Opening: saturday november 20, 2004
The first presentation in Italy of Lingchi – Echoes of a Historical Photograph, the large video installation created for the Taipei Biennale 2002 by the Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-jen will take place on 20 November 2004 in the deconsecrated church of San Matteo in Lucca, curated by Pier Luigi Tazzi.
The title refers to a photograph taken by an unidentified western anthropologist according to some, and by a French soldier at the beginning of the 20th century, according to others by others. It shows the execution of a condemned man by Lingchi, a slow torture involving more than a thousand cuts made on the body of the condemned person before death. If he died earlier the executioner was himself put to death. This punishment was practised in China for thousands of years and was not finally abolished until 1905. A large crowd would gather for the execution, not only to witness the extraordinary spectacle but also to collect blood and strips of flesh from the body, to be used for medical purposes. The photo immediately started to be circulated, especially amongst westerners passing through China and in particular in a set of postcards Les supplices chinois. It was later published in France in Louis Carpeaux's Pekin qui s'en va in 1913, and then by Georges Dumas in his Traité de psychologie in 1923. It was, however, Georges Bataille, who came into possession of a copy in 1925 and for whom, according to his own statement, it was of decisive importance in his life, who introduced it with greater authority into the imagery of western culture when he used it at the conclusion of his last study of eroticism, Les larmes d'eros, published a year before his death in 1961, to demonstrate the identical nature of contraries and in particular of religious ecstasy and extreme horror.
Chen sets the scene of the execution and then mixes it with images of the ruins of historical places, such as the Summer Palace in Beijing, and with images of workers in the electronic industry and women workers disabled by accidents and occupational diseases in their hostels. The film becomes a fascinating and cruel metaphor of the relationships of power between the strong and the weak under the hegemony of the First World at the time when that power first focused on the project of globalisation. We are dealing here also and at the same time with a lucid analysis of the gaze, and how looking affects the psychical and mental processes and, from there, on the individual and collective conscience of people living in this phase of human civilisation.
Chen was born in 1960 in a village for veterans of Chiang Kai-shek's army which retreated to Taiwan after its definitive defeat by the Communist army. He himself is the son of a veteran. He grew up during the period of Martial Law (1950-1987) and the so-called White Terror which began after the 28 February 1947 Incident on and continued until the beginning of the 1980s, during which time an enormous but imprecise number of people opposing Chiang's regime were murdered or imprisoned for long periods of time. Chen lived in the district where both the Martial Court and the Xindian Martial Prison were situated. In the 1980s, he did political and social performances and actions. In 1996 he began to work with computer-processed photographs with which he developed the themes that characterise his most noted and widely circulated art, which is also known internationally. These themes are the relationship between image and power, politics and violence, reason and madness, memory and history, reality and artifice, and the Self and the Other.
Lingchi – Echoes of a Historical Photograph marks his progress to video installation which develops his themes and emphasises their universal value, detached from the contingencies of history and local circumstances.
Chen is among the most important Taiwanese artists and has taken part in the island's major art exhibitions, notably at Taipei Biennales (1994, 1996, 1998, 2002 and 2004), as well as at the Biennales in Venice (1999), Lyon (2000), Kwangju (2000) and Shanghai (2004). In 2001 he had a one-man show in the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume in Paris and has exhibited in major shows in Asia and the West. This is his first one-man show in Italy.