Chin Ya-Chun
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The Day She Caught the Clouds: The Creative Art and Life Journey of Chen Hui-chiao
text by Chin Ya-Chun

"Men for whom an entire life was like one Sunday afternoon, an afternoon which was not altogether miserable, but rather hot and dull and uncomfortable. They sweated and fussed a great deal. They didn't know where to go, or what to do. That afternoon left them only with the memory of petty annoyances and tedium, and then suddenly it was over; it was already night" — Don Juan[1]

In 1961, anthropologist Carlos Castaneda made the acquaintance of an Indian mystic called Don Juan as part of his research work. In the decades he followed that mystic, Castenada experienced many new things. Don Juan taught him how to be a hunter, a warrior and even a sorcerer. In order to learn these things Castenada was told he would first have to "eliminate the past," because only by overturning the descriptive methods we learn to be normal can the world naturally present itself as something completely new and different. The story of Don Juan has a special relevance to artist Chen Hui-chiao, a fact that can be seen in her thinking and is clearly reflected in her work. Whenever we attempt to understand or depict something to do with an artist it always helps to start by describing his/her personal history.

A Time of Innocence

Almost everyone involved in the field of contemporary art in Taiwan knows Chen Hui-chiao. This is partly to do with her being a noted artist, but even more related to her role as the individual in charge of "IT Park." Many of the people who know Chen just call her "Chiao."

Before the interview I asked Chen to briefly recap her personal history for me. Normally this takes a cursory few minutes, instead I found myself a little surprised by her ability to describe in great detail things that happened a long time ago. I assume this is related to her habit of keeping a diary.

Chen Hui-chiao was brought up by her grandmother and as a little girl could only speak Taiwanese. As a result, she couldn't understand a word the teacher said when she first went to school. Not surprisingly perhaps almost the only thing she could do was paint, which quickly became her favorite subject. At both elementary and junior high school Chen asked her mother to let her study painting and at senior high school joined an experimental art class at Yuteh Junior High School. From the very beginning the teachers were impressed with her paintings and the same year Chen graduated from senior high school and was one of the first year in-take of students at the Taiwan Academy of Arts (today's Taipei national University of the Arts). Chen's teacher decided to help her enroll but she never took the entrance examination. Despite her confidence in her art work, having only managed to get into senior high school by guessing the answers, Chen found it impossible to imagine she might gain admission to university. She told her teacher: "You must be dreaming."

After leaving school, Chen Hui-chiao's first job was in the Coloring Department at Wang Film Productions, where she stayed over two years. It was only after coming to think of herself as an automaton and being unable to envisage the future that shed decided to leave. She went on to teach art at a kindergarten and also worked in a flower shop, but many of the jobs she did lasted no longer than three months. During this time Chen experienced many of the ups and downs of youth and soon found herself caught between her dreams and reality.

February 28, 1986, was a very special day in the life of Chen Hui-chiao. On that day she was struggling with whether to quit her job when together wit a friend she went to visit "Spring Art Gallery." Whilst there they noticed a group of people stood around Chang Yung-tsun asking questions. Chen just happened to have brought some of her own illustrations and was wondering whether she should ask this "artist" for his opinion. After struggling to make her mind up for what seemed like an eternity and actually leaving the gallery three times, she finally plucked up the courage to walk up to him. Unexpectedly, after looking at her pieces Chang turned around and called some of his artist friends over to take a look, including Lin Shou-yu, Tsong Pu, Lai Tsun-tsun etc. The only one who responded was Tsong Pu who asked: "Are your works available for collection?" This was a pleasant surprise for Chen, and although at that time she had little if any idea what constituted "art" or "an artist," the self confidence such encouragement gave her helped to make the possibilities in front of her a little clearer. Only later did she discover that the reason Tsong Pu wanted to buy her work was that he was interested in the female friend she was with, who also just happened to be the central figure in the painting in question. Chen always finds the telling of this particular story especially amusing and even though it was an exquisite misunderstanding, it also marked the first step she took on the road to becoming a real artist.

Beginning with that experience Chen Hui-chiao and Tsung Pu became teacher and student, but also friends. Observing her thirst for knowledge and passion for learning, Tsong suggested take classes at SOCA.[2] At that time, SOCA was a meeting place for artists with new ideas and classes were given by Lai Tsun-tsun, Tsong Pu, Lu Ming-te etc. Regular seminars were also held introducing certain Avant-garde artistic ideas and forms, including regular talks on spatial, media, video and installation art etc. For a contemporary art community very much focused on painting, such as that in Taiwan at the time, these discussions were both challenging and inspirational.

