From ‘Utopia’ to ‘I have a dream’:

‘Dream’, what a magic word!


                                                                                                                                   By  Chen Hung-Hsing


From the Chinese classic ‘Dream of the Red Chamber’ to the ‘divine dreams of revelation’ in many mystical happenings, and the talk of ‘I have a dream’ from Martin Luther King, all contain a word that encompasses the most extensive imagination. Be it the sweetest romance, the most bizarre scenario, the most horrible plots, the unconscious wildness, and the most selfless idealism, all can be embodied in the one word of ‘dream’. Isn’t it the essence of dream that shows the most and the extreme?


The first biennale hosted by Kuandu Fine Art Museum was entitled as ‘Dream’. Ten Asian artists are invited to present the differences and the similarities of contemporary ‘practitioners of dreams.’ It is not a thematic exhibition; rather, it is the combination of ten solo shows. Perhaps people will think using ‘Dream’ as the title didn’t help to clarify the theme and only shows the curator’s laziness since it’s such an easy task to put all the unrelated artists under this overarching title. It is well-understood after all that artists at all times strive to create for their dreams. We may not be able to avoid this misconception; but looking at it from a different perspective, we might see that the essence of dream is rightly a characteristic always approached by contemporary art.



From ‘Utopia’ to ‘dream’: the avant-garde of 20th century to contemporary art


Although artists of all times are ‘practitioners of dreams’, we might find out the dreams are quite different if we look back on the development of the twentieth century’s avant-garde. It is better defined as ‘Utopia’ instead of ‘dream’, which resembles the one fancied and described by Sir Thomas More, an ideal land that doesn’t exist at all.


A ‘Utopia’ is a grandiose social ideal, putting emphasis on the collective rather than the individual. The twentieth century’s art development was progressing more or less on the ideal of Utopia, and its formal embodiment is ‘revolution’. From the revolution of art forms to the revolution of the whole society (the Italian futurists as an example), artists organize associations, publish manifestos, make their decisions clear to the world that they are determined to change the world with their art. This demonstrates the Utopian spirit, showing a little innocence, a little ignorance, many ideals, and endless courage, to continue work without being thwarted by frustration. The story of this artistic Utopia is beautiful, because it fails always. Art cannot change the world. Rather, it is the world that changes art. When contemporary artists finally recognize this, the Utopia disappears. It turns to dream.


‘Dream’ is personal, private, whimsical, and beyond restraint. Neither does it carry the heavy burden of idealism, nor does it take the social responsibilities. It can be light or heavy; it can be mystic or nonsense. This is the character that contemporary art owns: no schools, no ‘manifestos’, and no revolutions. Since it is impossible to change the world with art, artists can only participate in the world with their utmost through the artistic institutions. The conception differs from the avant-garde of the twentieth century. Most of the time the avant-garde in fact stands against the artistic institutions; and artists choose to walk out from there to enter into the social realm of communities or the nature. But history shows us that eventually those avant-garde works are collected by the artistic institutions and the documents are exhibited on the walls of museums. Artists then come to the opening of their retrospective exhibitions holding a cane if they are still alive. Due to this recognition, the contemporary artists turn to more practical routes and coexist with the art institution. Thus the dream to be protected by institutions is secure, without any risk, and can be nonsense and whimsical.


What is the commonality of dream and Utopia? The answer is when Utopia comes to realize, it will turn to a nightmare! The great idea of Utopia aspired by twentieth century’s leftist artists was Communism. However, the historical realization of Communism demonstrates to be a big nightmare. Fortunately the artistic Utopia has never been realized. Otherwise according to the Futurist manifesto, a roaring car will be more beautiful than the The Winged Victory of Samothrace in Louvre, and war is the only way of hygiene in the world. All the libraries and museums have to be destroyed. This Utopia is a nightmare too. Better to be dream instead of realization, because the bad dreams will disappear once you wake up. This is also another characteristic of contemporary art: not for everlasting, but for once upon a time.



The Status of Shi Jin-Hua in Taiwan Contemporary Art


        From Utopia to dream is a process of twentieth century’s avant-garde evolved into the contemporary art in the west. The process of modern art evolved into the contemporary in Taiwan seems similar. But in fact while western artists were pursuing the Utopian ideals vehemently, Taiwan students going abroad were picking up the revolutionary appearance rather than the reasons and spirit. Owing to this, the modern art in Taiwan had followed up the western trend in forms with the hardship of fighting alone without reasons. It is until the waking up of western Utopia, the artistic paradigm was changed, and the colonial and west-centric point of view was examined, that oriental art had a chance to emerge. Without Utopia, upon the foundation of dream, everything is equal. The eastern dreams become exotic themes.


