Terrain, Maps, Time Travel— CHOU Tai-Chun's Solo Exhibition
Written by Nobuo Takamori
Taiwan is a fast-changing island, almost at an accelerated pace. It is not only about the cultural landscape where the new takes no time to replace the old, but also the terrains remaining in the state of constant transformation caused by violent tectonic movements, typhoons, heavy rainfall, and other climatic elements. I have heard that an editor of a travel guide made such a complaint: “the problem of dealing with the mountain maps of Taiwan is the repetitive revisions, if not to make a new and different one, every several years.”
Meanwhile, for the artist Chou Tai-Chun, the landscape of the island is not just a natural creation. Instead, the terrain of Taiwan is a hybrid entity created through artificial “implantation.” A clear example can be found in Voyagers, which also serves as the point of departure for the exhibition: the painting features the slope-stabilizing construction, which is a common scene throughout the mountain roads across Taiwan. The workers use artificial materials such as canvas, steel, and cement as the filling for the slope before proceeding with guniting work. Chou covers the canvas of the image with gold paint to accentuate the conflict between the natural and artificial. While the latter is given a symbolic sense of elevated gorgeousness, it also becomes a tiny fight-back against the changing terrains of the island.
If we examine the artist’s oeuvre in retrospect, his interest in how human activities intervene in the making of the terrains has been evident throughout his works. The early paintings before 2020 exemplify the attempt to visualize the artificial terrains adopted in computer games. The serial “Globe Silent” and the solo exhibition “State of Flux” at Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 2016 both demonstrate the exploration and representation of post-disaster terrains. The shock of 311 Earthquake in Japan is transformed into paintings of a series of pale and rusty land suffering from erosion. “Action Through Inaction”, the solo exhibition in 2018, can be defined as the turning point for the artist: in addition to the recurring image of the rusty tools penetrating the land to suggest the human intervention as usual, the Beyond the Mountains series also allows certain historically-evocative symbols to visually surface.
It is not just an unexpected whim of the artist to bring the focus to history in the exhibition. In fact, when we follow the logical context provided by Voyagers to learn about the transformation of the terrains of Taiwan, we will soon dig into the dimension of time lying beneath the astonishing geological scenery. The artist’s solo exhibition begins with the camphor industry in the 18th and 19th-Century Taiwan, trying to find a cause-and-effect connection between human activity and landscape through centuries. As a major industry in the early industrialized Taiwan, the camphor industry cut down the camphor trees in the depth of the mountain, crushing the wood ready to be processed and extracted into camphor products. The camphor workers’ shacks were everywhere in the mountain areas, like the cement slopes in the pre-modern time to obscure the boundary between human activities and nature. Moreover, the camphor industry also characterized the earlier Taiwan as a frontier society, while it was not just some simple intervention in nature, but in every possible way exposed the uncompromised conflict between the “industrialized” people and the pre-modern culture. The camphor workers, apart from their camphor extradition job, also served as private military personnel, the intruders who crossed the red-line frontiers (also known as Tu-niu Ditch) into the indigenous territories.
In the Meditation Section series, the artist reveals his knowledge of camphor industry. The serial works allow us to see how the body of camphor trees is sliced in such an industrial process, and the consequence that natural materials are suffering from human intervention is made clear. The taken-down remains of the camphor trees transform into the symbolic image of the mountains in the artist’s imagination, to somehow suggest the “artificial nature.” Based on a research on camphor-extracting techniques, the installation as a metaphor of the tools and machines required in the camphor industry is transformed into a unique composition to become an intentionally-formed artificial landscape.
In the exhibited Installing, Recalling, the Boundary Marker, we see a continuity throughout the artist’s previous works as well as the present ones. A silhouette in a radiation suit, like a lone wolf of strong will, determinedly carries out some sort of “mission” in the mess of the collaged landscape. The artist’s choice of symbols has convinced us, at lease to some extent, that the camphor industry is not just past tense, but has a direct link to the forming of the terrains of contemporary Taiwan. However, at this point we would like to reexamine how Chou’s artistic choice is vital in his artistic practice from the perspective of materials and forms.
Painting as a contemporary practice can be challenging, while the discussion on contemporary painting in Asia expects greater complicacies. Nevertheless, painting in its own appropriate way serves as an important material to make time travel possible. Painting gets away from the ambiguity resulted from video documentation and thus creates a much more intuitive visual vocabulary. It neither tells its contemporary viewers what can be real nor disturbs the viewers’ perceptivity to reality. On the contrary, it takes up the role as needed to become the medium for the artist to fully express oneself, to visualize a worldview with its definiteness. Additionally, through the techniques of crushing, collaging, and depicting, Chou’s painting undertakes such a time-travel mission which cannot be more suitable to its own nature. Just like the layered background paint on the exhibition wall of the gallery, the accumulation of paint is its own proof for the existence of time.
