Taiwanese artist Yin-ju Chen often places herself in a position both perilous and challenging: by means of an approach based on mysticism, she deduces and infers narrative relations between mankind and the universe. Upon being asked whether she does or does not believe in these matters, she always nods confidently. As a result, her works present two coexisting attributes—on the one hand, she strives to enlarge her field of understanding through much reading and researching, and by interviewing people working in fields of knowledge unfamiliar to her, ranging from astronomy to psychedelics; but on the other hand, the information conveyed by her works resembles her own answer, in that it expresses absolute certainty—as if she were reporting this information on behalf of astrologists or psychics in the name of art. She makes the viewers unable to sort out truth from fiction, and thereby undermines their resolve.
Chen’s 2012 work One Universe, One God, One Nation, which is based on an analysis of Chang Kai-Shek’s astrological horoscope, was her first experimentation with unscientific methods. She claimed to have been inspired by the 1989 documentary For All Mankind, about the Apollo missions of NASA. This three-channel video installation opens on a prologue featuring an image of Pluto, which was discovered in 1930, due to the fact that this planet is considered by astrologists to possess a double essence of “destruction” and “regeneration.” These characteristics correspond to the state of upheaval of the Second World War, and make Pluto stand within this work as a symbol of the inescapable cycles of history. In the two other videos, against the backdrop of a starry sky, Chen explains in writing how heavenly bodies influenced Chang Kai-Shek’s life, while displaying images of the foundation of the Republic of China, of the Second World War, and of Taiwanese people crowding together in public mourning at Chang’s death—as if his leadership had been a God-given attribute.
By using mysticism in her attempts at identifying history, Chen might easily be led to a form of gloomy fatalism, or else she might lead the public to dismiss these attempts with a laugh. The reason her works are worthy of examination is that they make use of unscientific theories to analyze concrete evidence, or concepts debated within systems of intellectual enquiry. One Universe, One God, One Nation, for instance, discards the existing discourse on the topic of a factual historical figure and certain events, and through astrology, blurs the origins of totalitarianism and of the collective consciousness. If the universe doesn’t decide the fate of mankind, what does? When reading Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition (1958), Chen discovered that the human interest in the universe (the first artificial satellite was launched in 1957) might be understood as “the craving to escape from the earth.” Her work queries: is mankind’s creation of gods, too, a form of escape? What relation is there between a divinized leader and the exploration of outer space? In this regard, Chen’s interest in mysticism doesn’t denote a faith in alternative worldviews, but rather points at the possibilities that exist at several levels of the collective consciousness.
Since 2013, Chen’s series of projects have been investigating unscientific creation techniques from multiple angles. The materials that make up her multimedia installation As Above, So Below (2013－2014) are based on the alchemist, astrologist and doctor Paracelsus’s theory of the union of the body and the universe. For example, she uses an image of the tree of life to depict the corresponding relation between the sun, the moon, metal, wood, water, fire, water and earth, on the one hand, and the human body and the universe, on the other hand. The video part of this work features footage from her own stay in the hospital, mixed with a black-and-white documentary of a brain dissection, images of celestial bodies, and an animation of a virus eating away at the inside of an organism. This method avoids the abrupt references to political history that are found in One Universe, One God, One Nation to provide the spectator, in a roundabout way, with the impression of a microscopic universe. In Liquidation Maps (2014), representative of the next phase of her work, she used charcoal lines to draw the star charts and mandalas of five political massacres or liquidations that took place in the recent history of Asia, to push her method of the “third eye” to the extreme. As for the third work of this series, Action at a Distance (2015), it makes use of the theory of quantum entanglement to connect the bodily and political elements touched upon in the previous works. To provide an overall picture of this rather coherent technique of Chen’s, we could say that it forms a web in which the universe, national politics, governmental disciplining of people (through medicine, for instance), the human body, and quantum physics are mutually connected and form a multitude of overlapping layers.
The relation between a macroscopic and a microscopic vision in the works of Chen’s described above has often been understood as a metaphor of the disciplining action of power structures on the body, and therefore, these works have been filed under the category of art aiming at carrying out “memory engineering” in regard to integrated historical archives. Taking mysticism as a departure point to discuss this sort of connection is meaningful. Mysticism, conspiracy theories, and dystopias are all based on the same frame of mind—they aim at revealing invisible controlling forces, and the secret meanings of people’s actions. Besides having been used by reactionaries or fascists, the framework of mysticism also presents evocative functions within theories critical of modernism or of power discourses. (1) However, on the technical level, Chen certainly does not engage in an archaeology of mysticism, she rather uses fragmented information in order to deduce and represent certain invisible matters anew—be it power consciousness, or mysticism itself. In this case, the performative tools (the medium of the work) and materials (the origin of the work), as well as the deductive process and the spectators’ emotional response on the spot, are crucial.
Before she started seriously exploring mysticism as an approach, Chen produced a collaborative work together with James T. Hong that signaled her potential preference for pursuing alternative forms of logic, as well as her lasting interest in extreme ideas: The Turner Archives (2011). This work features a reproduction of the office of Earl Turner, the racist character from the novel The Turner Diaries (1978), including war plans and other minute and detailed items. The videos on display simultaneously re-examine such themes as those of the Ku Klux Klan, American immigration, or the US-Mexico border through Turner’s perspective, thus recreating the mental world and daily life of white supremacists during the rise of pluralism at the end of the 1970s. In the same way that making use of mysticism is not devoid of risks, the investigation and condemnation of racism in The Turner Archives is not carried out from a spectator’s point of view—on the contrary, the artist adopts a racist way of thinking, and makes the public participate in this frightening thought experiment, in order to break free from the shackles of stereotypical mindsets.
When entering a place suffused with the atmosphere of Chen’s ethical challenges, it is hard to escape the feeling that she is deliberately employing a sensationalist brand of mysticism to satirize mankind’s utilitarian rationality, or contemporaneity. Nonetheless, her continuous search for new materials and the confirmations she repeatedly seeks from contradictory elements infuse her works with elements of instability, and with the space for sustained inquiry. For instance, her most recent project Extrastellar Evaluations (2016) nominally aims at examining the proofs of the existence of the ancient extraterrestrial civilization of Lemuria—more ancient than Atlantis itself—from the angle of 1960s and 70s minimalism (coincidentally, the research phase of this project overlapped with that of The Turner Archives); nevertheless, from the geometric charts that Chen created for this work, one may notice that at the time when mysticism was at its peak with the New Age movement of the 1970s, experiments in outer space, the advent of revolutionary new technologies, as well as democratic and violent power struggles all concurred with the new trends of earthworks and minimalism. If we go one step further in bringing together Extrastellar Evaluations and The Turner Archives, the fact that such apparently antithetical components as those of science and irrationality thrived simultaneously might be the key to understanding human consciousness, and to unearthing free will. Chen’s works, the emphasis she lays on the mystical approach outshines her pursuit of the transcendent thing in itself. This shows that under the guise of mystical deductions, her art strives to imagine and reorganize the invisible links that exist between the consciousness aroused by mysticism, and history—not to reveal any explicit and invisible matter in particular.
(Translated by Dorian Cave)
1. Marco Pasi, “The Modernity of Occultism: Reflections on Some Crucial Aspects”, Wouter J Hanegraaff and Joyce Pijnenburg, Hermes in the Academy: Ten Years’ Study of Western Esotericism at the University of Amsterdam. Amsterdam University Press, 2009.