Chen Tai-Song
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A Community of Spectres-Reading David's Paradise in terms of Jun-Jieh Wang's Project David
text by Chen Tai-Song

All phenomena of friendship, all things and all beings that must be loved are a matter of spectrality.
--Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship[1]

It is true, but also a paradox, that the simulacrum has been internalized to become life's experience, as in the world presented in Jun-Jieh Wang's David's Paradise. In a scene in this video that remembers a dead friend, a letter is written that says, “Dear David, it has been five years since you left. Life continues. Even though there are some changes in the scenery, the sense of space has gradually disappeared. Everything seems flat, like a stage set.” After the friend's death, reality has become dull and lost its rich materiality, that is, reality is like a stage set and the whole world has become a simulacrum.

Actually, the simulacrum has been the subject of Wang's works over the years. The fictitious travel agency in Neon Urlaub (1997) suggests that traveling is a packaged product and a consumer object of desire, while Aura 52 (1998) deliberately delays the references to reality, manipulating the light and shadow of the photographs to create an eerie and uncertain atmosphere. Rather than being documentary, they are more like flickers of memory that linger in the mind, a kind of bewildering experience in an age of compressed time and space. Addressing the desire of immortality, HB-1750 (2000) fabricates the product “Rejuvenation Pill” and its commercials. Since 2000, the Microbiology Association Project has launched a series of works that issues apocalyptic warnings, while depicting a utopia that integrates technology, mind, business and desire. In short, the simulacrum suggests the identification of man with commodity, with man being placed in a situation governed by commercial logic.

The Simulacrum of Realism

Now, stepping solemnly into the realm of death, David's Paradise shows a profound obsession with transcendental experience and man's life and death through a terse narrative and precise images and sounds. Undoubtedly, it is a major recent work of Jun-Jieh Wang. While it seems to have dispensed with the past worldly references, it is in fact a more radical presentation of them. That is to say, if the simulacrum is a “referential illusion”,[2] it has become a variant kind of realism in David's Paradise: one is not just disillusioned by reality, but the disillusion is seen as the reality. As such, reality is constructed like a simulacrum. But strictly speaking, the digital medium is used not for the sake of imitation, but to create cold and immaculate images that evoke a marble tombstone, reflecting the vanity of life, or inscribed with the most profound feelings of the living, the confession of the survivor.

In terms of the narrative of its images, David's Paradise consists of seven scenes made up of continuous horizontal tracking shots. The first scene is a lawn with small flowers, alternately distinct and blurred with the changing focus. A man in suit appears walking on the lawn in darkness. Then this sequence of images appears: a cold blue colour giving out cold light, a door handle appears, the image stops at the handle. The man opens the door and steps into a dazzling white light; he becomes semi-translucent and walks into the dimly lit interior through the wall. There are lights on the wall, the man dissolves into electric signals and disappears; close-up of roses in a vase floating in mid-air on top of a table and moving up and down. The camera moves back, and then cuts to a close-up shot of a stem with thorns, moving horizontally to take in its details. The camera moves to the second space, with a standing lamp and a TV set floating in mid-air. The TV signal is interrupted. A night lamp and a sofa appear, cuts to the TV screen with its interrupted signal. The semi-translucent man appears walking, amid shadows cast by the furniture. A metal chair gleaming with a cold white light floats in mid-air, spinning non-stop. The camera examines its details. The third space appears, with a table lamp and a pen writing a letter by itself. The camera then slowly moves towards a hollow frame in the wall and goes beyond. There is smoke in the dark, followed by falling red maple leaves. The camera moves back to the room and the letter, then into the fourth space, which is the bathroom. There is a washbasin and a turned-on shower. The water flows horizontally against the law of gravity, spraying at the bust of a nude man, as if he is taking a shower. The water does not touch the body, but passes through it. The man moves his hand from his shoulder across his breast in a ritual manner. The scene ends with the jet of water streaming towards a hollow frame. The camera moves to the fifth space, the bedroom, and slowly tracks in towards a landscape photo on the wall. An airplane above a mountain in the photo suddenly starts moving and flies out of the picture. The camera moves back to a bed with crumpled sheets, and someone squirming underneath. A figure emerges from the sheets. The semi-translucent man reappears and gets out of the bed. He then opens the door and walks out of the room. Finally, we are back in the first scene of the video: the lawn dotted with small flowers.

