The Distillation of an Idea

The subject of this show is not the abstract paintings we’ve come to expect from Jenny Chen, but a video installation—and we can easily sense the underlying mix of tension and excitement that the artist must have felt at embarking on this new experiment. My own feelings are those of anticipation, for one simple reason: for the fans of any artist, it’s a rare treat to witness an already mature style undergoing transformation or extension, giving us new perspectives on the artist’s creative life and the deep veins of thought and awareness that inform it.

Jenny chose Dawn? Dusk? as theme for the installation, while choosing a space for its presentation, the Wu Mei Winery building at the Hua Shan Creative and Cultural Industry Center, that marks a departure from the usual museums and galleries. Jenny admits that her idea for a work in the video medium came only after her first encounter with the potential site—certain similar ideas had been brewing for some time, which really only found their natural match in that location. The character and feel of the space led to a kind of creative ferment different than that usually associated with flat painting surfaces.

The Sun in Motion

While in the US, Jenny captured numerous scenes in video along the coast from Florida to New York. And, from the window of her new studio in Guandu, Taiwan, she captured images of “a Taiwanese sky that I never knew could be so beautiful.” By editing these raw images, along with a segment featuring the Taipei 101 building, Jenny produced seven independent projections of ten-minute length. The plan was for an octagonal structure in the old winery suggestive of the “eight trigrams” that hark back to the Yi-Ching. One side of the octagon is the entrance/exit; the seven projection faces are the others. The artist chose to present the seven scenes, each a specific segment of time between sunrise and sunset, in normal chronological order; as the viewer’s gaze moves from right to left, he or she glimpses almost simultaneously segments that progress through the daytime hours: in the first, the sun slowly lifts above the horizon; in the second and third, it has ascended; the fourth is noon, beginning the sun’s gradual descent in other projections; the seventh, of course, is the fading light of dusk, in which the sun sinks into the horizon/seascape, just as it first poked its head above it at dawn.

The floor is specially treated for a moist appearance that subtly reflects the projected images, so that the viewer seems to have entered a light-room of dancing images. The sound of ocean waves reverberates, heightening the atmosphere of a space in flux, lilting and turning. The semi-transparent flooring even hints that we ourselves are secretly observed! Is the floor perhaps the door to another kind of space?

Walk into the darkened corridor, turn, and face a dark, octagonal room in “eight-trigrams” style with the work’s images projected on each wall. One side is the entrance; the other seven surfaces are 320cm X 240 cm. As we walk from the darkened corridor into the scenes of a single day, from dawn to dusk, perhaps we should wonder—is it day because we arrive? Are we perhaps the sun? Then we disappear again through the darkened corridor.

The Appeal of Simplicity

The sky is the unifying theme of these projections; shifting layers of cloud, above horizons placed low in the frame, exert an appeal central to the work. Dawn and dusk, the temporal concept, is symbolized in part by the movement of the sun, while the shifting clouds—and the organic dialogue they form with the sun—are the work’s principal elements, which are accompanied by objects on the horizon, deliberately lowered, yet not too low to disregard. The artist has said that she is, in the end, “an artist of flat surfaces”; what she seeks is an immediate response to those surfaces. Thus the seven projections are succinct, richly layered, simple, and full of beauty. Elapsed time is quickened, subtly, by skip-framing; in these seven spaces the viewer feels the slow passage of time, and will experience within a single duration the holistic joining of the images into a full day.

It’s a special feeling: though these scenes might be found any day in nature or in the city, and though to find them, the members of any race, nationality, or social stratum have only to slow their pace or gaze toward the sea, and though as we move through our lives we experience them often, Dawn? Dusk? nevertheless confronts us with a different kind of experience. A bird appears from the upper right in one projection, soaring with leisurely grace and disappearing in the lower right; in another, a plane traverses a purposeful line into the distance—such simple moments are oddly striking. On another wall, the Taipei 101 building invokes intense motion around it, as roiling clouds scuttle across and out of the visual frame; the sun’s rising and setting here is turbulent, but melded into the day, as the thoughts of the viewer dissolve in the mood of the work.

Is it simplicity that infuses these scenes with power? It was not the artist’s intent to add anything to the selection and presentation of these images, so perhaps simplicity results from the reversal of the creation/production process to reduction/restoration. In her treatment of the dawn/dusk subject, Jenny first “abandoned, suppressed, or cut out” those elements that would be most associated with a direct, humanistic narrative associated with the theme. There is no traditional market scene, no financial building with a surrounding public square, no human observers of the sun rising through the clouds. The artist simply records the natural scenes of dawn and dusk, creating an installation of time segments, with a slightly sped-up effect. These creative methods allow the images speak for themselves. Through their reduction, restoration, and release, these scenes of nature can stimulate subconscious, bodily memories in the viewer and entice them into a special exchange. Describing her work, the artist says, “Whenever there are people following nature’s law, ‘rising at dawn, retiring at dusk,’ there will be another group, for whom their day is night, who retire as their sun rises. The life that is upside-down in physical space is, mentally, right-side-up, as they too ‘rise at dawn and retire at dusk.’ Dawning for some signals dusk for others; saying that anyone’s life is “upside down” doesn’t appropriately describe it.”

