Chien-Chi Chang’s Powerful Photographs of Imprisoned Psychiatric Patients, This Week at Frieze

May 3, 2016 11:29PM

Taiwanese photographer Chien-Chi Chang has distinguished himself with his documentary projects, which often unfold over multiple years while bringing the photographer into intimate contact with his various subjects. Though diverse in focus—from the defection of North Koreans to the purchased marriages between Vietnamese immigrants and Taiwanese men—each project examines the psychology of individuals caught in the binds of oppressive societal forces. This week at Frieze New York, Chi-Wen Gallery in Taiwan presents images from Chang’s striking series “The Chain.”

The series was made between 1993 and 1999 at Long Fa Tang Temple, a psychiatric hospital run by Buddhist monks in Taiwan. The hospital administered a seemingly barbaric treatment to its charges: Pairs of patients were chained together—what the practitioners called a “Chain of Feeling”—then forced to tend to chickens on a large farm.

Chang’s series takes a systematic approach to depicting the patients. Each is photographed against a roughly identical background—a seemingly neutral viewpoint that alludes to the rigid, dehumanizing logic that allowed such individuals to become trapped in such a twisted practice. However, in contrast to this objective style of photography, Chang’s portraits captured an array of haunting expressions, as the patients were briefly returned a small bit of the agency taken from them.

Many of the images see frustration or anger. The pair of patients in The Chain No. 10 (1993–1999) stand on opposite sides of the frame, their expressions bristling with anger. And though the pair in The Chain No. 45 (1993–1999) stand somewhat closer together, the patient on the right stares with distinct animosity.

Other images display moments of happiness and joy, as in The Chain No. 43 (1993–1999), in which one patient is caught in a bout of laughter, or The Chain No. 24 (1993-1999), which shows two men standing proud, the left man grinning broadly. In one of the most powerful images, The Chain No. 20 (1993-1999), two men stand closely together, grasping their hands in a fleeting expression of the strong emotional bond forged in their bizarre treatment.

Rather than endorsing the hospital’s methods, the photographs serve as a reminder of the patients’ resiliency and the ability, however difficult, to persist under even these dire circumstances.

—A. Wagner

Chien-Chi Chang: The Chain” is on view at Chi-Wen Gallery, Frieze New York, May 5–8, 2016.

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