During her time attending classes at SOCA, Chen Hui-chiao was like a sponge, absorbing everything she came into contact with. She also made friends with many of her classmates. Students who attended Tsong Pu's classes at the same time included Liu Ching-tang and Huang Wen-hao. When discussing the experience Chen often talks of "our class" - a group of people who learned and produced art together. Indeed, their passion for art was so great that even after SOCA closed they still continued to meet regularly.

At that time, Chen and several friends wandered the cafes of eastern Taipei, talking about art but also observing the latest and most fashionable hangouts. She recalls: "Every one of us had strong feelings about art in those days, but they were very abstract. At that age we were very emotional about art, we didn't understand it but it was still a light leading the way forward. It felt very distant but lofty and sublime, and it was that that brought us all together. Of course people also became lovers as part of this process, which was another reason we were together so long." The group would debate passionately to the point of argument and yet keep talking, exactly because their relationships were a mixture of idealism and passion, making them one group that stood the test of real life.

Later, Liu Ching-tang was looking for a studio for his photography work. Everyone else helped him search for the right space, finally finding a three story building on Yitung Street. In September 1988 "our class" finally found its own place - "IT Park Gallery."

Creative Development That Paralleled IT Park

Many people have, at different times, sought to depict or define IT Park as a space, a venue, or a fluid artistic group. The words of Tang Huang-chen have perhaps proven to be nearest the mark: "To my mind, this "group" was large or small, and often both. some people were there all year round (such as Liu Ching-tang, Chen Hui-chiao), others were more on the move, some appeared regularly and others on occasion, but "IT Park" proved itself to be a magnet to which some people felt themselves naturally drawn."[3] II Park certainly was "a group" - one that had a fixed space, two full time gatekeepers - Liu Ching-tang and Chen Hui-chiao - and a more itinerant population. Indeed, it is this combination that has maintained the appeal of the group, crafting an almost indiscernible yet distinctive "IT" style. The individual members have also utilized the actions of IT Park Gallery - including mobility, dialogue and creativity - as a way of protecting the rights that come with membership. Chen is one of the central members of "IT Park" and could reasonably be described as having been guided by an external force.

During her time at SOCA, Chen Hui-chiao learned about materials, color and space. After IT Park Gallery was up and running, she played with finished items and the possibilities they represented. One of her favorite experiments was one in which she used a wooden frame disposed of by a Spaniard who made paper. At the time everyone was practicing using space, attempting to develop graphic spatial thinking in a real world environment and Chen nailed this sharp cornered triangular wooden frame into the corner of the wall, creating her own small space. She was pretty pleased with herself for having come up with this idea when someone else said "How about this?" taking a piece of wood from the bottom of the frame and pushing it into the corner, immediately adding a new layer to the small space - That was Lu Mi. Chen stood frozen in one spot for a long time and despite feeling a little insulted she still had to accept that this was an even better idea. She maintains that the best thing about being part of such a group is that whenever they discuss things, ideas are thrown around that go beyond her own experience, imagination and capabilities. Whenever she has been open to such ideas they have provided vital sustenance to her own creative development.

In 1989, Chen Hui-chiao fulfilled her ambition to visit France when she spent Christmas there. On that occasion she made a card out of thread, which when opened created a small space on a two dimensional surface. This was so popular that before long people were asking where they could buy it. Having already used thread it occurred to Chen that she could also use of needles to direct the thread more precisely but also as a tool to support the space. Indeed, her decisions as to the selection and application of materials have often developed in this way. Indeed, the "Pin Rose" that has since become synonymous with Chen Hui-chiao actually came about from a similar series of events. Dry roses and needles were always close at hand and Chen came to think that although the flowers themselves were beautiful they seemed to lack something. Roses naturally have thorns, so placing thorns in the petals seemed a little more direct, so Chen took a pin and stuck it in the rose. After finishing one it looked so beautiful she just kept going. Since that time, this formalistic unit has repeatedly appeared in her works, sometimes as a small three dimensional sculpture in its own right, mounted in an acrylic and stainless steel picture frame or spread over the surface of a large glass table and wooden floor to form a spatial installation. Whilst exploring and expanding the use of materials, Chen Hui-chiao has naturally also extended the range of her own work.

Searching for the Right Materials

After getting to know Tsong Pu and the other artists, Chen naturally stopped painting. In response to the debates between these artists and the brand new concepts over which they argued and sought to promote, and even though she sometimes had only the vaguest of understandings, Chen Hui-chiao began to learn more about material applications. In painting, what people most often see are images of a replicated world, such as the use of colors to copy the effect of certain materials or attempts to recreate space in two dimensions. In this context an artist's achievements are often determined by how realistic a work appears. But if one wants to paint a rose then why not directly display a real rose? If one wants to paint space then why not directly create a real space? When the original form or meaning of a material is used and when the re-presented form is no longer restricted to two dimensions, creative freedom and possibilities are greatly enhanced.

