Artistic Fantasy of Modern Life and Folk Belief
───── Chun-yu Chen, Xiang Ni, Zih-yan Chiou
Time: August 13, 2015
Interviewee: Chun-yu Chen, Xiang Ni, Zih-yan Chiou
Interviewers and Guests: Jow-jiun Gong, Mirr Lo, Guan-jhang Chen, Juliet Lin
Location: Frank Fang Studio
Compiled by Fei-hao Chen
Translated by Ling-chuan Wu, Li-fen Wang
Chun-yu Chen: The Thinking of Merging Daily Life with Humor
Most of my works combine the observation and imagination of life. For example, I once produced a video in which flags with candidates’ faces are all over the place during election campaign. Smiles of the candidates on the flags are stiff. As the wind blew, their faces change. To strengthen the effect of the unnatural facial twitches, I removed some frames from the recorded videos. Before my graduation, I made a blue and white singing porcelain vase telling its own story about how it wanders about and tries to trade itself. There was another device, called The Angels, which is equipped with a body weight scale and a circular fluorescent light tube. As people stand on the weight scale, the sensor triggers the indicator to move to zero right away. At the same time, the tube lights up to instantly make the person an angel or Buddha. It is quite interesting. I like to merge daily life humor into my works, and I have the same idea with this work that Xiang Ni, Zih-yan Chiou and I create together. However, this is the very first time that we work on temple religion.
There is a temple, Ling Shan Saint Tao Temple, located in Checheng, Pingtung, where my family would turn to for help as we encounter any career problems. As a consequence, we get to know the abbot of the temple so as to learn more about its history. Ling Shan Saint Tao Temple started as a small temple and was later extended with upper levels and gradually turned into the scale now. The building structure of the temple is said to be discussed and designed by both the architect and the spirit medium possessed by Ji Gong. Thus compared to a traditional Min style temple, it is much similar to the horizontal Japanese Western building. Even though Ling Shan Saint Tao Temple sits in Sihchongsi Scenic, believers and tourists seldom step into the temple. Administrative people at the temple truly hope that we can host activities or summer camps to activate the local area.
After Xiang Ni finished his exhibition, Romance of NG at Tina Keng Gallery in 2013, there were lots of large sculptures to be settled. I suggested Xiang Ni to put them on the lawn in front of my house. They had been there for almost six months, and they actually looked nicer on the lawn than they were in the gallery. One of the works was a head of a Buddha, and it happened to be noticed by the leader of the temple as he came to talk to my father. The leader thus asked me if he could house the work in Ling Shan Saint Tao Temple. Their thoughts were as simple as having many large sculptures like The Pier-2 Art Center in Kaohsiung does to attract tourists. As a result, we started to discuss the combination of contemporary art and the temple so as to create a different cultural landscape.
When we were doing site survey, we looked at the painting in the temple carefully and discovered several problems. For example, what should be a powerful tiger was painted as a weak cat. It perfectly reveals the modern problems this temple has, which make it a postmodern collage. As for the building itself, the temple was constructed with reinforced concrete—a common material in Taiwan that enables a construction to be built in the fastest way with the lowest price. This building is strong enough to withstand both typhoons and earthquakes but all traditional construction methods are given up. Furthermore, many stone carvings were imported from China as the cost and time were the primary concerns, and you can imagine there is little artistry in them. In fact, the connection between temples in Taiwan and those in China is always very strong that if a temple has concluded to be a brother temple of a certain temple in China or has been in touch, the two temples are bound to share resources. However, things imported from China or the craftsmanship is not the best. Some stone carvings are not even finished, but since people cannot see the unfinished part, they just leave them that way. It shows the difference in craftsmanship between Taiwan and China.
Another project run by Xiang Ni, Po-hau Tseng, Yu-hsien Su, Zue-ya Chen and me is a band named “Sexy Little Young Pig.” Our goal is to become the worst yet the best band in the independent music market. To be “awesome” means not to play music like easy punk that can be copied by a random band. Such copy-and-paste music type is actually easy. We want to present a band that is seemingly “bad” but it is so “bad” that it cannot be copied, which makes it “awesome.” The band’s music was on the edge of being trash, and it is exactly so that we are in a strange position. There seems to be a connection between our performances and the “natural condition” of life, and some may even consider this connection avant-garde. At first we wanted to make MVs only, but later we thought performances might provide us with chances to better skills. Unexpectedly, it turns out that performances can also justify all the harassment (our latest motif) and lameness.