Shi Jin-Hua was born in the time between the disillusion of western art utopia and the emergence of dreams of contemporary art. Thus he is an artist who exists between the two times and owns the two different characteristics: one is the heroic mood from the Utopian ideal; another is the whimsicality from the dream time.


Making Shi Jin-Hua’s work as the coordinates and searching upward and downward, we can find Hsieh De-Ching and Tsui Kuang-Yu to be the representatives of Utopia and dream time. To apply a popular culture’s comparison, the three of them resembles the three Kung-fu movie stars of the heroic, clownish, and freaky times: Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Steven Chou, respectively.


In early days, Bruce Lee was always the secondary role and followed behind ‘the Green Hornet’ in the series movies; didn’t have the chances to build his own stage in the U.S. It is until he returned to Hong Kong and became Lee Hsiao-Lung then he fought out a role for himself and the Chinese prestige in the international cinema.   He is the hero of all Chinese. He fought the foreign flunkies to shit and moved the audience to tears. When his foes struck his face aside, he turned around, with a blood trace at the end of mouth, still composed, struck back even more violently. With his blows, he fought out the humiliation and pent-up emotions, consolidated the Chinese national consciousness. This is the first summit of Kungfu movies, and a heroic one unable to surmount!


Hero has to resign after all. Who is going to be the next? Since the hero is impossible to surmount, comes the clown. Jackie Chan came to stage doesn’t because he is a brave hero, but a clownish hero who will cry out when hit by the opponent or the opponent was hit by him, making his hands ache. He is more closer to us, a hero of the ordinaries who will cry, get naughty and make fun. Although clownish, he is still a hero. Jackie Chan owns the righteousness and braveness that shown in the hero of Kung-fu movies. But he also is a hilarious actor making a lot of fun for audience.


Steven Chou differs from the above two. Kung-fu movies have evolved into the one that has no hero and no clownish hero either, but a freaky ruffian as the main role. The description of his performance style will be skipped here, because no serious description can deliver the Kuso Style in his movies.


The contemporary development of conceptual and behavior art in Taiwan resembles this transition process from Bruce Lee (the hero) to Jackie Chan (the clownish hero) and Steven Chou (the freaky ruffian). Hsieh De-Ching is the heroic artist. After jumped off the boat and landed in the United States, he began his years of illegal stay and a series of works entitled ‘One Year’s Performance’. In the whole year (1978-1979), he locked himself in a self-made wooden cage, not reading, not writing, not listening to radios, not watching TV, and not talking to anyone. In another whole year (1980-1981), he punched a time card every one hour without halt. Also in a whole year (1981-1982), he lived outdoors, never entered under a shade. In the whole year of 1983 to 1984, he tied himself with female artist Linda Montano, using a rope of eight foot long to bound the two living together without touching each other. The series of ‘One Year Performance’ is more challenging than the practice of an ascetic monk, needing more strong will and determination. The difficulty of his heroic creation beats out all the other western behavior art and becomes an invincible summit.


Contrast to the serious extremity in Hsieh De-Ching’s work, Shi Jin Hua’s works also present a similar seriousness but sometimes added with a sense of black humor. The extension and issues of his works are broader and more open comparing to other forerunners, encompassing the bigger scope of artistic institution and the smaller scope of his body images. The forms varied too, from documents of his behavior performance to establishment of G8 Public Relations and Consultation of Art Corp., all presented with a lively style. In a word, he always conceives the concept first, then the behavior may or may not appear, but the document will be the emphasis of the works in an exhibition lastly.


In Shi Jin-Hua’s works, we can also find heroic ones. But they are different from the superman’s behavior of Hsieh De-Ching’s. Shi Jin-Hua is a hero of ordinaries who transcends himself with the chronic disease of diabetes. The illness of trouble and obstacles was made into a creative theme in his project (such as ‘Prayer beads’), or the life bounds that subconsciousness wanted testing. In ‘Manhattan Project’, he planned to stretch his body on the floor of Brooklyn Bridge and drawing the line of his body’s length to measure the bridge’s length. After repeated stretches, the counts maybe 500 times, and then the bridge’s length is 500 ‘stretched Shi Jin-Hua’. But if he becomes overtired and blood sugar lowers too much, his life might get threatened. This fate follows him all life and makes him think of the issue of life, transcend it to the momentum of art-making.