As for this exhibition, a painting-based installation practice is comprehensively employed. It does not merely feature a greater diversity in terms of the materials of painting, but also further expands painting as manifested in the space: an artistic approach that enjoys a higher level of freedom transforms into the artificial terrains constructed by the artist individually. Take The Promised Land for example – when we see the linen sack for camphor-wood packing used as the canvas, its expression leads us beyond the conventional framed painting. The terrains in a “painting within the painting” is not merely visualized on the linen sack but allows the installation around the sack to create its self-definitive significance to offer a viewing experience of an artistic form and visual sense that cannot be verbally expressed. In the exhibited artworks, we do observe a visual intensity experienced by the viewers between the mediated state of the form and the clarity of the vocabulary.
In his Golden Mountains, we see how the artist sophisticatedly transforms his ideas of painting into prototypes of painting installation/sculpture. Golden Mountains attempts to depict the hills temporarily blocked from sight, a familiar scene in the urban Taiwan. In the artwork, the mountain ridge is only revealed at the margin from the cover of the artificial objects. The digital symbols and artificial objects expand beyond the painting frame and fold to form a layered complex. The wood-cut hill is like a tested product ready for some experiment, while the painting part constitutes a “gap” of exit, one of the rare escape routes from the image.
The complicated and complex-like viewing perspective adopted in Chou’s works brings us to the third subtopic of the exhibition: maps. The image references for the exhibition also include Kangxi Taiwan Maps which share the same degree of complicacy. The map, depicting the Western plain of Taiwan from an east-to-west viewing angle, contains two quadrants in the image: the first is the functional map of the Western plain, while the second depicts the unknown mountains behind the sweeping field, suggesting its abstract presence with the sense of the unknown in a symbolist painting. Even for the Western plain in the map, we get to see different cities, towns, and streets not to scale. As it follows the principle of mental map with distorted scale and changing viewing angle, we are also allowed to see the people wandering about the scenery and the pastoral fortress.
In The Others－The Overturning Process, we see how the Eastern Taiwan has experienced a shift in connotation from the origin of the civilization of Taiwan to the conceptual “the other side of the mountain” after the invasion of the Sino culture. Here, the artist translates the ancient maps to mark how one culture replaces the other in an outspoken way. Meanwhile, the symbols of tiny houses, fortress, or something of the sort from Kangxi Taiwan Maps scatter in staccato in the exhibited works. In Gazing, Erasing, Duplicating, the mountain fortress papertaped onto the blue-screen vacancy is as incongruous as the shape of the mountain ridge placed aside. The vacant background may suggest that the terrains of Taiwan can be rapidly changed and replaced like being photoshopped, but it may also suggest the 18th-Century landscape as depicted in Kangxi Taiwan Maps was perhaps dissolved into a myriad of artificially-planted objects to form a completely different landscape.
In fact, from my perspective, although Chou’s painted terrains have taken a time-travel journey to step onto the historical issues, it still maintains certain continuity in its visual logics. When the artist explains his A Scenery in the Rank Badge, he mentions the special contribution made by Shen Baozhen, the top-ranked civil official during the rule of the Qing Dynasty, to the camphor industry in Taiwan. The artist thus borrows from the rank badge (known as buzi) sewn onto the Qing-Dynasty office robe, placing the symbols of “fairy crane” and “auspicious clouds” into the painted broken terrains. The artificial image liberated from the painting frame inevitably reminds us of Chou’s earlier works which also feature the figures and scenes trapped inside the “screen frames” of computer games, exemplifying the artist’s attempt to construct an integral form of terrains beyond the frames.
What Chou has been trying is not merely a retrospection of ancient maps, industrial history, and changing terrains, but also a spiritual topology built in his mind. The fable-like quality, or the moral celebrated in classical drama, can be found in the exhibits such as The Crevice in a Wave,
We Still Need to Keep Going Even the Path ahead Seems so Difficult, Seeking the Mist from History, etc. His painting fills the deep and dark vacancy from the crushing gaps of history: a poetic touch closer to the contemporary aesthetics of the artificial can be the exact filling for the vacancy. Take Seeking the Mist from History, for example; the conceptual “history” seems nothing more than the artificial crystals attended with lab equipment. Its own presence refracts but yet covers the visual form of the terrains. Sometimes history does function as an optical structure, dispersing the source of light into colorful mist pervasive in the space through the mediating of lens filters and refractors. The depiction of such an abstract scene has become an important methodology for Chou, and such a practice indeed makes it possible for space and time to meet at this particular point, to be put together and juxtaposed into the world of a series of confusing terrains.