The Crisis of Collapse – On Chou Tai-Chun’s Paintings
Written by Chi Jason WANG
On the threshold of the third millennium, disasters have almost become the norm of the world. Since the 9/11 terrorist attack in New York in 2001, terrorism has raided everywhere. Punitive measures are taken, but anti-terrorism is merely the cause of more wars. It is not the only disaster humans bring to the world. Another example is the rapid deterioration of the environment and the imbalance of ecosystems, as a result of humans’ greedy desires. The merciless exploitation and destruction deplete the land, consume natural resources, and trigger a series of unstoppable natural and environmental disasters.
In 2006, former United States Vice President Al Gore’s book An Inconvenient Truth was released in conjunction with a documentary of the same title, in which he revealed the inexorable truth about the climate crisis, while he also included the globalized economic and political aspects to exhort the world that no nation should overlook the coming disasters caused by global warming. Ten years have passed, and the inconvenient truth remains an inconvenient truth, especially for governments, capitalists, or even most of the people. However, it is also a decade of increasing disasters, mass-mediated like real-time big-screen hits. In 2015, Dr. Yuan-Tseh Lee, Former President of the Academia Sinica, addressed in an international speech with sincere concern that “humans shed no tears until seeing the coffin, but now one corner is spotted.”
With China to its west on the other side of the Taiwan Strait and the vast West Pacific Ocean to its east, Taiwan has always been regarded as a border island. After the Chinese Civil War in the mid-twentieth century, “a sense of crisis” became the signature of the Taiwanese society. Since the Cold War, Taiwan has been stumbling to find its position in the international society. However, when the Chinese nationalists establish their power through threat or promise, Taiwan takes advantage of its free and democratic society, its pivotal location in international strategy, and the long-term relation with the USA to make itself protected.
Although a sense of crisis and the threat of being marginalized have already been ingrained in the Taiwanese mindset, the struggle to survive between two great powers ironically puts the younger generation at ease. It is more and more common that the latter maintains a distance from the social turbulence, indifferent to the surrounding world. The temporary peace and comfort is accompanied by aloofness. Moreover, in a world of drastic changes, intentional ignorance, escape, or carpe-diem pleasure further become the new established norm of a generation heading toward the apocalypse. In other words, in spite of Taiwan’s unique history, the trend of globalization influences and assimilates the philosophy and lifestyle of a whole new generation all over the world.
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, the global Internet service, with its increasing dominance, has rapidly spread its reach and soon established a new empire based on media and economics. Following the new trend, a large group of people – and the number increases – utilize such a virtual platform in production, marketing, and consumption. The Internet becomes their dwelling place, while surfing the web provides them not only with pleasure and life necessities but also physical, psychological, and spiritual fulfillment. The Internet generation is known for their obsession with video. Their understanding and perception of the real world mainly come from the images on LED displays. The French sociologist Jean Baudrillard has brought up a philosophical idea of “hyperreality” to distinguish a technologically mediated simulation/representation of reality from “Reality,” providing us with a critical and reflective perspective on a post-modern society. Nowadays, the hyperreal simulation has replaced Reality, ironically turning into humans’ primary reality in an age of mediated images.
After the lifting of the Martial Law in 1987, Taiwan gradually internalized the democratic system but it also suffered increasing polarization of opinions (sometimes manipulated by parties) concerning its relations to China. Nowadays, the violent dispute divides the society as if it were a civil war. The absurd political spectacle bores the youths who are still growing up and paralyzes their passion for social participation. It is worth noting that a young generation of artists, academically trained and educated in the 1990s, become a navel-gazing generation who refuse to speak to the society. The identity struggle and discordance bring them frustration, so they choose to turn their backs to each other. It may seem self-indulgent and narcissistic, since their only concern is themselves and their bodies become the fence of self-protection.
Born in 1986, Chou Tai-Chun belongs to a new enlightened generation of the Millennium. Growing up in a society where domestic and diplomatic problems remain, if not getting worse, the generation feel vulnerable to a world of constant turbulence, particularly the threat of Red China, which is no longer the world’s factory but a great economic and military power. The severe reality is a warning to the youths that Taiwan, after years of domestic disputes and diplomatic struggles, now faces the risk of marginalization. The bell is ringing. The only way to change the reality is to confront it. The "March 18 Student Movement" (also known as the Sunflower Student Movement) in 2014 is one example, which demonstrates a collective awakening of the young generation. In fact, it is a new social trend that young students show dedication to social issues and participate in those movements in a practical way. Some young artists also transform the social concerns into artistic practices.
