Ching-Yao CHEN

In his recent work, Chen Ching Yao has returned to painting. Here are two examples from the »Series of Great Leaders«. By portraying himself as Mao or Chiang-Kai-Shek, he is making fun of the dictators and at the same time demonstrating that each of us could be one of these great leaders.

explanatory notes
There are only three countries in the world where you will find calisthenics broadcasts on the radio. The three countries are Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Everyone will remember the days when he or she was in elementary school. You couldn’t stop yourself doing the moves with your hands and legs when you heard a specific tune. Thanks to prolonged practice, the series of movements had become part of your memory. In other words, anyone who grew up here was educated within a national collectivism, which was deliberately implanted in the subconscious. This is above all a colonial inheritance: Japan introduced such gymnastics in its colonies so as to discipline the colonized along Japanese lines.
explanatory notes
The »Bubble Commando« series is a typical work by Chen Ching-Yao in cosplay style. Working with friends, the artist re-enacts in an ironic or parodistic way various well-known scenes or sequences from manga or anime, from films or old photo collections etc. In all the scenes Chen himself plays a leading role. Here, for example, officers of the Imperial Japanese Army from the colonial period are being parodied.
Bubble Commando 1
Chinese subtitle: Operation 1 commemorative group photo
Bubble Commando 2
Chinese subtitle: Lieutenant Colonel Chen and the Bubble Commando search for the enemy on the streets
Bubble Commando 3
Chinese subtitle: Private Chen with his Soap Bubble Detachment attacking the PURIKURA shop and taking souvenir photos.

Chen Ching-Yao – born in 1976 in Taipei, Taiwan – graduated at the National Institute of the Arts (now the Taipei National University of the Arts) in 2000 and received his master’s degree from the Department of Fine Arts in 2006. Costume play, appropriation, misplacement, and collage are recurring themes in his artistic practice. Through his extremely superficial placement as shown in his continuous impersonation of others, how one looks at “the others” and how one identifies oneself become contradictory and complicated. It encourages the viewers to come up with a more profound question to interpret the defenseless appearance.
In 2000, he won the first prize of New Perspective Art in Taiwan Dimensional Creation Series. In 2001, Chen won the Taipei Prize with his work „Bubble Task Force“, which marked the beginning of his long-term exploration of subculture, the politics of image, and other related issues. Since 2002, he has also been a member of Hantoo Art Group, a major artist group in Taiwan. In 2008, he was sponsored by Asian Culture Council to stay in New York as a resident artist at Location One. Since 2009 he has held solo exhibitions in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the USA – New York, and many other places.

State Authority and Banned Images in East Asia

Suh Sung

From 18 January to 1 February 2015, an ›Exhibition on Unfreedom of Expression – the Expunged‹ took place in a small gallery in Tokyo. On display were works that otherwise could not be exhibited on account of their chosen subjects: the topics they portrayed were, for example, ›The Tenno (Emperor) and his wars‹, ›Colonial rule‹, ›Comfort women – the sex slaves of the Japanese military in the Second World War’, ›The Yasukuni Shrine‹, ›Criticism of the state‹, ›Article 9 in the Constitution‹ and ›Sexual Depiction‹. There were accompanying panel discussions. It was a major advance for Japanese society, which still battles with itself when the portrayal of such topics crops up. Since freedom of opinion and expression are guaranteed in the Japanese Constitution, the state authorities cannot simply ban artists’ works. Nevertheless, politics and the media, supported by market mechanisms and the still widespread militaristic mentality, contrive to create a climate in which society’s prohibitions are still effective.

The Tenno and his Yasukuni

The Kiku or ›Chrysanthemum‹ taboo stands for the absolute and unspoken ban on any criticism of the Emperor (the seal of the imperial family is a stylized chrysanthemum). Anyone who infringes this ban can even be bodily attacked, as were for example two mayors of Nagasaki who were the victims of assassination attempts1. But even those who touch on topics such as the Yasukuni Shrine, which is a manifold monument – of shame, of honour and of commemorative warning – to Japan’s relationship with militarism, or those who give a truthful depiction of the inconceivable atrocities of the imperial army such as the sexual slavery of the so-termed ›comfort women‹ and the Nanjing Massacre, can easily become the target of intimidation and emotional blackmail on the part of nationalists.

The Yasukuni Shrine is the heart of the warlike symbolism of the Tenno system. The soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the Emperor are here honoured as kami, as spiritual beings deserving reverence. From the very beginning, this cult formed part of the education of Japanese men aimed at turning them into soldiers who would have no fear of death on the battlefield. In the Yushukan Military Museum, which forms part of the Yasukuni Shrine complex, Japan’s wars of aggression between 1937-45 are glossed over as wars fought for the self-preservation and self-defense of the nation and for justice. Officially, the Shrine is a state-approved independent religious community within Shintoism, whose head is the Tenno: in point of fact, however, it is financed by funding from the military and the post of Arch-Priest is held by a general from the Army or Air Force. Thus the visit paid to the Shrine by Prime Minister Abe (December 2013) was interpreted as an expression of ambitions for a ›resurrection of the Pan-Japanese Empire‹.

