Returning after the success of his Hong Kong début in 2015, Chi Chien’s 《齊簡》 latest conceptual show Past Continuous | 後花園 [過去進行式] illustrates his ongoing exploration of dualities in multiple dimensions. The artist plays with the malleability in translation, time and the ambiguous relationship between past and present, fact and fiction and the constant oscillation between, what he refers to as, “real and symbolic” chronologies.
Drawing inspiration from the gallery location, housed within a listed historical building which stood witness to the Second World War, the artist selected a single event - the air raid by Japanese forces on Hong Kong on the morning of 8 December 1941 – to become the thematic inspiration for this show.
Here, concepts of history, the past and post- (as in post-modern or post-war) are reconsidered through their translations between Chinese and English. While in English, ‘past’, as deployed in the exhibition’s title, indicates a time before the present or predating the future, its Chinese character counterpart《後》[hoù] could also mean ‘after’ or ‘back’, giving the temporal word a spatial connotation where it may relate to a sense of privacy or concealment as in one’s ‘back’ garden《後花園》.
Almost imperceptible in the artist’s exhibitionary ‘garden’, a small flag is placed on the wall. A warning, a notice, a spatial marker or declaration, the hand-stitched ensign is less than two centimetres wide, but is, nonetheless, setting the tone in Chi’s interconnected series of works. Cut from a ready-made floral fabric, it primes the rest of the space for his material and temporal investigation. Just a few paces away, hangs To Paint, a painting swathed in the same blooming arrangements. Based on an archival photograph of the air raid, the piece depicts a brigade of warplanes flying over Kai Tak airport, but instead of dropping their bombs upon houses and civilians, the ground is filled with flowers both from the underlying textile and painted ones. It is evident that gardens and their intimate symbolisms are at the forefront of Chi’s practice. Though quite literally being the ‘back’ground, his use of ready-made floral fabric, paradoxically, becomes his subject; any added features – those pulled from history – merely serve as the base of his personal recreations. This comes with layered implications: Chi’s printed fabric is not only his medium, his canvas, but also serves as the landscape through which time and dimension are explored, the boundary that signifies private space, and provides a definitive nod to femininity and domesticity.
The exhibition continues with a multimedia installation titled 1941 Eternal Recurrence. A black circular metal plate is hung on the wall with a missing quadrant at the plate’s 9 o’clock position, just after the attack took place. The gap has been replaced by a digital clock that displays the present Hong Kong time, highlighting the artist’s regard for disjointed chronemics and time’s perpetual progression. This is conceptually paired with the kinetic installation in the centre of the exhibit. A small model plane flies in circles above a cylindrical base onto which is positioned what appears to be the missing quadrant from the wall installation, with cut out holes of a toy plane hinting to the one flying above it. This is accompanied by low humming sounds of flying planes as extracted from a WWII documentary. A recurrent element in his work, Chi’s airplanes not only denote the passage of time, as the artist explains, but are also a formidable, tangible presence in the garden, in this private, ‘back’space.
Moving further through the exhibition, a series of toy Monopoly-like houses are positioned on the windowsill. A physical manifestation of those missing from To Paint – where rows of houses would make more thematic sense than clusters of flowers – the transposed objects serve as silent, yet persisting symbols of war and its domestic disruptions. Moreover, they stand as reminders of history’s integration into the present, a moment where found objects, fabric, paintings, historical events and the building that witnessed them are all consolidated parts of the artist’s same equivocal oeuvre.
Chi’s multimedia work is both delicate and bold, disallowing him from being locked into a single style or artistic expression. This means, too, that his work is theoretically and substantively ambiguous. On the adjacent windowsill, lies a black iron plate with an etching of the reference photograph. And while the medium deceptively hints at permanence, its surface durable and strong, the artist has chosen to use an erodible metal, demonstrating the image’s, and therefore history’s, inevitable rust and degeneration.
However, this deterioration is a transient one, as each work interconnects and combines what, according to him, are “pauses in the passage of time”. These fragmented pauses are unified into a cohesive whole by a lone lightbulb that blinks on and off next to the metal plate as if it were breathing. This is the breath that keeps the exhibition alive, that prolongs each of Chi’s images, his allusions, their histories and the multiplicitous interpretations they imply.
The journey through Chi’s animated time capsule ends with the painted silhouette of Winston Churchill staring toward the horizon. Set against a simple, press dyed backdrop with selected floral elements of the fabric peeking through, we see the politician watching as a low-flying, single engine warplane whirs by in the distance. Whether waiting for an inevitable attack or keeping watch over Chi’s referential exhibition, the cloaked Prime Minister reminds viewers that the past is inevitably continuous.
Chi Chien was born in 1974 in Taipei, Taiwan where he lives and works. A post-graduate in Fine Arts from the National Taiwan University of Arts (Taipei), he is recognised for his conceptual approach and meticulous execution through various awards including the National First Prize in Mixed Media (2012), Art Taipei’s “Judge’s Prize” (2015) and the “First Prize” at the Kaohsiung Awards (2015). His works are held in institutional collections including the “Art Bank” by the Ministry of Culture, Taiwan (2013, 2015) and the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts (2013).