These tracking sequences seem to be laid on the tracks of life and death. They are shots, but also pictures. In any case, these scenes in different frames that resemble a series of compartments endow David's Paradise with a classical style, recalling the works of medieval painter Giotto di Bondone, or contemporary artist Bill Viola who is deeply influenced by him, in particular The Voyage, part of his video installation Going Forth by Day (2002), or Ocean Without a Shore (2007), a site-specific work at the San Gallo Church at the Venice Biennale. But despite its title, David's Paradise does not employ any Christian symbols, unlike Viola's work. Instead, by arranging the image narrative as a loop, with the end echoing the beginning, Wang takes the transcendental experience of life and death to another dimension.

Bardo:Field of Vision

What dimension? A Trieb that is obsessively or ritually fixated on things like a door handle, flowers, a night lamp, smoke, an airplane, a mountain and bed sheets, and that seemingly assumes the form of a spectre that wanders to and fro inevitably brings to mind the state of “sipa bardo” as described by Tibetan Buddhism.[3]

The Tibetan word “bardo” means an interval or a gap between two things. “Sipa bardo” is the Bardo of Becoming, the post-death phase in which the mind is liberated from the body and can travel to different places freely, resulting in a sort of review of one's life, often told by people with near-death experience: one relives one's life and its details and visits places that one has been to while being alive.

In his work, Wang has not employed any obvious Buddhist symbols, nor does he refer to any local Taiwanese culture or its system of signs. His images are universal, whether they are about nature or the city. So on what basis are we talking about “bardo”?

On the basis of the meaning of the Tibetan word “bardo”: interval.

Of course, it is associated with death. But according to Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, “bardo” has a wider meaning and refers to the experience of each moment. He states that living in the modern world is living in a clear state of bardo, that is, the “Bardo of This Life”. This bardo is an uncertain period, in which one finds oneself in a suspended, chaotic state of existence, as well as a transitional period that is often missed in the state of becoming. We should contemplate it and abide in its interval of existence.

Interval: Time Lag

With regard to David's Paradise, we can discuss bardo in terms of its operation as an interval, as the opening up of time and space. The work is shown on five adjacent screens with an interval of 30 cm between each of them. The screens are slightly tilted towards one another to create a certain angle and undulation. More important, not only is there a spatial interval between the screens, there is also an interval in terms of their projection time: 12 seconds.

The work is presented in Gallery E in the basement of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. In this long and narrow space, Wang had the walls painted grayish-blue and the floor covered with black carpets. He had wall panels (390 cm x 219 cm) built to serve as screens and put up a division wall at the entrance to keep the room dark and hidden. Visitors entering from the right side of the screens will see five screens placed from right to left, each projecting the video of David's Paradise from beginning to end. But as mentioned above, there is a 12” delay in their projection time. This creates a hallucinating visual effect, since every shot that was just seen reappears on every successive screen afterwards. But conversely, they also repeat what happens before over and over. This creates two time dimensions: one that looks forward, and another that looks back. But even so, the hallucination leaves us with the feeling of having missed something, of falling into a vacuum, even though that is the interval where we are supposed to abide.

Then where should we abide? In the walking.

Actually, the 12 seconds are not merely the difference in projection time. Wang stresses that they are the time that it takes for the man in the video to walk from the first screen to the last. This creates a kind of loop, walking in a loop, that not only happens in real space, but also in each image. In the video, the walking is of a virtual kind. But because the man in the video is more or less life-size from a proper viewing distance, he seems to participate in the actuality of the spectator space. Thus, the walking seems to invite the spectator to follow suit, and become identified with the man. When the person – whoever he is - walks out of the dark room, he will have completed the operation of the interval in its most comprehensive sense.

