Chi-Wen Gallery in Taipei presents a solo exhibition by Taiwanese photographer Chien-Chi Chang.
The exhibition, which runs until 28 April, showcases two of the artist’s recent film works, Azma and Burma: The Promise Betrayed. Art Radar looks at the artist’s practice and the works in the show.
Chien-Chi Chang is a Taiwanese artist and photographer, known for his work exploring alienation and connection between people in society, which he develops through long-term, interactive relationships with his subjects.
Chang was born in 1961 in Taichung, Taiwan. He received a BA from Soochow University, Taipei in 1984, and an MA from Indiana University in the United States in 1990. He began his professional career as a photojournalist in 1991, and worked for American newspapers, including the Seattle Times and the Baltimore Sun. He joined the world famous photographic cooperative Magnum Photos in 1995 and became a full member in 2001. He currently lives between Taichung, Taiwan and Graz, Austria.
The Human Experience
One of his earliest and most well known series is The Chain (1993-1999), in which Chang created life-sized portraits of inmates at Taiwan’s Long Fa Tang – a chicken farm and psychiatric facility. For these works, Chang photographed approximately 700 pairs of psychiatric patients, who are chained together and forced to tend to chickens on the large farm. As described in the publication of the series, the story behind these images is surreal and heartbreaking in equal measure:
In 1970 Li Kun-Tai, an abbot in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, decided to become a Buddhist monk. He built a thatched hut in front of his house, adopted a schizophrenic as his disciple, and began to raise pigs and chickens with his new helper, whom he kept on a line of string, much like a leash. Within 20 years Li Kun-Tai, by now renamed (by himself) Hieh Kai Feng, had 600 deranged helpers, most chained together, almost exclusively consigned to him by their families, distraught by the shame of having to look after lunatics, or socially unacceptable misfits. Ten years later, in 1999, Long Fa Tang — the Temple of the Dragon — was recognised as the largest chicken farm in Taiwan, with a million chickens laying eggs and defecating in almost equal proportions. They are tended by helpers from the 700 mental patients in the ‘care’ of the Temple, wading through slurry, eggs and chicken corpses. Hieh Kai Feng had by now sought to sophisticate the impracticalities of string, and with such a large number of inmates found that a light chain was the most efficient form of control. So he chained them together, one by one, through noon and night. He is delighted with the results, and proud of them. He firmly believes he is not only taking care of his patients but also helping alleviate the tremendous burden placed on their families.
Chang arranges these portraits with consistency and vision – a pair of ‘inmates’, chained together, stand and face the camera against a dark background. The Chain was exhibited at the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001 and at the Bienal de São Paulo in 2002.
Two further series document the less visible ties and bonds of marriage: I do I do I do (2001), which uses a photo album format to expose the subtle societal factors that underpin marriage, and Double Happiness (2005), which documents the marriage brokerage business of selling Vietnamese brides to Taiwanese grooms.
Starting in 1992, Chang became interested in themes related to the dispersion of individuals or families from their homeland, drawing on his own experience of emigration to the United States. For 21 years, Chang has photographed the double lives of illegal Chinese immigrants in New York’s Chinatown, who left China as a matter of survival, along with those of their wives and families back home in Fujian province. Entitled China Town and still a work in progress, the series was exhibited in the artist’s mid-career survey “Doubleness” at the National Museum of Singapore in 2008, at the Taiwan Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 2009, at Venice Biennale in 2011, as well as at International Center of Photography, New York in 2012. Chang’s investigation of the ties of family and culture – the ties that bind one person to another across oceans – draws on his own deeply divided immigrant experience.
In 2007, Chang travelled with North Korean defectors from Northeast China to Thailand, documenting their lives for his work Escape from North Korea, which won the Canadian AnthropoGraphia Award for Human Rights in 2011 and was recently screened in the film section of Art Basel Hong Kong in March 2018.
Refugee crises: focus on Syria and Burma
In recent years, Chang has expanded his practice to include sound and moving image, enriching the narrative-driven aspect of his photographs.
“Azma and Burma: The Promise Betrayed”, the exhibition at Chi-Wen Gallery, showcases two of the artist’s latest video works, Azma (2016-17) and Burma: The Promise Betrayed (2017), as well as a new series of photographs.
For the past few years, Chang has observed the Syrian refugee crisis, documenting the migration of refugees from Western Asia to Central Europe. Syrians refer to this chaotic displacement of people as ‘Azma’. In the film, Chang records the seemingly endless and gruelling journey of the Syrian people, through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia, to arrive in Graz, Austria where the artist lives. Chang’s comprehensive video project measures how political and other events reverberate in the region and the impact these have in the years to come.
In Burma: The Promise Betrayed (2017) Chang mourns the passing of the Myanmar’s symbol of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese politician, diplomat, author and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She is the leader of the National League for Democracy and the first and incumbent State Counsellor, a position akin to a prime minister. Suu Kyi used to be called ‘The Lady’ for her courage in fighting against a brutal military junta, yet has now overseen what is said to be the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims flee to neighbouring Bangladesh.
More than half a million have fled persecution in the northern Rakhine state since August 2017. The government sees the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denies them citizenship.
Suu Kyi, who lived under house arrest for many years for her pro-democracy activism, is currently facing allegations that she has failed to speak out over violence against the Rohingyas. Chang’s work examines the people’s hopes for peace and the substantiation of human rights in the face of civil war and ethnic cleansing. The artist says:
The Lady is in her seventies now, and the promise of her infant democracy is fading.
The military steps into the vacuum.
The Rohingya flee by the hundreds of thousands into Bangladesh.
The future looks grim.
Instead of being a shining star, The Lady will become a sad historical footnote.
With clarity and compassion, Chang fixes his lens upon some of the most devastating humanitarian crises of our time. By highlighting the violence and suffering that human beings perpetrate against one another, Chang’s photographs and films are a visceral portrayal of the darkest corners of civilisation.
“Azma and Burma: The Promise Betrayed” is on view from 10 March to 28 April 2018 at Chi-Wen Gallery, 1F, No. 32, Ln 2, Sec. 6, Zhongshan N. Rd. Shilin Dist., Taipei 11155, Taiwan.
Chang’s solo project “The War That Never Was” will also be shown from 10 March to 29 April at TheCube Project Space, 2F, No. 13, Aly. 1, Lane 136, Sec. 4, Roosevelt Rd., Taipei, Taiwan.
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