In the year 2006, a joint campaign entitled ›Light of Peace! Against the Darkness of Yasukuni!‹ was launched in various parts of East Asia. Since then, the campaign has taken place each year all over the East Asian region. For three or four years now, however, neither universities nor associations have been prepared to make convention rooms available, so that today only the Korean YMCA offers its facilities, since it cannot be pressurized by either official or private institutions in Japan.

Hong Sung-dam’s exhibition ›YASUKUNISUM in East Asia‹ was rejected by the originally planned exhibition location and could be shown, after arduous preliminaries, only in a theatre in Tokyo’s outer districts. When the ninth demonstration of the ›Light of Peace‹ campaign took place on 13 August 2014, it was surrounded by ultra-right-wingers and assailed with unbridled verbal abuse via megaphone. Twice, the assailants even succeeded in breaking through the police cordon and driving vehicles threateningly at the demonstrators. [...]

Modern Methods – ›Banned Pictures‹ without any Ban

The term ›banned pictures‹ reminds me of an historic event: the pictures that did not fit the Nazis’ yardstick of value were branded ›degenerate art‹ and put on show. For some years now, ›Liberal Democracy‹ – a name that has an encouraging ring to it – has been triumphing across the world, and also in East Asia. In South Korea, however, the ›United Progressive Party‹ was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in January 2015 on account of alleged ›incitement to civil disorder‹ – a scandalous judgement with which the highest court, whose job is to protect the Constitution, undermined the principle of the ›rule of law‹. The day-to-day forms taken by state suppression of freedom of opinion are rarely as clearly visible and the majority of the population does not recognize when freedom of opinion is being seriously restricted. The at times inflammatory manipulation via the major media, the quiet coercion via budgetary decisions, the submissive self-censorship of the art museums and the art sector, and not least the unvoiced ›logic‹ of the art market – all contribute to the crowding out or suppression of alert artistic minds.

During the last Presidential elections, Hong Sung-dam exhibited the painting ›Golden Time‹(2012), in which the then candidate Park Geun-hye gives birth to her father, the former military dictator Park Chung-hee. As a kind of premonitory warning that the terrible days of the Yushin Reform (1971) might return if Park Geun-hye were elected President, it caused major controversy. Not only the conservative camp, but feminists too were outraged – even if, in their case, only because the picture was felt to demean the ›holy‹ act of birth. The state prosecutors seriously considered prosecuting Hong Sung-dam for insulting Park Geun-hye but finally withdrew the prepared indictment. They seem to have recognized that prosecuting Hong Sung-dam, who has an international reputation as a Minjung artist, would be perceived worldwide as a public assault on freedom of expression.
In August 2014, the presentation of ›Sewol Owol‹, a geolgae gurim created by Hong Sung-dam and others, was not allowed to form part of a special exhibition at the 20th Gwangju Biennale. Here too, there was no direct ban imposed by state authorities.
But an overly loyal curator, who was at the same time a civil servant of the local authorities, informed the Gwangju municipal administration in advance of the picture’s contents, whereupon the administrative body, eager to please the central government, thwarted any presentation of the work. This particular case is particularly bewildering and significant because Gwangju is not only the site of the 18 May 1980 massacre but is today also the figurehead city of the democratic opposition and the stronghold of the progressive camp in South Korea. What was confusing above all was that this decision was taken under a Mayor who had not only always supported Hong Sung-dam but had also been a long-standing chairman of the National Alliance of YMCAs and of several NGOs. Nobody suspected that such a volte-face could be in the offing. The case shows how state institutions still try to manipulate the populace by means of self-censorship and latent prohibitions, keeping it on leading strings even without openly taking steps against politically or ideologically unwanted expressions of opinion.

Taiwan’s Freedom and the State of Emergency in the Intellectual World

In September 2013, an event took place in Taipei to commemorate the wood-carver Huang Jung-tsan, who was murdered in 1951 under Chiang Kai-shek. On display, among other objects, were Hong Sung-dam’s ›May Engraving‹ (Owol Panhoa) and Wang Mo-lin’s ›Antigone‹, which with their Gwangju leitmotif foregrounded the issue of state power in East Asia.