Loop: Narrative Engine

The hallucination of this work causes the spectators to be deeply immersed in it. David's Paradise has the audio-visual attraction of film, reflecting the unique “cinematographicity” of contemporary video art, which restructures film by giving it “artisticité”.[4] Peter Weibel refers to the development of a kind of “expanded cinema”, which has constituted the language of digital new media in the west since the 1990s. Artists pay great attention to the material aspect and projection apparatus of images. In terms of the former, they use devices such as delayed images or a continuous loop to show non-linear, discontinuous or seemingly illogical plots. In terms of the latter, various kinds of multi-screen projection are employed to present narratives with multiple viewpoints and create an “immersive environment”. But Weibel stresses that these devises are not a negation or subversion of narrative, but rather a kind of “navigable rhizomatic narration” in the words of Deleuze.[5]

The representation model has come back, but it does not mean a return to the classical theory of imitation. Instead, as Lev Manovich says, one uses simulation to “model realistically how objects and humans act, react, move, grow, evolve, think, and feel”.[6] Rather than invoking realism, it develops a kind of realism with fantasy and surrealistic elements.

This fantasy is not illusion, but a complex contemporary psychological drama, what we can call the “Bardo of This Life”. The high-definition images of David’s Paradise are used not so much for the sake of precise simulation as to highlight certain subtle sensibility and fine nuances. While its narrative may be less dramatic, it makes the 12” time lag appear even more ingenious. Because of this interval, the tracking shots and narrative of David's Paradise are cut and broken up, leading us to contemplate the loop that opens up the time and space. With this loop, Wang attaches a “narrative engine”[7] to David's Paradise, creating an intriguing temporality and interrupting the continuity of the images and sounds. This engine that brings about the interruptions is even more ingenious than the loop of the 20' video. We could say there are two engines at work in the video. What then should we make of the latter engine?

Spectre: The Genealogy of Walking

David's Paradise is Part III of Jun-Jieh Wang's David Project, as well as the restructuring of parts 1 and 2: Untitled 200256 (2004) and Condition Project II (2005). The former is a two-screen installation with seven film segments of seven seconds each, and the latter a three-screen interactive installation with six film segments, each lasting 20 seconds. Both works are projected in a loop. What does it try to convey?

In terms of the entire David Project, the two most outstanding elements are the light and the door, which appear repeatedly and connect other images. The hand that opens the door, followed by a zone of light, appears in both David's Paradise and Part I. The images that come afterwards then differ. In Part I, after the whole space is suffused with light, we see the close-up of an intravenous drip in the middle. The liquid in the bottle drips down and lands on an eyeball, turning into a gleam in the eye, as if it is registering the image that came before. Then the light zone reappears and everything becomes white. This evokes the metaphor of the “image-eye”. The joining of the image with the eye suggests an association with life. In Part II, the light is linked to various elements and becomes more diverse: apart from the door, a gun is fired in a flash of light. There is gunfire, smoke, a pool of blood that becomes a fiery red light, cutting to the light in an eyeball, and light that penetrates oranges and forms a zone. This image montage is then linked with an aircraft cabin, the close-ups of a pair of feet walking, coffee, a cabin window, flowers that bloom rapidly and drift in the air, clothes that shake violently, a man falling down, the close-ups of blood flowing, the LCD screen of a cabin seat, a screen with glaring white light and rows of oranges. These images seem to be incorporated intertextually into the photo in the bedroom of David's Paradise, as unseen details in the narrative or like a kind of painting-within-painting subtext. These image narratives also recall an outstanding photo installation Travelling With You by Wang in 2004,[8] which he considers the prologue to David Project. Below the airplane in the photograph is the fictitious famous Mount Yakult. The artist says that the trip is imaginary. The work deals with a “subject that fabricates reality” and is intended to “remember a friend who can no longer travel with him”.[9]