If we look at the development of Chen's own distinctive style, then what is noticeable is the way in which she often discusses the selection, combination or mixed use of materials. Clearly in her work materials are no longer just a medium or tool, but rather serve as important content in their own right. In addition, the chance meeting of different materials is an attempt to re-present not a segment of the real world but rather an emotional state or need. Such pieces are neither real nor unreal, which perhaps makes them closer to a "dream state." As one explores this magical arena there are relatively few rational choices to be made as opposed to interlocking direct views and experiences.

In Chen Hui-chiao's art the frequent appearance of needles and thread were originally fixed in pulp. Gradually, the artist came to the conclusion that the feel created by paper was not exactly what she was looking for. That started her search for a better suited material and prompted a change to cotton. In the piece "Silent Light", Chen expresses hidden needles, so that when inserted into the cotton the needles are almost invisible without looking very carefully. She used the "golden point" of a syringe needle as an allusion and fine silver thread wrapped around the upper part of the cotton, the texture of the fiber corresponding to the other materials. Finally, by making use of the in which a syringe needle and silver thread refracts light the artist realizes the ultimate combination of elements. At this juncture, Chen actively seeks more coordinated visual images, but also allows a focused sense of pain take hold in the consciousness of viewers.

By 1997, Chen decided that she had pretty much done everything that could be done with needles and began to consider different possibilities, including an attempt to replicate needles. This involved using an electric embroidery machine to embroider needles into a piece of soft cotton flannel, which was then mounted as a two dimensional work - the three pieces "Future is a Drop of Water in Your Eyes" "Raining, Chasing Rain, Falling Rain"and "Sound Falling." The entire work used thread but visually speaking what viewers saw were needles and image needles made from real needles. Looking back and forth the work is infused with a repeated dialectic between visual appearance and meaning.

Chen Hui-chiao later replaced the cotton flannelette with a man-made short fiber variety. The most striking piece to come from this experiment to date has probably been "Then Sleep, My love..." (1988). In this work a formalistically simple double bed is covered with a pure white pillowcase and duvet cover. This creates such an enticing sense of comfort that visitors are almost compelled to lie down and experience it for themselves. Only when they take a step forward do they discover that the flannelette is filled with sharp needles.

In 1995, Chen held her first solo exhibition "A Separate Reality", naturally enough at IT Park. In this exhibition, she made major use of stainless steel, glass, acrylic, and also experimented with water for the first time. The experience was hard work because at the time she did not have her own workshop so many of the pieces were actually prepared and actually assembled in the display area. Added to that were the fact that different materials were provided by different plants, including partial dimensions and assembly processes, which required precise calculations and planning. Ultimately, the space created an extremely simple atmosphere of cleanliness and order, what remained hidden were the countless plans and complex processes that underpinned the exhibition.

Chen's first solo exhibition came with a lot of excitement and tension, by the second time she was a lot more relaxed and much stronger. The first solo exhibition cost over NT$300,000 to organize, whereas the 1997 solo exhibition "Smiles of the Skeptic" cost more than NT$900,000. Several large glass urns amongst the display items were not only extremely expensive to make but also involved complex technical problems relating to assembly, weight, power supply when being installed. Indeed, Chen Hui-chiao was still to be found wielding her own craft knife and making final arrangements the night before the exhibition opened. For an artist with not much of an income, her experimentation with these works sought both to realize her original vision of perfection, but also had to deal with the problem of ever expanding costs. Despite this, Chen was determined to find out to what extent she could express her passions just to satisfy her curiosity, and that gave her the necessary courage to take on the related risks.

Chen's creative process involves a great deal of focused brainpower and labor, a bothersome pastime that I cannot imagine is any fun at all. This is clearly an absolutely essential ritual for the artist in the creation of her dreamlike works.

The Alchemy of Knowledge

From Chen Hui-chiao's writing about her exhibitions and work it is clear that her art involves a degree of intense reflection, much of which revolves around issues such as life, art and truth. The works also relate to a variety of activities on how to better understand or come into contact with such ideas. It is almost as if she is an artist by accident and that it is because of this that she uses her art to record related processes and results.

