Action-art helps artist make sense of life

Action-art helps artist make sense of life

Conceptual artist Shih Jin-hua measures the height of Taipei Artist Village building with his forearm, fingers and thumbnails. (Courtesy of Taipei Art Village)

Publication Date10/03/2008       SectionArts and Culture
By June Tsai

The Taipei Artist Village building in central Taipei is as tall as "49 forearms plus four open distances between the index and middle finger plus seven thumbnails." The distance from TAV to the entrance of the Taiwan High Speed Rail at the Taipei Railway Station is 2,294 "Size 10.5 New Balance shoe steps" long. The nearby Section 2 of Civic Boulevard is 334 "Spitting Johnnies" long--one "Spitting Johnnie" being the spitting distance of a mouthful of whisky.

Conceptual artist Shih Jin-hua used parts of his body along with various actions related to it as a measure of things and distances around him while working as an artist in residence at TAV from April 7 to July 20. The result was his solo exhibition "Living Beyond Measurement," which ran from July 18 to Aug. 31. To some, the artist\'s keeping at arm\'s length those standard units of measurement and inventing his own might be considered cute. Yet for Shih, the action-art project is more than a whim, having become a way for him to make sense of his life.

The Kaohsiung-based artist was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 17, forcing him to use insulin to control his blood glucose levels. In 1983 at the age of 20, Shih began to monitor his blood glucose levels by himself, carrying out blood tests and keeping a close watch on his diet and level of physical activity. "I have to try and know when to inject insulin so that it will work at the right time to bring down my blood glucose level as eating raises it," he said Sept. 22. The balancing act became a routine part of life.

Year in and year out, Shih took note of the blood glucose levels, recorded them as dots on a graph, connecting them into fluctuating lines on sheet after sheet of paper and finally exhibiting them as a single document. The work, not yet finished after 25 years, is given the title, "Being Level--Glucose Records."

However, the measurement series carried out at TAV is an extension of his work started as the "Manhattan Project" when he was an artist in residence with the New York-based P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Museum of Modern Art from 2003 to 2004. That residency included 23 projects, of which Shih completed 15. One plan was to measure the Brooklyn Bridge in units of his own body. The artist estimated the length of the bridge at between 700 and 800 "fully prostrating Shih" long, but in his preparations for the attempt, he was unable to perform more than 400 of the movements before suffering stomach cramps. In the end, Shih was unable to finish the project, and all the while the risk of life-threatening hypoglycemia loomed over his work.

"I felt frustrated. Monitoring, injecting--such medical control never really made me \'healthy\' as those readings only served to tell me when to do, or not do, something," Shih said. Life was reduced to dots and numbers, but death still threatened with ultrahigh or ultralow levels of blood glucose. "It has always been a mystery to me how I live to the next dot," he said.

"I began to ask: Who sets the standard? Is the medical technology reliable? I don\'t even trust myself to tell me about my own body."

For Shih, there was no getting around the sense of meaninglessness of the medical treatment. Instead, he went along with it, and eventually found that turning the daily activity into art gave him strength to live on. "The pain has to be suffered anyway. Now it makes sense in two ways--it\'s medical and aesthetic."

Shih also began collecting the medical waste from daily insulin injections. "I didn\'t mean to collect them at first. I just did it for hygiene\'s sake." The result is "Pearl Rosary," a photographic printout of used needles, test sheets, cotton balls and bottles in plastic bags, with one Ziploc bag containing one month\'s waste. "Together the bags represent the number of years I have lived. In that sense, these bags are like pearls." Shih, having collected around 200 bags to date, said the work would continue for as long as he lives.

"I try not to let the blood taken in vain, but to extract some meaning from the medical practice--it might accumulate to something in the end."

Explaining that art helps him deal with anxiety about the meaninglessness of life, Shih, a Buddhist, said his solution is "to make art and life interact with each other, and make rules according to their interaction so that life continues and art sprouts naturally, as it should."

In the work "Body Inscription," Shih records the act of prostrating himself in prayer on a set of soft mats, using a digital counter to record the number of times he prays in this way, and registering the acts in a computer spreadsheet file. The "action sculpture"--captured in digital photo printouts--was started in 2001 and is ongoing. The traces of these repeated acts are also seen in images of the worn mats. "We borrow this body from death. Before the outer form is \'recycled\' by him, I intend to make the most out of my body."

Some might wonder if the end result of his daily process--medical waste, computer printouts, hand written graphs, pens and pencil shavings--could be called a work of art. Yet for Shih, art, like this body, is but a tool. In making art, Shih works through his anxiety and reflects on how bodily life, which is destined to demise, could be lived. In pondering Shih\'s work, the viewer might also start to question the worldly rules and standards we all follow, the definition of success and the meaning of life. Thus, the artist has done his job.


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