, the coming together of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, even if mysterious and anonymous, is still real. This mixture of emotions not only provides us with a tool for understanding but also encourages transcendence and facilitates transformation. In her own inner transference, Chen Hui-chiao alludes to the importance of giving free rein to her heart through art. At the same time, she also looks at her own life and expresses the greatest respect and reverence for those who encouraged and inspired her or continue to strive to travel the same artistic road. 

In terms of formal expression some of the pieces Chen Hui-chiao showed at “The Double Flame” exhibition deliberately referenced the geometric abstract painting of artists such as Richard Lin (b. 1933), Tsong Pu (b. 1947), Jun T. Lai (b. 1953) or Hu Kun-jung (b. 1955). For Chen, this was intended as a mark of respect, but it can also be considered an alterative dialogue with the history of IT Park Gallery. Placed in the context of the language of “The Double Flame” this is most certainly an expression of admiration and respect for the aforementioned artists as she said herself “Uranus / Understanding,” “Neptune / Transcendence” and “Pluto / Transformation” – the karma of self sublimation. 

The year of 2008 was also the 20th anniversary of the establishment of IT Park Gallery. For a long time the gallery has become an irreplaceable “cross of burden” in the life of Chen Hui-chiao. Although there had been moments of sweetness few people knew about, this cross of burden has exposed her to numerous hardships. It has made it difficult for her to soar creatively and at one extreme taking away her freedom. Against this backdrop, “The Double Flame” solo exhibition could be seen as an intention of the artist's desires, one that not only showed an impressive degree of self confidence but also spoke to a sense of regaining her freedom. 

Seen from the perspective of transcendence and transformation, the works shown in “The Double Flame” exhibition are clearly an extension of the spirit of dreaming through art. Despite deliberately using similar forms Chen Hui-chiao ultimately differs from Richard Lin, Tsong Pu, Jun T. Lai and Hu Kun-jung. In her hands the geometric abstract motifs used by these elder artists lose their original geometric feel and structure, transformed instead into the apparently accidental but entirely unavoidable mysterious coming together of time and space. Chen also infuses her paintings with constant cosmic changes. More specifically, at the same time as she transforms the geometric abstract formations used by those elder artists, Chen Hui-chiao also infuses them with her own individual view of the cosmos, offering her own unifier and unfolding a visual imagination that is a mixture of dreamscapes and fantasy. 

In conclusion, Chen Hui-chiao has become an even more active dreamer. She continues to weave her dreams in art and through such dream journeys is freed and able to make peace with her own destiny. The artist also shares certain expectations with those who have accompanied her on this wonderful artistic journey -- “We must keep moving forward until we encounter the unknown.” Dream belongs to the unknown but for Chen Hui-chiao artistic creation is tantamount to creating her own dreams. Not only is it an important channel through which she is inspired, it also allows her to embark on the boundless exploration of life and the universe.

[1] Wu Mali, “The Skeptic Pursuit of Beauty,” Mountain Art, No. 90 (September 1997), pp. 74-75.
[2] For the reproduced image of the work, see Chen’s exhibition catalog, Chen Hui-chiao: Here and Now (Taipei: Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, 2006), pp. 65-66.
[3] For more discussion on the influence of the works of Carlos Castaneda (1925-1998) on Chen Hui-chiao, see Chin Ya-chun, “The Day She Caught the Clouds: The Creative Art and Life Journey of Chen Hui-chiao”, in Artist Navigators II – Selected Writings on Contemporary Taiwanese Artists (Taipei: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2008), pp. 100, 104 & 106.
[4] For the reproduced image of the work, see Chen Hui-chiao: Here and Now, op cit 2, pp. 57-58.
[5] Ibid., pp. 25-30 & 45-48.
[6] For Scottish people the thistle is a symbol of nationhood. Legend has it that the thistle, which is tall and covered in hard thorns, successfully stopped Scotland being invaded by the Northern European barbarians in the Middle Ages, saving the people from a life of subjugation.
[7] Octavio Paz, The Double Flame: Love and Eroticism,” translated by Helen Lane (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Inc., 1995), 288 pages.
[8] “Wings of Senses” is also the name of two pieces of works by Chen Hui-chiao-- “Wings of Senses” (1995) and “Wings of Senses II” (2006). For the reproduced images, see Chen Hui-chiao: Here and Now, op cit 2, pp. 33-34 & 63.