Taiwan, however, having passed through a progress towards democracy from 1987 onwards, following on from 37 years under a state of emergency, can be described as the country in East Asia that enjoys the greatest freedom. Even its relationship to mainland China is today so close and free that some say the two countries are ›as good as united‹. In April 2013, President Ma Ying Jeou stated that ›never in the past 60 years have the two coastlines separating China and Taiwan been as peaceful as now‹. With the Framework Agreement on Economic Cooperation, an accord has been signed covering 21 articles – including maritime traffic, foodstuffs security and postal services. Every day, 118 ships link the two countries on regular shipping routes and the number of Chinese students attending university in Taiwan rose from 800 in the year 2007 to 25,000 in the year 2014. Over the same period, the number of tourists from China rose from 200,000 to 2.85m. It is true that on 18 May 2014 students protested against the intention of the National People’s Party to pass the free trade agreement with China (Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement) in a snap vote in the Standing Commission and occupied the plenary chamber of Parliament. Only 24 days later, after the Parliamentary Speaker Wang Jin Pyng had given an assurance that the bill would be properly examined in Parliament, did the students end their campaign. In fact, however, the Agreement holds advantages for the majority of Taiwanese and the heated mood of the protests can hardly be other explained than with the firmly entrenched prejudices held by many Taiwanese students and other citizens. Wang Mo-Lin, a ..., stated that even in politically liberal Taiwan the ›siege mentality had not completely disappeared‹. The more than 37-year-long state of emergency had rooted the legitimacy of Chiang Kai Shek’s rule, the ideologies of the Cold War, the belief in the matter-of-course nature of US predominance in East Asia and general ›anti-communist, anti-Chinese, pro-American and pro-Japanese‹ attitudes deep in the Taiwanese consciousness.

In line with the tastes of ›liberal democracy‹, contemporary Taiwanese art is varied and permissive. There are reasons to doubt, however, whether the majority of artists is fully aware of the undertow of historical experience that still has subliminal effect on the nation’s political and intellectual life. But one could say something similar about the art scenes in South Korea and Japan. In South Korea, pro-Japanese sentiments are still a considerable force – the election of Park Geun-hye as President is one token of this. In such a climate, it is a real challenge to come to terms with the colonial past and to overcome marks left by military dictatorship. In Japanese society – despite the caesura of 1945 – the tradition of the militaristic ›Tenno system‹ which developed following the Meiji Restoration remains an unbroken force and fosters a climate of self-disempowerment, self-censorship and the tendency to turn potentially explosive political and historical issues into taboo subjects.

Today, all of this is covered over by the worldwide tendencies leading towards something like a ›postdemocracy‹, in which the neo-liberal primacy of economic logic de-forms the development of self-understanding and the ability of self-regulation. In such an age, the role of art will be to uncover complex and concealed power relations and the ever-possible seductions of self-deceit, and to identify the enemies of self-regulation, freedom of expression and co-operative civility – both outside ourselves and within ourselves. After the Opium War, East Asia was dominated by European imperialism. Japanese imperialism imitated it, subjugating and lording over neighbouring countries. The USA took over this dominance, even if in an indirect and far more subtle way. Nevertheless, we can only regain true freedom in East Asia if the dominance of the USA in political, intellectual and cultural life is removed.

Banning works of art, ousting them from public view or suppressing contact with them cannot foster civil self-confidence and assured self-determination. ›Banned pictures‹ will always be present in the ›beyond silence‹ of the Minjung (the populace). There, however, Yasukuni is lurking.

Translated from the German by Richard Humphrey

1 On 17 April 2007, Mayor Iito was shot by a member of the Yamakuchi-Kumi Yakuza group. After Mayor Motoshima Hitoshi had said that the Tenno was also responsible for wars. He was shot at by a member of an ultra-rightwing organisation and severely wounded.

Self Description

In my recent digital image synthesis works, the virtual reality of role play enters into a creative symbiosis with processes of collecting various objects, costume-making and production to create the illusory scenario of crossing time and space. Adopting humorous and non-logical postures, I conduct the performance in a self-ironic, yet entertaining style so as to challenge existing morality constraints.

By means of role play and virtual stage re-construction, I set out to perform the cultural collage composed of symbols, white-washed history and consumer stimulation underlying global consumerism, puzzling out the images that run through post-consumerism.

This allows me to pursue and exercise my inner consciousness. My works contain paradoxes and conflicts – just as in a play or self-hypnotherapy. Serious issues such as sub-culture and post-colonization are not main concerns in the performance: irresponsibility and momentariness have taken their place. As long as they are given the emotions fitting to their roles, participants can find a surreal climax which does not relate to reality. I wish to express human history. This type of performance is essentially nothing but another form of montage.