Could it be that Jenny Chen’s derivation of the “dawn/dusk” subject was predicated on the special sense of space she found in the historical Wu Mei Winery, and a concern for the passage of time felt there? How many young Turks of the artistic world find disappointment at Hua Shan by failing to master the subtle relationship between their work and the space? A more mature artist, based on a lifetime of art, even one spent producing two-dimensional works, will find the right response! When I learned that Jenny faced two serious life-crises recently, I felt it must have given her an extraordinary closeness to the subjects of life and rebirth. Nature’s laws are a source of greater power, and to get close to them and read their essence teaches us a way of passing through our lives and transforming their limitations.

Each day is a matchless theatre of nature, life, and living; in it, simplicity is a fount of pure energy. “Open your eyes and see the sun—tomorrow’s a new day” reflects an irreplaceably simple understanding and appreciation. Is the darkened entrance a transition? Does the octagonal “eight trigrams” design suggest a mysterious wheel of life? The artist leaves us free to ponder these implications.

The Real and the Virtual

The artist has said of her work that “Reality and virtuality are two sides of the same thing. Looking at something from different angles yields different experiences. We’re all stuck in our own shoes looking at this world, and nothing is definitively either real or unreal, or right or wrong; it’s a matter of your point of view. Take 9-11―with the actual event before them, many could not accept it; but when we’re at the movies seeing a virtual experience of the same kind, we find it real and believable.”

I believe a wealth of ideas reside in the artist’s comments about the power of images to create real events. Dawn? Dusk? is a “real and believable” linkage of scenes from dawn to dusk, and the artist understands that each of us, standing in our own shoes, can see only a part of all this. This artist’s shoes have traveled back and forth between Taiwan and the US (symbolically, around the world), observing events from different points in space-time, and her installation makes representational the meanings of the dawn/dusk continuum. Passing into the darkened corridor at the Wu Mei Winery, we easily join the experiential mechanism of these phantom images and they engage our emotions. It hardly seems exaggeration to call these images “real,” but as the artist has said, “Reality and virtuality are two sides of the same thing.” Virtual reality is one kind of reality; the experience of it is undoubtedly real. But virtual reality is not its subject’s reality! “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is the absolute truth known to all lovers, yet there is no absolute, perfect beauty in the real world. And the absolute beauty that resides in a work of virtual images doesn’t necessarily disappear when the plug is pulled. Perhaps the absolute perfection of beauty can only really live in the virtual world!

“The real world,” too, is in its way virtual. To those of us who stand only in our own shoes, the reality of “the world” exists only in perception and imagination. We’ve never experienced the “the world” in full. This artist, we can see, respects most that limited vision of the world we see from our own shoes. As a viewer moving through the installation nears a wall, their shadow is cast on the wall—conceiving this work, the artist was bent on presenting these bright scenes and their omnipresence in our world, but also on subtly reminding the viewer of the virtuality of the image. Appearing only briefly, such beautiful scenes may vanish like the most illusory images we can imagine. Only making images themselves the theme could truly reveal the experiences and attitudes involved in their perception. That is, the question is not “real or virtual,” but instead our attitudes and standpoints toward the real and the virtual.

Images in the Digital Age

Traveling around the world, which has brought home to Jenny the complexities of time in the digital age, helped spur the creation of this vivid installation work. The artist has chosen to create works with a poetic, romantic feel in response to the present digital age, and through them, certain historical images seem to resonate and find a new vehicle for expression.

Are the sunrise of the first frame, and the sunset of the seventh, an acknowledgement of Monet’s Impression: Sunrise?—light rippling on these real waves exerts an appeal no less than in the Monet work, while the installation’s formation also suggests Monet’s “Wheatstacks.” Intentionally or not, the pursuit of sunlight and its release brought about this unexpected historical concurrence, which seemed to find Jenny Chen the best vehicle for its appearance. So we see the sacred halo of classical realist paintings settling beside the architectural vista of the Taipei 101 building, with the same elegant and power to entrance.

Cloud forms appear in each projection, almost like the face of nature itself: sometimes these clouds are like gestures of the universe, shifting slowly, speaking of far-distant feelings. In the formal vocabulary of earlier, painted works by Jenny Chen, in particular, the Representation of Phenomena series, we find a linkage with these cloud forms—of course, both coming from the hand of the same artist. One image of flowing traffic, an image of flowing movement itself, seems generated from the same source as the spontaneous techniques of abstract expressionism, and in fact, Dawn? Dusk? presents abstract expressionism’s liberation of form anew, as the ultimate expression of spontaneous technique.

As to individual standpoints, if sunsets have special meaning for those in love, then the dizzy, swirling activity of clouds above the Taipei 101 edifice may suggest smoothness and ease to fatigued wage-earners, and the densely packed vehicles moving in the distance, a release from the heavy pressure of work. For artists and writers whose creative juices surge during the nighttime hours, the sight of sunrise both stings and salves.

The subtle quickening of pulse produced by skip-framing compresses our experience of time. Busy urbanites, always impatient for lack of time, nevertheless find themselves lingering in this installation. The artist could have made this work a criticism of the visual brutality of the digital age, or even more, a blow against those who willingly steep themselves in the self-flattery of such images. But such rhetoric is not part of Chen’s style, which involves neither criticism nor artificial striving for uniqueness, but caring and enthusiastic engagement—with herself and the world around her.