Ever since junior high school, Chen has been fascinated by all things associated with mysticism, including dreamscapes, astrology, mythological stories etc, but she never recognized the common nature of these materials. It was not until later youth when she first fell in love and found herself and her partner speaking different languages that Chen started to read more; from existentialist novels to psychology, Zen Buddhism, philosophy, astrology etc. She later met Lu Mi and he translated a series of stories about Don Juan that Chen Hui-chiao greedily devoured. As a child, she had not liked reading books because she could never tell what was useful and what not. By waiting until she actually needed something and only then reading the understanding was completely different. This approach accompanied Chen as she grew, the things she learned firmly implanted in her heart yet also mapping the parameters of a boundless curiosity and desire to explore.

Thinking back and her failure to try and study at university, Chen Hui-chiao tends to think that was the right decision as it freed her from the baggage that unavoidably comes with academic study. At other times, when mixing with educated colleagues, she has often found herself plagued by self doubt, though after immersing herself in books those sorts of negative feelings are now greatly diminished. After gaining much experience Chen would still not venture to say she has any great understanding of things, but she certainly has more self confidence and is increasingly able to accept herself for who she is. In future, a lacking of knowledge or understanding will never again be an obstacle just something waiting to be researched and understood.

In the writings of Carlos Castaneda, Don Juan mentions the "Eight Points" more than once: "We can say that everyone possesses eight points from birth; two of these, reason and language, we are all familiar with. Feeling on the other hand is always unclear yet seemingly familiar. However, it is only in the world of the sorcerer that one can truly understand dreaming, seeing and will. Finally, on the periphery of the sorcerer's world he encounters the final two points. These eight points constitute his complete self."[4]


In her 1997 solo exhibition "Smiles of the Skeptic" and 2006 solo exhibition "Here and Now," Chen Hui-chiao produced works based on these eight points. The minute changes she introduces are a reflection of her different understanding at different periods in her life. A new encounter with these conceptual annotations a decade later highlights the artist's reflective experience as part of her journey into the alchemy of knowledge. The broad and heterogeneous subjects touched on during this journey have made Chen a much a more open-minded person than she was.

During my interview with her, Chen clearly found it difficult to put these experiences into simple language in a way that I could understand. What I found from reading sections of the Don Juan stories was how he demands that we start by eliminating our personal history, working constantly to uncover feelings, dreaming, seeing and other content and strength from the world of intuition. Moreover, fields that are often suppressed or devalued in the rational world are vehicles that can lead us into an unknown world. Just as we often absentmindedly "dream," in the training of the sorcerer this is a source of power. Chen says: "I dream every day."

On That Day, She Dreamed She Held the Clouds in Her Hands

Everyone has dreams but very few of us would say with such absolute certainty that we dream every day. Chen Hui-chiao is in the habit of recording her dreams in a diary. Which is to say she is particularly interested and self aware of her own dreams and dreaming itself. On coming to realize that her own life experiences were being interrupted by dreams each day and that when added up she was spending a great deal of time in a completely different world, Chen found it impossible to not look into the subject in more detail. She failed to be persuaded by Freudian analysis and explanations that all seemed to be connected in some way to sex. In fact, having looked into Freud's star sign, Chen discovered that he was of a particular disposition to undertake that kind of research.

Finally, Chen came up with her own explanation. At this point she believes in reincarnation or perhaps dreams are how our "selves" from earlier lives seek to send us messages or awaken memories, reminding us of things that we have yet to do in this life. When awake we have rational dreams, when asleep the dreams are real. Chen Hui-chiao's life has broadly speaking revolved around these two interlocking paths and she still desires to craft from this a clear state of mind. This is reflected in the spiritual yearning always evident in her art.

Chen has dreamed on three separate occasions of capturing clouds in the palm of her hand. In the first two, as she grabbed the clouds and they became something like silk, but in the last most recent dream the clouds were transformed into a white, elastic frost-like substance. These three experiences approximated very closely to her own work and caused her to worry she might be a Narcissist. Close friend Liu Ching-tang offered an explanation, suggesting that the clouds symbolize freedom and that as such the act of grabbing them is an expression of power. In this interpretation the dream is a reflection of Chen Hui-chiao's inner desire for freedom. Later, she identified a similar tendency in her own astrological chart, but even then there is no correct answer to such musings.

