FEATURE/Inside the hall of his oppressor, an artist seeks reconciliation

12/04/2021 11:45 AM
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Fictional Huge Evil No.37 (left) and Fictional Huge Evil No.63 (right). CNA file photo
Fictional Huge Evil No.37 (left) and Fictional Huge Evil No.63 (right). CNA file photo

By Ken Wang, CNA staff writer

In 1969, the errant scribblings of a newly conscripted Chen Wu-jen (陳武鎮) landed him a two-year stint in jail, charged with violating the Betrayers Punishment Act.

Today, the former political prisoner's paintings hang under the watchful gaze of those he once unwittingly defamed, at a new exhibition in the National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall.

While Chen's work is often seen as a simple condemnation of the former authoritarian Kuomintang (KMT) government, his new exhibition "Back to the Days of the Verdict," also seeks to provoke thoughts of reconciliation from visitors. This might be a conversation -- and possibly conflict -- that was anticipated, given the choice of venue.

How to memorialize the era of former President Chiang Kai-Shek's unchallenged rule is a barometer of Taiwan's contested history.

On a visitors' bulletin board at the end of Chen's exhibition, proclamations of support for Chiang -- "There wouldn't be a Taiwan without him!" -- are flanked by those of opposing sentiments -- "He was a butcher!".

Chen's exhibition is the first time the hall has hosted artworks from someone imprisoned during the White Terror, a 38-year period of widespread political persecution that lasted from 1949 until the lifting of martial law in 1987.

Chen, now 72, landed in prison at the age of 20 after writing -- out of boredom in his telling -- "Oppose the central government, oppose the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT)" on the back of an aptitude test, and neglecting to erase the slights before the papers were collected.

During his imprisonment, he witnessed the miserable life of the prisoners, as well as the mental trauma and scars they were left with.

Political Prisoner No. 37. CNA file photo
Political Prisoner No. 37. CNA file photo

This is depicted indirectly in his "Political Prisoner No. 37," an oil painting of the Political Prisoner Series, which revolves around a white squat toilet and a bowl.

Chen explains how this feature acted as the center of their prison life. "We not only used this as a toilet -- we also bathed and washed our faces here," Chen said.

Artistic insurrection

"By the special institutionality of Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, this exhibition is calling for the reflection on this history of the countless wronged souls," reads the brochure of the exhibition, which has been organized by the Ministry of Culture and will run until Dec. 19.

The exhibition is divided into four sections, "Historical Images of the White Terror," "Cracking Crowd," "Life-Taking Words" and "Rewriting the Verdicts."

Oil paintings, woodcarvings, and sound devices across the four sections afford the audience an experience of what life was like for those from across the societal spectrum persecuted during the White Terror.

Verdict No.16. CNA file photo
Verdict No.16. CNA file photo

"Chen's works have a very strong physicality, which is the epitome of a suppressed society," the exhibition's curator and professor in the Department of Fine Art at the National Changhua University of Education Wu Chieh-hsiang (吳介祥) said.

In Chen's "Fictional Huge Evil" series, two huge faces with blue and green tints and tortured expressions exude a sense of hideousness and discomfort. The brushwork seems haphazard and chaotic.

Such macabre touches are deliberate on the part of the artist. He uses paint brushes and hand floats instead of professional paint brushes to create the coarse and rough strokes.

"These tools and techniques perfectly express the rage and wildness I want," Chen said.

CNA file photo
CNA file photo

Even though his anger has waned with time, he is still able to summon it when fueling the creative process.

Usually spending three to four days straight devoting himself to a piece without distractions, Chen's commitment gained new intensity after the lifting of martial law.

"An artist's prime time is between their 20s-50s, but I started to create what I truly wanted to express in my 50s. I need to catch up."

This raw emotion is evident in his woodcuts, which use crude and aggressive gouges to depict scarred and wounded bodies.

"I use a chainsaw instead of a chisel," Chen said, "I want it to look like broken flesh."

Chen
Chen's woodcarvings. CNA file photo

Wu said that Chen channels his anger into his works. The way he cuts the wood evokes how the oppressor treated the victims. "Even his creative process is a part of art."

A place of conflicts and surprises

The third section of the exhibition is dedicated to a series of oil paintings with hard copies of court verdicts. When stuck on the paintings, the verdicts are filtrated and immersed to the point of near transparency from contacting the grease of the paint.

The verdicts, accompanied by some common scenes of the prison, such as a prison wall, a cell door, or a twisted, faceless body, juxtapose authoritarian atrocities with "frustrated and speechless" suffering.

Verdict No. 35 As Stated. CNA file photo
Verdict No. 35 As Stated. CNA file photo

While his works are saturated with political overtones, Chen's artistic credentials should not be overlooked.

"Chen is a trained artist. His excellence in this regard only amplifies and solidifies his political messages. The most precious quality of his works is his genuineness," Wu said.

By holding the exhibition in the National Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, the organizers knew it would attract some pushback by Chiang's supporters.

"Some volunteers refused to tend to this gallery," Wu said, with many finding the mere presence of the exhibition abhorrent.

But there have also been some surprises and unexpected exchanges.

"The venue normally attracts a very different demographic. We're hoping these types of people, who see the works by chance, might be given pause for thought," Wu said.

For those who have long refused to set foot in the hall, such as the victims or the victims' families, the exhibition is also an opportunity to open up a dialogue between them and the institution, to offer a kind of closure, Wu said.

Chen Wu-jen stands with his painting, "No. 17 Chen, Jung-tien Should be Sentenced to Death Together." CNA file photo
Chen Wu-jen stands with his painting, "No. 17 Chen, Jung-tien Should be Sentenced to Death Together." CNA file photo

Nowhere is this silent dialogue between the institution and institutionalized more evident than the exhibitions' bulletin board.

Some notes offer progressive positivity -- "I didn't know about this history before the exhibition," "This exhibition is so enlightening," -- while some still puncture such notions with the radical -- "Tear down the hall!".

Some, much like Chen and his art, offer consensus for collective memory: "Never forget."

An ad of Chen
An ad of Chen's exhibition erected behind the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. CNA file photo

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