Home and Away: Chien-chi Chang and Chen Chieh-jen at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation

The word “home” has elusive, slippery connotations. In Chinese, the character “jia” (家) also means “family.” It suggests notions of sanctuary, shelter, belonging. But for some the meanings are more complicated. For the marginalized, the outsiders, the lost ones in our midst, it reminds them of all that is missing. For others, in a world crisscrossed by a diaspora of dislocated people seeking safety and security, “home” is a fragile memory.

Chien-chi Chang, Chinatown Diptych (Jiang J. Family, #26, Fuzhou, China, 2004 Jiang J. Family, #26, New York City, 2008 Mr. Jiang arrived in New York in 1992 and hasn't seen his wife, who is still in Fuzhou, for 17 years.) 1992 - 2011, digital film stills B/W and colour, sound, duration 19 - 23 minutes, images courtesy the artist, Chi-Wen Gallery and Magnum Photos

Chien-chi Chang. Stills from Chinatown Diptych, 1992-2011; digital film, b/w and color, sound; 19 to 23 mins. Images courtesy of the Artist, Chi-Wen Gallery, and Magnum Photos.

HOME is an exhibition of works by two Taiwanese artists, Chien-chi Chang and Chen Chieh-jen, that explores this complex and nuanced territory. Entering Sydney’s Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, you encounter a darkened and almost silent space filled with minimalist wheeled “wagons,” cabin-like boxes made of recycled timbers from construction sites. The very materials are redolent of memory, the passage of time, the transformation of one kind of world to another. They are beautiful objects, and in their resemblance to caravans, they evoke journeying. Inside each is a video or audio work by Chen Chieh-jen. Four filmic works focus on the Losheng Sanitorium in Taipei, a decommissioned leprosy hospital built during the period of Japanese rule and controversially slated for demolition. In 2007, thousands of people demonstrated against the forced removal of the last forty-five patients, who had spent their entire lives at Losheng and for whom it was “home.” Chen is interested in bodily memories and elusive states of mind. He documents histories—and people—that would otherwise go unremarked.

Chen Chieh-jen Realm of Reverberations, installation view at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation image courtesy SCAF

Chen Chieh-jen. Realm of Reverberations, 2014; installation view from the exhibition HOME; multimedia installation; dimensions variable. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Sitting enclosed in the wagons, watching slow, dreamlike black-and-white videos of a woman sweeping an abandoned industrial site or slowly stroking the mattress of a hospital bed in an abandoned ward, a sense of melancholy reverie is overwhelming. In addition to the four videos, Realm of Reverberations includes audio interviews with Australian women recorded at a center for the homeless, the marginalized, and the lonely. They attempt to explain what “home” means to them. It’s both moving and confronting, and the final wagon, which requires you to lie down in a space like an enclosed bunk in a dormitory or prison—or a coffin—is claustrophobically unsettling. The installation speaks of dispossession and loss, and the ways in which individual lives are hostage to the demands of the global economy.

The other half of the show is presented in the galleries of the National Art School, which was itself a prison in colonial days. SCAF Chairman and Executive Director Gene Sherman saw Chien-chi Chang’s extraordinary series of photographs The Chain at the 2001 Venice Biennale. They became “etched in her mind,” she says, prompting her desire to commission a new project from the artist and bring his work to Australia. Near life-sized, these portraits of the inmates of a Buddhist temple “sanctuary” for the mentally ill and intellectually disabled show people chained together in pairs, subject to eccentric theories about mental illness and the rejection of conventional psychiatric treatments; victims of family shame and secrecy. They are unforgettable. A young man stood next to me in silence, and after a while he turned and said, “I knew about this place when I was a child in Taipei. We made jokes about it at school. I am ashamed for my country.”

Chien-chi Chang The Chain, 1993-99, 45 silver gelatin photographs each 157.8 x 107.3 cm installation view, National Art School, images courtesy the artist, Chi-Wen Gallery, Magnum Photos and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation

Chien-chi Chang. The Chain, 1993-99; installation view from the exhibition HOME; 45 works; silver gelatin photographs; each 157.8 x 107.3 cm. Photo: Brett Boardman.

A new work commissioned especially for SCAF, Side Chain explores more deeply Chang’s relationship with the Lung Fa Tang temple and its inhabitants. In video footage of the still photographs being unwrapped for exhibition, and then later—mysteriously—destroyed, is a suggestion that in viewing these images, audiences become complicit in the fate of the subjects. This is a very uncomfortable notion indeed in a world in which discourses about the responsibilities of those who have much for those who have little are increasingly shrill and self-righteous. If “home” is about safety and autonomy, and about the connectedness of human beings to each other, then each of these artists raises issues that we cannot ignore.

Chien-chi Chang Sidechain 1993 - 2014, digital film stills B/W and colour, sound, duration 6:24 mins, commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney 2014, images courtesy the artist, Chi-Wen Gallery and Magnum Photos

Chien-chi Chang. Still from Side Chain, 1993-2014; b/w and color, sound; 6:24. Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney 2014. Image courtesy of the Artist, Chi-Wen Gallery, and Magnum Photos.

Chang’s photographic essay and accompanying two-channel video, China Town, documents the lives of Chinese migrant workers in New York. As a Taiwanese immigrant himself, first in the United States and now in Austria, it is unsurprising that Chang makes work informed by notions of exile, and by his empathy for those far removed from their homeland. For the last twenty years he has been photographing these men. We see them sleeping in their underwear on fire escapes outside their shared bedrooms, and eating noodles high above the streets of Manhattan, which might as well be another world. Chang has also documented the lives of their wives and children back home in the villages of Fujian Province, villages in which so many children grow to adulthood without knowing their father, and in which almost every family has someone working far away in America. The men are shot in black-and-white, strangely cropped, with compressed space and shallow depth of field a metaphor for cramped and circumscribed lives crammed into tiny spaces. Their families in China are photographed in color, but the averted gaze of each of his subjects evokes the sadness of absence.

Chang works at the intersection of art, documentary film, and journalism, but what distinguishes his work is its unusual depth—he returns to visit his subjects over a period of years—and his empathy. Not so far removed himself from the fragile hopes and constant fears of discovery and deportation so evident in his moving photographs, Chang moved to America in 1988 but was awarded permanent residency only in 1992, as “an alien with extraordinary ability.” “Like a Martian or something,” says Chang. There is none of the compromising voyeurism so often present in sociological photographic narratives. His works are both a social document and a profoundly compassionate statement about human connection. Photographs of sons and daughters his immigrant subjects have never met are taped to the walls next to girlie pinups and scrawled phone numbers. One man has not been home for seventeen years. I came away with a great sense of sadness, and a huge admiration for all of the anonymous cooks, dishwashers, taxi drivers, domestic helpers, and childcare and aged-care workers in the first world, laboring to send money home to make a better future for their families. Sherman says, “HOME is not an easy exhibition. The issues are uncomfortable, the images are unsettling, the people represented share our humanity but not our good fortune.”

HOME is on view at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation through August 2, 2014.