Xiang Ni: A Religion Playground for the Crowd
My works are usually based on collected ready-made objects. I put them in different venues like exhibition spaces in schools, art museums, commercial galleries or alternative spaces, and then I bring them back to where they are found. In such a way, they are taken to the starting point after experiencing numerous transitions in interpretation. Or the objects of my work may become a collector’s collection (though the chance is slim) when they are exhibited in a commercial gallery, because they are more than natural to consider them as art creations when they are displayed in an art museum. What a piece of work may go through can be beyond the expectation of the creator. And because of me being a creator, the objects are given other interpretations by the society. This can be seen as a stroke of luck given by the Buddha in some ways.
To tell the truth, I care a lot about “rationality.” Everything has to have a simple or instinctive logic. Take the statue of Venus for example, if the arms of the statue are cut, shouldn’t the statue bleed? Or shouldn’t there be a money tree in a wishing well? I remember one time when I was chatting with my friend at Fo Guang Shan Monastery about why the statues of Buddha were made in such a large size. We figured that it revealed how wealthy the monastery was on the one hand. On the other hand, I thought the main reason was that they could not design interesting Buddha statues, because they lacked imagination. Therefore, making large statues could make this up in order to cater to the taste of the public. My friend and I had some rather fun imagination about Buddha statues. We thought it would be fun to put an extremely large statue of Buddha or any other god to be surrounded by 108 donation boxes in the future. As believers toss coins, different notes will be made, and the believers thus become VJs who can make music by throwing money. When the donation reaches ten thousand dollars, there will be a “Boom!” sound, and a set of floodlight will light up. Once the amount of donation goes over one hundred thousand dollars, the statue will nod its head and the background music will be played with the floodlight shooting out. On the contrary, if the donation is not sufficient, red lights will shoot out from the eyes of the statue as if the statue stared at the monks and nuns in the temple to warn them to work harder or it can even shake its head to show disapproval. Though it may seem ridiculous, I think folk belief in Taiwan has to have such attempts in the future. The techniques mentioned above are quite mature now. Such large machines were used in the temple fair of Beigang. In short, it is not about technical problems but the willingness to try.
As an art creator, I have always felt that if there is anything I can give back to local belief, it will be creativity and imagination. If we turn to the temples in Japan, they have their own fee collection systems and the way they collect money and the atmosphere temples create are different from that in Taiwan. How western churches collect money from tourists is also different. Madou Temple is a place that inspires me to think about creativity in folk belief. In my opinion, it is such a bargain that you can experience virtual heaven and hell with as cheap as forty dollars. They are delicately designed places and the construction expenses must be high. However, perhaps due to the cost of maintenance, many devices do not function. I can still recall when I was a kid, I saw a knife stab into the stomach of robotic statues of the guilty ones, and the blood spouted.
I think religion and entertainment can be connected to each other in many ways. Take the concept of the large Buddha statue that I previously mentioned for example, since it is an interactive device, it is normal that people toss money for fun, any amount of money is fine. No one would ask you to donate ten thousand dollars or keep tossing money to make the device move. If the believers want to see the red light shooting out from the eyes of the statue or hear the sound effect, they can toss a hundred coins, or they can do anything just to watch it nod or rock. For me, this is the way religion should be. It should be awe-inspiring as well as entertaining. And it should be something that seems to be easily seen through yet still remains mysterious. It should be like the animated figures of Eighteenth Hell in Madou Temple. Or it could be like what you see in the temple fair of Beigang—a bunch of young boys and girls dressed up like small fairies to spread candies; or in other temple events you would see a group of pole dancers resembling the sinners strung into kabobs in the eighteenth hell.
When we see the phenomenon and think about religious and modern beliefs, we come up with the idea of “religious amusement parks”, and we wonder how it should be established. If there is a place where artists are allowed to realize the idea, will it be the first site of such inspiration? That is when we think about giving it a try and mixing our artistic creation with temples. The reason why we wanted to make a wishing well at Ling Shan Saint Tao Temple was because there were several houseleeks in the pond of the temple, and it would be suitable to make a wishing well. What we did was to add eight money trees with eight toys attached to each of the money tree. The eight toys respectively represent “Right Time,” “Right Place,” “Right People,” “Wealth,” “Health,” “Love,” “Career” and “Family.” With the concept that the believers could toss money and make a wish at the pond, we intentionally made the money trees unsteady so that whenever you throw coins at them, they would swing and emit a pleasant clang. Meanwhile, it interacts with the believers. Next to the wishing well, Zih-yan Chiou made a miniature temple with an inlaid copper illustration sign luring people to give the money trees a try. This is actually fun and I cannot stop tossing money for the visual effect. Such a device can interact with people on a regular basis.