While the friend's death is a real incident, Wang has turned it into film-like images about “conditions, space, memory etc”, some of which are “fragments of dreams and everyday life”, and “metaphors and ambiguous relations between people, between man and space, man and memory, a living person and a ghost…”.[10] In David's Paradise, these are reduced back to images. To borrow Deleuze's phrase, they form “a sequence of intensive states”.[11] It is a sequence of images that show a journey from here to there. The man in the video is undertaking this journey, a sort of “becoming” between life and death: from living to dying, and from dying to living. In this process of “becoming”, life and death provide us with more revelations and enlightenment. There is no need to look for the real story behind David's Paradise, because the images merely show drifting signifiers, which may even form intertextual networks of meaning that are secretly bound up with the symbols of global business or commercials. More important is the fact that the image montage in the previous two works of David Project is replaced dialectically by the shifting of the field of vision, the continuous horizontal movement to scan the space in David’s Paradise.

This is walking internalized in the “image-eye”, a walking eye, that is to say, an “eye-image” that is moving. Out of this is born an “automatic subjectivity” that combines video, the mind and the camera.[12] As Deleuze says, this subjectivity does not belong to us, since it is temporal, mental or spiritual, as well as virtual.

There is a genealogy of “walking” in contemporary art. We can also analyse David's Paradise in terms of it. From Richard Long's earth art in the late 1960s to Bill Viola's contemporary video art, numerous artists have experimented with this element. David's Paradise clearly illustrates a paradigmatic shift of body politics: (a) a performative with the shift from author to spectator; (b) the symbolic shift from the local physical body to the global virtual body; (c) the shift from defying the big Other (society or the state machinery) to making an escape, trying to break through the small Other surrounded by Trieb (small objects of obsession). In terms of these pairs of oppositions, Yuan Goang-ming's video work, for instance, lies somewhere in between, especially his Pass (1996) and Reason for Running (1998), which form an interesting contrast to David's Paradise. In other words, there is a kind of “walking” within the “spectral logic” of digital technology, a dialectic between spectator behaviour and “expanded cinema”. As Jean-Christophe Royoux points out citing the views of Serge Daney, there is a transition and dialectic between “the sequence of film images” and “the ranks of spectators walking in front of the camera”.[13] On this basis, we should ask what kind of political messages is being conveyed in David's Paradise.

Flowers: The Community of Touching

Let us focus on a small detail: the lawn dotted with small flowers at the beginning and end of David's Paradise. This recurring detail also makes us come back repeatedly to it.

Somehow, this lawn reminds me of Fra Angelico's fresco Noli Me Tangere (1440-41), especially the grass and red flowers, which echo the wounds on Christ's feet and the red marks of the marble in the Convent of San Marco where the fresco is located. Conceivably, elements like flowers, blood or gun in David Project may also carry some special meaning in Wang's narrative.

This may just be a personal association. But when it comes to the scene with the man showering, it suddenly seems to have some relevance. First, after maintaining a low frequency for some time, the subtle and rich soundtrack rises slightly at this point, resulting in an indescribable palpitation.[14] At this juncture, the male body moves into view. While the camera continues its horizontal tracking, the man stands there bathed by the light. The most stirring part is the ritual of caressing and touching himself. But the stream of water passes through without getting him wet. While it is certainly paradoxical, it also makes a point: by missing one another, it creates another possibility of touching, just like the fact that the water does not touch the body is contrasted with the wonder of the man touching himself. In other words, another kind of touching arises in the relationship that is a non-relationship, and forms a subjectivity of touching. In short, one must not touch for the sake of touching.

