Chen Chieh-jen: Lingchi - Echoes of a Historical Paragraph

"I cannot stop gazing at these photographic images of anonymous people being tortured, executed. It seems that behind these images you can uncover another layer of image and unspoken hidden words. In the trance of gazing at photographic images I was often seeing myself to be a victim, or a persecutor, or a collaborator in the photographs." Chen Chieh-jen.

Chen Chieh-jen: Lingchi - Echoes of a Historical Paragraph

Manray Hsu, Taipei/Berlin based curator and invited researcher of Liverpool Biennial 06 expands on some of the themes in Chen's work:

The film, Lingchi - Echoes of a Historical Photograph, is based on a photograph taken by a French soldier in 1905 of a public execution known in Chinese history as Lingchi. Literally meaning 'slow crumbling like a hill', this type of capital punishment prolonged the process of dying, by using substances such as opium and chopping the limbs and other parts in a deliberately slow process (sometimes taking days to finish), in order to maximize the pain of the executed body.

This photograph gained wide circulation, at least in the intellectual world, via Bataille's writing about it in the context of eroticism, religion, torture and aesthetics. In the 1990s, Chen developed a series of digitally manipulated photographic works out of this photo as well as others by replacing the executed, the executors, and the onlookers of the scene, with images of himself. Rather than comment on specific historical events the photographs represent, these 'echoes' address the issues of the coloniser/the colonised, the photographer/the photographed, gaze/power, discipline/body, self/other, and reality/illusion.

Played triptych in slow motion, this film is set in an abandoned factory in northern Taiwan, where the evacuation of global capital after the booming of textile manufacturing in 1960s and 1970s has left thousands of workers, many of them women, jobless. These women, dressed in current everyday outfits, become the onlookers/spectators of an execution in the foreground with characters in late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) style. We, the film's spectators, see the slow killing in undressing the executed, choosing the knife, feeding opium, cutting off the breast and then the limbs, as well as the onlookers (who also stare at us) and the French soldiers managing to take pictures. All characters and onlookers look emotionless, except the slightly excited photographers and the executed who seems to rejoice out of the effects of opium. His trance permeates the slowness and silence and perplexes the viewers' gaze with a mixture of ecstasy and torture.

Chen links his photographs and film to the Chinese Taoist idea of 'Nie-jing', a mirror that reflects all the evil deeds and psychological states of a dead person when he or she enters the court of the hell. What will the dead see in the mirror, as both a true documentation of the living person, and a constant surveillance? Does photography perform its function? Can the anonymous photographed be elevated beyond being the sand in the photographic desert?