Chen Ching-Yao – A Master of Parody

Han Nataly Jung-Hwa

Dear Great Leader Chen, We Love You !
Mao Zedong

2014, Oils on canvas, 45,5cm x 38 cm

In all of Chen Ching-Yao’s works, the impact of foreign cultures on Taiwan is a major factor. Today, the mass media dissemination of US pop culture, evident since the mid-20th Century, is being increasingly modified, supplemented or even replaced by influences from Taiwan’s neighbours, Japan and South Korea. Here too, however, the regional shifts in the currents that affect national cultures are taking place within overarching global trends: as all capitalist societies in East Asia, Taiwan is wholly dominated by the life-style norms of consumerism, which leave their mark on every facet of life. Their mainstream visual features provide rich material for Chen Ching-Yao’s artistic work. Born in 1976, he is a member of the first generation in Taiwan to have the opportunity of enjoying the freedoms of the post-1987 liberalization and of not just attacking social taboos head-on but rather of dissolving them in a playful manner.

Thus he portrays the undercurrents of contemporary culture in, for example, digital image syntheses, collages and compound photographs, in role-plays or on virtual theatrical stages. The heterogeneous intermingling of politically manipulated historical consciousness and consumerist stimuli, of interference signals from the subculture and an educational syllabus fostering political indifference – all this is made visible in an aesthetics of playful synthesis, behind whose levity the complex task of societal self-understanding involved in the fifty-year-long process of Japanese colonization becomes apparent.

The series Bubble Commando 1 to 3 from the year 2000 approaches this topic in ›cosplay manner‹,1 the currently dominant stylistic device Chen employs. The series is a predecessor to the Blossoming in the Backyard sequence from the year 2004. There the artist borrowed stories such as Kinshirou Touyama and Momotar from the Japanese historical drama Genji Monogatari and re-created the roles cosplay-style with a group of friends. In Bubble Commando, the participants re-enact historical group-photos of officers of the Imperial Japanese Army, parodying them in the playful, childlike manner of cosplay. The artist himself plays the commanding officer leading his ›soap-bubble platoon‹ through the city.

The work on display in the current exhibition, »International Radio Exercise« (2012), alludes to the commonplace East Asian phenomenon of ›radio gymnastics‹, which demonstrate the attempt of Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese societies to imprint hierarchically authorized patterns of behaviour not only on the consciousness but also on the body. Through repeated exercises, sequences of movement are inscribed into bodily memory so as to be integrated into a collective subconscious that constitutes national conformism.

Dear Great Leader Chen, We Love You !
Chiang Kai-shek

2014, Oils on canvas, 45,5 cm x 38 cm

It is no coincidence that the same kind of radio gymnastics is practised in all three countries, since it is a relic from the days of the Japanese colonization of East Asia. Frequently, the similarity between the three countries in their social norms, societal organization and conspicuous economic success in the second half of the 20th century is explained with reference to their shared Confucian traditions. Radio gymnastics, however, were borrowed by the Japanese élites from the culture of National Socialist Germany, so that the current-day national collectivism of disciplined East Asian society is rooted rather in the totalitarian practices of the more recent past.

In the series Dear Great Leader Mr. Chen, We Love You, created in 2013-14, the artist returns to his first genre, painting. Here too, however, he deploys the cosplay device to parody the solemnity of political portraits of state leaders. Chen Ching-Yao is here so bold as to be Mao and Chiang Kai-Shek at one and the same time. The puzzlingly shifting imitation of semi-official leader portraits in an artist’s self-portrait seems no more open to criticism or indictment than a child’s game. Nevertheless, the scene makes clear to the beholder how similar the two authoritative figures were – Mao, the epitome of Chinese state socialism and Chiang Kai-Shek, the icon of US-friendly Chinese capitalism.2 Each of these beloved leaders embodied human possibilities to which none of us can be immune. The youngest artist in the exhibition makes the covert complexity of East Asia’s more recent history tangible.

Translated from the German by Richard Humphrey

1 The term cosplay is a portmanteau word combining ‘costume’ and ‘play’ and could be freely translated as ‘costume performance’. It designates a dressing-up performance of Japanese origin, which reached the USA and Europe in the 1990s along with the manga and animation boom. In cosplay, a character from manga, animation, computer games or film is portrayed as faithfully as possible in costume and behaviour.

2 In a personal conversation, Chen Ching-Yao remarked that Taiwan had shown far less resolution and boldness in its coming to terms with the years of colonization than had China and South Korea. Since Taiwan was occupied in the period after 1945 by the Kuomintang mainland Chinese under Chiang Kai-Shek, he argued, the foregoing years of Japanese colonization were sometimes viewed through rose-coloured glasses. In point of fact one still hears today the Taiwanese saying that ‘First the dogs (= the Japanese) left, then came the pigs (= the Chinese)’.

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