Graduating from the Department of Fine Arts at Taipei National University of the Arts in 2008, Chou Tai-Chun continued the master’s program at the same university. It was during this period that his talent in painting was revealed. According to him, most of his college life was spent on computer games, especially arcade games. An “Otaku” (a Japanese term for people with obsessive interests, mostly used in pop culture) as he might be, Chou soon turned his obsession into an artistic exploration. The low-pixel images in earlier computer games featured a zig-zag shape, while the identifiable visual elements became the choiced signature in Chou’s early works.
For young artists from Chou’s generation, it is nothing surprising when it comes to appropriation, representation, or simulation of a computer-game scene. Indeed, the generation, and what follows, has embraced computer games as the most ordinary entertainment. It is more than natural that young artists are visually influenced and inspired by it. Examples can be seen in his several etudes in 2008, where the subjects of the works are simulated scenes from computer games or videos. The reoccurring zig-zag shape is the only visual highlight while “originality” is somehow missing.
Beginning with computer-game simulation, Chou later included real-life scenes in his paintings. With some humor and mockery, he integrated the imaginative computer-game images with real-life scenery, as seen in a 2009 painting where the train window and automatic doors are made into computer-game displays. The window (either a train window or computer window) becomes the stage of “Street Fighter,” where street gangs are involved in a martial fighting. As the virtual scenes and reality are mixed, the artist flats the images by compressing the perspective of the depicted space. Consequently, the virtual and the real are superimposed onto the same image while the distinction no longer exists. Judged by the visual impressions of his paintings, it seems that the young artist is making a statement that “virtuality” becomes the generation’s everyday reality.
Apart from the martial fighting in “Street Fighter,” role-playing games (abbreviated as RPG) featuring wars and adventures are the favorite of many “hot-blooded” male fans. Chou is no exception. In 2010, he elaborated the visual style of the said games and developed Rear Area series. In spite of its connection to a computer-game plot and similarity to the visual simulation, the artwork has a clear and distinct narrative. According to Chou, Rear Area is inspired by the ROKS Cheonan sinking, which occurred in the March of the same year in the Yellow Sea. Two months later, an investigation concluded that the sudden sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship was caused by a North Korean torpedo. However, South Korea and North Korea both had their versions of stories, while people could only speculate the truth from traces of information revealed by media. Curious about the perspectives related to the messages, Chou creates various scenarios to figure out the on-site vision of the stationed military personnel, their version of the truth. Although the images are still reminiscent of a virtual computer game, Chou indeed consciously switches his attention to the real world.
Computer games are fictional, but they are the alternative reflection or representation of reality, intensified by their direct and uncompromised address to brutality, violence, and desire. Although there is a gap between computer games and the real world, the former point to another dimension of reality by evoking humans’ deeply hidden consciousness and desire. Chou’s Globe Silent, a series starting from 2011, shows a greater ambition in terms of artistic consciousness, scale, and quantity. The computer game-like visual style remains, while the playfulness recedes, added with a science-fiction lure, a sense of the unknown which is threatening and yet cryptic. The science-fiction world in his depiction seems far from reality, but it reveals the signifier of reality to suggest the present situation of the world.
From Globe Silent series to Beyond the Silence series (2013- ), Chou gradually establishes a visual experience and imagination unique to his generation. The narrative of his paintings conceals various esoteric secrets, bristling with brooding suspicion. The composition of the scene – viewers may associate it with the Area 51 military conspiracy secrets mentioned in many American science fictions, war novels, or movies – further triggers humans’ doubt of the future world. The Earth becomes the military and economic trophies at the mercy of great powers/empires. The New Cold War is at the door, waiting to be sparkled by fear and anxiety. Moreover, the science-fiction scenes in Chou’s paintings also symbolize humans’ arrogance and self-conceit that they consider themselves as magicians of the land to plunder and exploit Nature until it becomes completely barren and destroyed. The Earth is degraded to a colony, where the environmental balance which has survived centuries is going to collapse.
Chou’s Beyond the Silence series are displayed in the solo exhibition titled “State of Flux.” As a one-time Otaku isolated from the society and taking shelter in the world of computer games, Chou is much indebted to it for his artistic inspiration, especially in his earlier works. The virtual visual style is an intentional signature of his paintings, and it also reflects a large part of his personal life as well as the whole generation. The world appears on displays, experienced as his everyday life, is the main information sources for him to understand the world. He first inserts computer-game scenes in the “super-flat” reality; later, real life incidents become his artistic inspiration. Therefore, he further digs into the more urgent contemporary issues. The world depicted in his painting reveals a mysterious and yet unique beauty. Compared with the deteriorating global environmental problems and rampant terrorisms, Chou’s panoramic paintings may seem inappropriate for the excessive serenity and splendor, but they in fact offer a sense of satirical humor. In general, the landscape spectacles of science-fiction thrill and ecological disasters in the young artist’s works demonstrate the horrible truth that the world of humans are about to collapse.