Next week, Taiwan will return to one of the world's major contemporary art exhibitions, the Sao Paulo Biennial, for the first time in more than 30 years.
Taiwan will be represented by a series of photographs by Chang Chien-chi (
The work of only one artist will be sent because the Sao Paulo format calls for national pavilions to feature only one representative artist. This year's show will include 70 such "National Representations."
Alfson Hug, curator of the Sao Paulo Biennial, reportedly became aware of Chang's work at last year's Venice Biennial. Chang was one of five Taiwan artists in the Taiwan pavilion at that exhibition.
Chang's series of 38 prints, entitled The Chain, portrays Lungfatang inmates in their unique situation of being chained in pairs, with patients suffering from less severe disabilities attached to more retarded counterparts. The asylum's intention is that the abler inmates care and tend for those who are mentally incapable of fully caring for themselves.
Chang produced the series over seven years, beginning in 1993 and completing it in 2000. During that time he became intimate with the Lungfatang and its members, with each of his visits to the asylum lasting between one and two weeks.
His exactingly produced black-and-white images, however isolate the subjects from their context. In the pictures, each man -- and all are men -- appears wearing a simple uniform, head shaved and chained around the waist. Some men are shown alone, with chains leading off the edge of the frame, while others are shown in twos or threes.
Throughout the series, the relative scale of the subjects is consistent, and none of the photographs show more in the way of background than a gray floor leading back into a shadowed distance. The series achieves much of its effect through the startling redundancy of its nearly identical and unnerving images.
Though Chang is now achieving widespread recognition as an artist, he still identifies himself as a photojournalist. He continues to produce photographs for both museum shows and major international magazines (his resume includes National Geographic, among others). He is also part of the elite photographers' collective, Magnum.
Kao Chien-hui (高千惠), a Seattle-based art critic and curator, however believes that The Chain signals Chang's transcending of photojournalism for something more universal.
Serving as curator of Taiwan's pavilion in the 2001 Venice Biennial, Kao selected an abridged version of The Chain as one of five pieces to be shown at the contemporary art world's top event. (The Chain has also been shown twice at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and will be published in Europe as a book later this year.)
"I don't know if people from other countries can read it or not," said Kao. "With Lungfatang, [Chang] put the people on stage. It's more dramatic and moves away from photojournalism, because there's no background there. It does present social issues and social concerns, but not directly. After he removed the background, he lost the social context."
In addition to the 70 National Representations, the Sao Paulo Biennial will include four other sections: Brazilian Nucleus, Net Art, a Special Project Room and 11 Metropolises, which features artists from eleven cities around the world. This year marks the 25th holding of the event, which begins on March 23 and runs through June 2.