Chen Chieh-Jen’s signature black and white videography is always accompanied by a very well-written script that brings out an underlying discussion on social problems. After the Financial Crisis and Automated Production is Chen’s recent solo exhibition held in Taipei. Through the story of his brother, Chen attempts to explore the state of our lives in the extreme capitalistic and digitalized society. He tries to elaborate on his observation of how human beings are controlled by an extensive, intrusive and powerful surveillance system, which ultimately led us into a state of Avidyā that is lacking self-reflection. Avidyā literally means irrationality, ignorance, and worry; it is the fundament of all kinds of suffering. Without anyone who can actually see the fundamental reality, the phenomenal world is trapped in Avidyā. Being in Avidyā, can human still be considered the highest form of all creatures? Do we have any other way out?
Back in the late 90s, Chen’s older brother lost his job due to the financial crisis. He got depression after the misfortunate event and eventually attempted suicide. Luckily, he was saved. A Field of Non-Field is a 61-minute video inspired by his brother’s experience. In the video, we would see a soul lingering in an imaginary realm that is between life and death, departure and return. In the meantime, the video shows a funeral with Nanguan music A Plea to Lady Chang’e playing in the background. At the front of the procession is the older brother who is lying flat inside of a casket-like box carried by a few strong men. Coming after him are altars that contain internal organs like heart, lungs, and ovary, a woman mumbling nonsense, a massive architectural model, a group of women humming folk songs, a disabled man who keeps muttering and so on. The women are repeating a line in Hakka, “Now that the name is gone, what shall we do?” as if they want to wake up the Avidyā human beings who are so in lack of a self-reflection. A strong sentiment keeps lingering; inside of an impregnable system, individuals can only reluctantly go with the flow to survive.
This is a state in-between life and death. Soon after the film A Field of Non-Field begins, the audience can hear the younger sister who never appears on the screen narrates the story. After the failed suicide attempt, her older brother discharges himself from the hospital. Hereafter, he is nowhere to be found again. Her mother calmly tells her, “Your brother simply went to somewhere even further than the West…” Towards the end of the video, the younger sister still has no news of her brother, her mother gives a different answer, “Your brother is only on his way home…” The funeral in the video never comes to an end, the usual way of proper farewell to the departed is never complete. People are moving back and forth between the afterlife and reborn. This continual movement towards an unreachable destination greatly resembles the state of Avidyā.
Living in the digital era where everything can be conveniently obtained, a lot of information has become public — our interest, our updates, our facial features, as well as our social circle can be easily seen by everyone. Our dependence on technology has turned the reality with physical existence somehow obsolete. In the next era, maybe we would forget our names, we would be lifeless yet undead objects stuck in the limbo of the Avidyā state.