Following a prolific career as a photojournalist, Taiwanese artist Chou Ching-Hui illustrates extant routine woven through fictive narrative.
Art Radar looks at the retrospective exhibition “Theatre of Reality”, on view in DECK’s Print Room in Singapore until 25 February 2018, and at Chou’s next steps.
The gallery walls of Singapore’s preeminent independent art space are covered with the theatrical scenes conjured by Taiwanese photographer Chou Ching-Hui. Viewers are invited into confused cages of innocence, desolation, isolation and fantastical monotony, encouraged to imagine themselves in place of Chou’s actors. It is worth wondering, however, if the ethereal depictions of the artist’s caged beasts are playful or painfully real, if they are pieces of fiction or sentiments about a disillusioned world.
“Theatre of Reality” treads a fine line between these two concepts. From stoic portraits to elaborate sceneries, the images at DECK, Singapore certainly highlight an artist who has been featured prominently as both a documentary photojournalist and whimsical contemporary artist.
Photojournalism as documentary
After graduating from the World College of Journalism and completing a brief military stint, Chou developed an interest in photography. He worked as a photojournalist for local media companies such as the Capitol Morning News, The Journalist magazine and China Times Weekly, not stepping into the terrain of artistic practice until the mid-1990s.
It was rare in the early years of Taiwanese photojournalism for photographers to focus on an ideology; the concern was more for diligent practice. However, as a journalist, Chou’s primary focus was ideological evidence: what it meant after an event, what value it carried for spectators and how it could be manipulated to change a story’s outcome. In this light, the artist claims, the documentary photograph is utilised as a weapon, soaked in the artist’s idea of what took – or should have taken – place. Like many photographers before him, namely those of the Farm Security Administration photographic project of the late 1930s, Chou would take dozens if not hundreds of photographs of the same subject until absolutely satisfied that he had captured the precise expression, lighting or mood that supported his narratives. His series “Out of the Shadows” (1995) and “Images of Workers” (2002), for example, took years of re-capturing to tell the stories of those portrayed.
Chou notes that “one project [exists] to retrace one thing in one village”, yet its repetition slowing manipulates the event into something other. The “Out of the Shadows” series turned into his first solo exhibition, titled “Frozen in Time” – which was picked up by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography – bearing witness to the life of leper patients in the Happy Life Leprosy Hospital. From angelic silhouettes to detached limbs, the images start a dialogue (be it an open-ended one) about individuals whose bodies have been marred by the disease.
“Images of Workers” similarly exhibits nameless people in an ominous black and white. Titled “Vanishing Breed”, the ‘workers’ exhibition portrays silkworm keepers, ice-fishermen, porters, steam train workers, and sutra printers hardly taking notice of their photographer who has managed to catch a glimpse of their painstaking labour. Many of the images in both series are repetitive, providing further evidence, the artist claims, of what is trying to be depicted. By describing and reporting on the things he observed, he could chronicle daily routine, religion, illness and death in such a way that caught the attention of both media outlets and the region’s prolific art museums. By the late 1990s, Chou felt the need to add the “nutrition of photojournalism” into the expressive realm of contemporary art.
As Susan Sontag writes in her seminal text On Photography (PDF download),
While a painting or a prose description can never be other than a narrowly selective interpretation, a photograph can be treated as a narrowly selective transparency. But despite the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness, the work that photographers do is not generic exception to the usually shady commerce between art and truth. Even when photographers are most concerned with mirroring reality, they are still haunted by tacit imperatives of taste and conscience.
Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are. As Sontag claims, photographs do not display evidence; they furnish it.
Documentary as contemporary art
After a long period in eclipse, documentary has undergone a marked revival in recent art. This has been spurred by two phenomena: the exhibition of photographic and video work on societal themes at numerous biennials; and increasing attention to issues of inequality, trauma and intolerance in the 21st century. The renewed attention to photography and video in the gallery and museum world has helped make documentary one of the most prominent modes of art-making today. Unsurprisingly, this development has been accompanied by a rich strain of theoretical writing and experimental fictioning.
Upon encountering a complex turn of events that have shaped the world we live in, Chou has sought alternate ways to explain and record reality by staging it through fabricated scenarios, and occasionally “unflinching satire”, as described by DECK. This is revealed in another of his earlier series, “Wild Aspirations” (2009), which details the innocent dreams of rural children far beyond the reach of the current technological craze.
The ironic overtones continue in what is, perhaps, his most ambitious project and highlight of the DECK exhibition: “Animal Farm”. Taking five years to execute, the project goes beyond Chou’s singularly photographic practice, introducing video and large-scale multimedia installations.
Shot between Taiwan’s Hsinchu and Shoushan Zoos, “Animal Farm” pays tribute to George Orwell’s allegorical novel of the same name. The series portrays bizarre and playful, yet separated, images of humans living within animal enclosures. In a brown lemur cage, two sets of couples appear to be exercising. In a Barbary sheep pen, actors make up the silent theatre of an art auction. It is evident that the characters in Chou’s photographs embody a sense of grace and whimsy, but there remains an unavoidable estrangement – between the actors and their viewers and between Chou’s landscape and the landscape of this reality.
As if the human’s actions and routines were under constant surveillance, viewers are reminded of a passage from Orwell’s text:
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
While all humans should be regarded equally, Chou suggests, there persist societal constraints that segregate some, oppress others and perpetuate loneliness. The artist examines those constraints that capture and distort the lives of the human-animal.
“Theatre of Reality” serves as a point of discussion into the power of photography as a documentary medium, and considering the manipulation of reality, how image-makers must seek alternative approaches to register the conditions of the world we live in. While inspired by social issues and events, Chou believes that the storytelling aspect of fine art photography is a more effective way of presenting and annotating familiar stories in our surroundings. It investigates what and how meaning and impact are jointly produced by not just the photographic works, per se, but also by artistic rhetoric from photographers, their critics, the media and the art museum, despite their (sometimes) contradicting opinions.
The DECK retrospective serves as a point of discussion and examination into the power of photography as a documentary medium, and in the face of a questionable narrative, how artists seek various methods to comprehend and record the surreality of monotonous reality.
“Theatre of Reality: Solo Exhibition of Chou Ching-Hui” is on view from 23 January to 25 February 2018 at DECK, 120A Prinsep St, Singapore 187937.
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