Chen Chieh-jen was born in 1960 in Taoyuan, Taiwan, and graduated from a vocational high school for the arts. He currently lives and works in Taipei, Taiwan. While Chen’s primary media is video installation, in his production process, he has consistently experimented with community formation, integrating other participants with his film crew. This has added an activist quality directed at re-envisioning society in his creative process.
During Taiwan’s martial law period (1949-1987), a time marked by the Cold War and anti-communist propaganda, Chen employed extra-institutional underground exhibitions and guerrilla-style art actions to challenge dominant political mechanisms. After martial law ended, due to difficulties produced by an inability to understand or recognize history and reality, Chen gradually ceased making art, which lasted for eight years. During this period he re-examined his family history and experiences growing up, and reflected on the trajectory of Taiwan’s modern history. The environment of his youth was filled with places of discipline, governance and illegitimacy, such as military courts, munitions factories, industrial areas, and illegal shanty towns.
This situation stemmed from Taiwan’s long history of subjugation, from Japanese colonization (1895-1945) to the Cold War/anti-communist/martial law mechanisms jointly created by the Kuomintang and United States in the post-World War II period. It was during this time that Taiwan joined the system of capitalist and international division of labor, becoming an export-oriented, lower-end economy reliant on labor intensive, high polluting industries. After martial law ended in 1987, Taiwan was again remade, this time as a neoliberalist society.
Chen believes, “Taiwan’s historical and political situation of long-term domination and placement under the overlapping sovereignty of different nations has resulted in the complete disintegration of the people’s spirit. Taiwanese society has been repeatedly forced to become one with historical amnesia and has lost the ability to imagine and reflect on the future from the context of past.”
Returning to art in 1996, Chen started collaborating with local residents, unemployed laborers, day workers, migrant workers, foreign spouses, unemployed youth and social activists. He formed a temporary community and a film-making team with those marginalized by society, social activists and movie industry workers. They have learned from each other, occupied factories owned by capitalists, slipped into areas cordoned off by the law and utilized discarded materials to build sets for his video productions. In order to visualize contemporary reality and a people’s history that has been obscured by neo-liberalism, Chen embarked on a series of video projects in which he used strategies he calls “re-imagining, re-narrating, re-writing and re-connecting.”
Although Chen addresses political and economic issues in his work, he believes that art should not only to criticize and reveal political and economic manipulation, but even more promote the creation of experimental communities and mutual learning in the process of filming his videos. Using poetic, dialectical imagery, Chen generates a different aesthetic and political imagination from difficult to articulate bodily experiences and memories, individuals in nebulous states of spiritual disintegration, and various indistinct or marginalized areas within society. Chen invites viewers from different historical, cultural, and social contexts and with different life experiences to deploy their imagination within the narrative gap he creates by linking disparate events and historical horizons, and using concise dialogs or completely silent, slow-motion video. As the audience watches Chen’s videos, imaginings evoked by these gaps helps establish a forum for multiple dialogs and multiple dialectics.
Chen Chieh-jen’s major work includes Dysfunction No. 3(1983), Flickering Light(1983 or 1984), Revolt in the Soul and Body 1900-1999(1996-1999), Lingchi-Echoes of a Historical Photograph(2002), Factory(2003), Bade Area(2005), The Route(2006), Military Court and Prison(2007-2008), Empire’s Borders I(2008-2009), Empire’s Borders II-Western Enterprises, Inc.(2010), Happiness Building(2012), Friend Watan(2013), Realm of Reverberations Series(2014-2017), A Field of Non-Field(2017), The Bianwen Book I(2002-2014) and I Pirate My Own Work-Free Donation Project(2007-Present).