Cloud images often appear in Chen Hui-chiao's work. In "The Dreamer and the Dreamed" (1995) she used a light box to inlay the image of a blue sky and white clouds on the surface of a stainless steel pillar. In "Within Me, Without Me in Space, Within Space" (1997), the blue sky and white clouds were squashed under several heavy glass vats, each one filled with water. These appear pure and clear like large ice cubes and whilst viewers might feel this is a cloud that can be touched, as soon as they reach out a hand they find it is not. In "Never shout or trample the dream awake..." (1998), the cloud imagery is finally detached from two dimensional images and is really truly squeezed into a space, with white ping pong balls liberally spread amongst white cotton alluding to imaginings of the universe. In 2002 and clearly having been bothered by the aforementioned dream, Chen produced "That Day, I Held Clouds in My Hands!" In that dreamlike experience, the silver wisps of cloud float in between a sea of pins.

Whether we look at Chen Hui-chiao's dreams or art, I tend to feel that the clouds perhaps resemble the ultimate secret of life. She desires to find an answer to this final puzzle but can only find reality in dreams. Moreover, dreams also offer hope, infusing this eternal pursuit with continued strength.

Here and Now

In 2006, Chen was invited to show her work at a solo exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei. Initially, she really couldn't think of what to do - all she had was the phrase "Here and Now" which she quite liked. That became the starting point and the name of the exhibition, followed by ideas from the heart which followed in quick succession.

In this exhibition, Chen Hui-chiao traces the origins of her interest in astrology. As a little girl she remembers saying to her grandmother one evening that a star had fallen to earth and she wanted to go and look for it. Grandma said it was just fireflies, but the young girl was convinced it had been a star. She also worked out that given the stars shone so brightly they would certainly be hot to the touch and so she would need a fan to pick them up. Ultimately all that remained were the doubts as to whether it had been a star or not, but still Chen was unwilling to undermine what for her remains such a romantic image. Only when she was older did Chen discover that what she had seen were indeed fireflies. Despite losing her dream of catching stars, she has yet to give up on the idea of using various methods to capture objects or targets that are difficult or impossible to catch and control. In the solo exhibition "Here and Now" Chen replicates the starry night skies of childhood memories in the piece "The Silver Dust".

Chen Hui-chiao has said that this was the most relaxed she felt for any exhibition. In the past, her works have to some extent always sought to either establish a dialogue with or challenge viewers. On this occasion she was just being herself and expressing situations of her own choice. Many of the elements that appeared in her earlier pieces reappeared but no longer restricted by boundaries or borders. Chen wants her consciousness and works to go beyond the realm of reason and she was delighted at finally being able to show an exhibition that showed just untrammeled beauty.

In the piece "Ancient Feeling," Chen covers the floor in large thistles. This comes from her experience as a resident artist at the Glenfiddich artists' village in Scotland in 2005. It was whilst there that she first saw streets decorated with thistles - a flower surrounded by thorns that is difficult to get close to. Despite that nature, the flowering part of the thistle is always extremely soft and delicate and when it is time to propagate it floats in the wind like weightless cotton. Chen believes that this flower is a closer approximation of her own character than the rose. She considers herself naturally surrounded by thorns from birth; a combination of the extremes of gentle softness and durable hardness, characteristics she happens to like. When showing her works in Scotland Chen Hui-chiao chose to use cloth decorated with thistle prints as her creative medium before she actually discovered that it is the national flower of Scotland. Importantly, the trip to Scotland persuaded Chen of the existence of fate; from her unwillingness to go based on the expected difficulty of communication, to discovering a strange sense of familiarity wherever she visited, the ability to achieve a meeting of the minds with people not dependent on language and the discovery of an indescribable state of mind. She describes that feeling as "unbelievable."

Chen has quoted the eight points of Don Juan in her works, but if we look at the annotations she developed then the central point is always a focus on "love" and "dreams." For her, love and dreams are both a noun and a verb, a state of mind that can only be realized through constant action. In "Here and Now," the artist gives free rein to her intuition and perceptions but still used a rational vehicle to reach this "Inside of Memories". When these two parallel worlds finally collide in her works, they speak to the beginning of a long journey.

"Only the love for this splendorous being can give freedom to a warrior's spirit; and freedom is joy, efficiency, and abandon in the face of any odds. That is the last lesson. It is always left for the very last moment, for the moment of ultimate solitude when a man faces his death and his aloneness. Only then does it make sense." — Don Juan[6]

1 Carlos Castaneda "Tales of Power," translated by Lu Mi, Taipei: Fangchih Publishing, p.354.
2 SOCA Modern Art Workshop was founded by Lai Tsun-tsun in 1986.
3 Tang Huang-chen "IT Park Gallery was founded in 1991-1992 not 'IT Park' " http://etat.com/itpark/gallery/index-itpark.htm
4 Op cit 1, p.124.
5 Chen Hui-chiao "Look back the Eight Points", p.2。
6 Op cit 1, p.354.
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