In Shi Jin Hua’s works there is also a sense of black humor besides the seriousness. The ‘Appreciator on payment II’ exhibited in Taipei Fine Art Museum in 1992 is an example. Audience who slipped a coin can see a big fat sex doll full of air stands up slowly. The doll itself is not sexy at all, rather, it is more like a dumb doll sawn and wearing a wrestling mask. If the theme is about joke, it will be dealt coldly as well (For example, the ‘Joke Project’). The ‘Wear Measurement Project’ in this exhibition is the same. Only to see his looks of wearing 77 donated clothes makes people feel fun but unable to laugh.


The reason of this perplexity might be that he always keeps serious face during his creation, or his hidden religious aura makes the audience serious. A pious Tibetan Buddhist believer, Shi Jin-Hua infuses profound symbolic meanings into his work. Unlike other believer artists directly express their piety with the religious iconography, no religious traces can be seen in his work, but the religious aura silently pervades every level. In the example of the above mentioned ‘Manhattan Project’, the way that Shi stretched his body on the floor of Brooklyn Bridge to measure its length, in fact is a way of Buddhist pilgrimage by prostrating himself along the way from Brooklyn to the ‘far shore’ of Manhattan, the Mandala in New York.


Having the heroic characteristic of the ordinaries and the contradictory mixture of sacredness and humor, Shi Jin-Hua is the best example of crossing the boundary between two paradigms of art. When it turns to exclusive dream time, things are different. With whimsicality and freakishness, the young artist Tsui Kuang-Yu has no burden from the heroic time. His creation is the best representative of kuso style.    In the work of ‘Eighteen Copper Guardians in Shao-lin Temple and Penetration’, we see on screen the artist standing sideway to the camera, a lot of objects fly to his hindbrain, including slippers, water buckets, blow-dryers, stuffed dolls, and even television. He has to guess what lands on his head with the sense of his hindbrain and speaks out the name of that object. Sometimes he guessed it, but most of the time he   said ‘I don’t know.’ Very funny! Make you laugh to choke! But this is exactly the contemporary art of Steven Chou’s style: relaxed, fun, and no pressure.



        ‘Relative Measurement’


In the first biennale of Kuandu Fine Art Museum, Shi Jin-Hua shows the documents of four works: ‘Center and Margin Project (Taiwan version)’, ‘Wearing Measurement Project’, ‘Embrace Project’, and ‘Intimate Measurement’. ‘Measurement’ is a very important concept in Shi Jin-Hua’s works. Through his own body or the derived behavior and documents, Shi Jin-Hua embodies a whole new measurement unit. He not only measured the tangible center of contemporary art, but also marked the calibrations of invisible human relations.


In ‘Center and Margin Project (Taiwan version)’, the artist compares his body image with the air map of Taiwan, corresponds the center, the north tip, the south tip, the west and the east tips. The shots of these coordinates were taken from far to near, and enlarged until it loses the focus, which insinuates the relativity between the concepts of center and margin.


‘Wearing Measurement Project’ is a work done at the residency in New York. He measured PS1 contemporary art center by slitting 77 pieces of clothes donated by PS1 staff and resident artists and sewing them into a big ‘measuring cloth’. The measurement of the perimeter of PS1 with this measuring cloth is 21. Here, the artist compared the usual measurement for architecture to the unit of human body related. He will use the same measuring cloth to measure the perimeter of Kuandu Fine Art Museum.


‘Embrace Project’ is a work from the New York residency too. Shi Jin-Hua invited 13 resident artists (including himself) to do a friendship measurement. He first embraced himself and asked someone to mark the spot on his arms that his fingers were, and write down his English name there. Then he embraced artist friends from different countries, and marked everyone’s ‘embrace depth’ and each name. The invisible friendship now can be revealed by the traces of each embrace. It also implies the scarcity of friendship that Taiwan embraces on the international stage.


        ‘Intimate Measurement’ is a work about solitude in New York. Using adhesive tape, Shi Jin-Hua picked up the dust and hair accumulated on his bed sheet for one month. They are the most intimate friends when he was overseas. This work visualizes the most intimate loneliness while alone, and shows all the nostalgia, reflection and longing for companion. It can be considered as the most poetic one in this exhibition.


Finally, either it be visible or invisible, all become documents in the exhibition of ‘Relative Measurement’, providing an opportunity for audience to savor the relativity between concept and relations.




The art creation of Shi Jin-Hua continues the spirit of avant-garde in twentieth century, but its appearances and contents have been the hybrid of different times in contemporary art. In his documents presented simple concepts which bear the abundant contents, while all the illnesses, loneliness, self-importance and a spiritual longing for transcendence in life have been infused into his works. To conclude, if we say Shi Jin-Hua is using his own life to make art, this is not a metaphor; rather, it is to be understood as what he has described in his document, simply by the meanings of the words.


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