It is based on this argument that the association with the painting Noli Me Tangere becomes meaningful. This painting depicts the resurrected Jesus appearing with an unscarred body, refusing the touch of his disciple Mary Magdalene.[15] In his work Noli Me Tangere, Jean-Luc Nancy deconstructs Christianity's “theology of touch”.[16] In his view, it is not that Jesus is too sacred to touch, but that one should not touch his departure, that is, one should love such departure and resist the temptation of “presence”. This seems to echo the Buddhist concepts of abandoning, contented abidance or non-fixation. Based on this, Nancy advocates the community of bodies, which involves the following concepts: (a) community is “Being-With”; (b) “With” is characterized by touch; (c) the touch is characterized by proximity and distance, and proximity as distance; (d) to touch means that both proximity and distance are needed, hence the impossibility of penetration; (e) to be “in common” requires the exteriority of the body, rather than the community of spirits.[17] To Nancy, “Don't touch me” means “mutual presentation of the common absence of common substance”. The ultimate meaning of this absence is death. Citing Lacan, Nancy considers sharing as the sharing of “nothing” and “between”. The community that enables sharing suggests the opening up of a passage, while maintaining spacing (“espacement”) in between.

Of course, “spacing” is also relevant to this discussion. Two kinds of identity emerge from David's Paradise – one is the artist, and the other is the artist that lets us know about his friend's death through the exhibition – to a certain extent, he is almost a survivor, since the living are none other than survivors. While they are not two separate identities, they are not identical either. There is a “différance” between them that keeps them apart. The spectre does not merely refer to Wang's friend who has passed away, but also to him as the friend of the deceased. As he says, David's Paradise is about the “metaphors and ambiguous relations between…a living person and a ghost…”. The phantom writer of the letter in the video indicates precisely his ghostliness. My point is that David's Paradise reveals the politics of a community of spectres. Undeniably, this kind of politics originates from friendship and is extremely subtle. But by studying the nuances of the images and sound of this work, one could say it touches on the issue of the “community of being” and its aesthetic solutions explored in Taiwan since the 1990s. It also provides another possible solution to the recent debate over subjectivity and its politics. Rather than expressing this concern with subjectivity by loving oneself and being oneself, one could express it by “loving oneself as the spectre” - or “loving the spectre as oneself”.
(Abridged translation)

[1] « Tous les phénomènes de l'amitié, toutes les choses et tous les êtres qu'il faut aimer relèvent de la spectralité. « Jacques Derrida, Politiques de l'amitié, Paris, Galileé, 1994, p.320.
[2] This is the most concise definition of “simulacrum” given by Jean Baudrillard. See Simulacre et simulation, Galilée Paris, 1981, p.235.
[3] Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 1993.
[4] Term used by contemporary French film theorist Philippe Dubois.
[5] Peter Weibel, “Expanded cinema, video and virtual environments”, in Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel (eds), Future Cinema: the Cinematic Imaginary After Film, ZKM, Karlsruhe; MIT Press, Cambridge MA. 2003.
[6] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, The MIT Press, 2002, p.182.
[7] Ibid., p.314.
[8] “Spellbound Aura – the New Vision of Chinese Photography”, co-curated by Zhu Qi and Yao Jui-Chung, Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei.
[9] Correspondence with the artist, July 13, 2008.
[10] Correspondence with the artist, July 8, 2008.
[11] G. Deleuze et F. Guattari, Kafka Pour une littérature mineur, Minuit, Paris, 1975, p.40.
[12] Gilles Deleuze, L'Image-temps. Cinéma2, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris, 1985.
[13] Jean-Christophe Royoux, « cinéma d'exposition:l'espacement de la durée ».
[14] The credit goes to Fujui Wang's outstanding sound art.
[15] “Touch me not”- Noli me tangere- "for I have not yet ascended to the father. But go to my brothers, and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God." (John 20:17-18).
[16] Jean-Luc Nancy, Noli Me Tangere, Fayard, Paris, 2003.
[17] “Love and Community: A Roundtable Discussion with Jean-Luc Nancy, Avital Ronell and Wolfgang Schirmacher”, August 2001, www.egs.edu/faculty/nancy/nancy-roundtable-discussion2001.html.
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