Another interesting project is to launch community painting in Da Lin Pu. We wanted to draw a fresco with stories that relate to the local community, so we started to visit places and people in order to visualize their stories. I have discussed with Guan Zhang Chen that many ancient temples lack the history of the Japanese period, and I am trying to fill this blank space. Many temples in Taiwan were built in the Qing Dynasty or earlier. Perhaps it was for the “gods belong to heavens (眾神歸天)” policy during the Japanese Rule Period that many temples of folk beliefs were cut down or merged so that local temple histories started from the Qing Dynasty and straightly followed by that of the Republic of China. For example, in Da Lin Pu during the Japanese Rule Period, the most efficacious local temple, Chi Wang Ye Wang Gong Temple was suppressed by the government. During our interview, we encountered the owner of a fish farm. His great grandmother once kept the statue of Chi Wang Ye away from being destroyed. As Japanization took place, the government collected and destroyed statues of local gods in Taiwan. The woman hid the statue in piles of rice straw during day time and kept it in a vegetable closet at night. It was said that when Chi Wang Ye was invited to return to the temple, it turned into a big bat and flew around her house. It was until then that we gradually understood that if we wanted to learn more about the life of the locals, we had to know more about the temples, because most of the elders would gather there, even children would turn to the temple leader to burn joss paper without any particular reason (perhaps it is because I have not found out their reasons yet). From history to daily life, everything is closely connected to the temple.
Zih-yan Chiou: The Mixing Culture Hidden in the Folk and Folk Belief
All of my creation projects done in the past two years have been related to folk beliefs in Taiwan. For example, there is one traditional custom named “Chien Shui Chuang” in Chinhu (the Kouhu township), Yunlin County. The story began on June 6 one hundred and seventy years ago when fierce waves struck the western coastal part of Taiwan and claimed two thousand lives in Chinhu alone. The plague that followed caused more deaths. In total, the two disasters killed more than ten thousand people. In order to comfort these suffering souls as well as ancestors, those having survived held activities like Chien Shui Chuang dharma assembly on June 8 by lunar calendar. This ceremony equals to the new-year event in Chinhu, and it further turns into a local religious occasion.
There is a Bao Gong Temple that sits in Shihhu near Chinhu. The scale of the temple is quite magnificent. The story behind the temple is that in the Qing Dynasty, a sign written with Bao Gong’s name drifted from China to Chinhu. It was believed to be destined, so people built a temple here and the worship of Bao Gong was localized. What interests me most about folk belief is that it has never been conquered or weakened with political alternations starting from the Qing Dynasty to the Japanese Rule Period and then to the government now. It is especially alive in remote areas. There is another case that in the sixteenth century, the Japanese attacked and occupied Checheng, Pingtung, where they were confronted with the aboriginal people and it became the final resting place of many. After I learned about it, I wanted to build a house emitting the sound of wind shear which resembles the weird sound when a typhoon blows through a house and resonates with it. I am sensitive to the sound, so I wanted to use it and build a shrine-like Japanese house mostly used to worship dead soldiers. In fact, I have always wondered if we can find a way to talk about Taiwan without directly mentioning its colonization.
What interests me more is a state of differences referring to co-existence of minor differences with a majority of similarities rather than a stark discrepancy between the two. It has something to do with my creation. Whenever I think about what “Taiwan” really is, I will ponder from a wide range of perspectives and also review its colonization process. Unexpectedly, I found the precise answer from the evolution of a small object. I do carpentry myself and to plane is a difficult technique. When I learned the technique, I wondered whether the technique used in Taiwan had been influenced by the Chinese or the Japanese colonizers. At last, I realized that the answer was both. In China, carpenters construct large buildings such as palaces. When they plane, they tend to push their tools away from themselves. That is why the tools are shaped into a bull’s horns for both hands to hold easily. In Japan, carpenters are fond of making small closets or delicate crafts. When they plane, they sit on the floor and place materials between their feet and tend to draw their tools back towards themselves. Their working space is thus restricted to wherever their feet and body can reach. In Taiwan, the tool is a mix of both styles which has a handle installed on a Japanese planer tool.
Those who do carpentry would say that these tools are what they are now because of the colonization of Japan without mentioning the influences from China. Nevertheless, the planer tool is originally invented by Ban Lu from China. After it was adopted by the Japanese and after the West exerted its influence in Japan, the planer tool was added with the pressure bar. It seems a bit complicated, but overall there is not a pure Chinese or Japanese technique when it comes to Taiwanese carpentry. It is the mix of both. For me, it shows that we cannot deny the strong influence brought by the colonization of Japan, but we should also take the Chinese blood we have into consideration rather than arguing if we have really been through the period or if we want this part of history or not. We should look at the current status of Taiwan, and learn to see that the modern Taiwan consists of numerous cultures mixed under the Nationalist government’s rule after it came to Taiwan.