Sun, Jul 11, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Ephemeral feminine fibers of Chen Shu-yen

At Tainan's Tsung-ye Artists' Village, the artist has created fiber works of wondrous organic delicacy

By Joan Stanley-Baker  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Chen Shu-yen's Heart Room Teepee Installation.

PHOTO: JOAN STANLEY-BAKER

When high art visits lowly places, something wonderful happens all around.

At the regional artists village transformed from the abandoned Tsung-ye Sugar Factory Park in central Tainan, a memorable exhibition is taking place free of charge. Hanging from various timbers and walls of the former director's residence now turned into an unassuming "art gallery," are objects of incredible beauty that take one's breath away. Indeed one dare not breathe near them for fear of breaking the gossamer visions, causing movement to disrupt our focus.

The highest examples of high art, in the end, often behave like nature -- being free of mechanical imprints, of lifelessness or rigidity like straight edges or flat surfaces, these works, in the words Chinese ancients used to bestow on the most admired painters, are "as if made in heaven by Nature herself."

This is applicable to the fiber works of Chen Shu-yen (陳淑燕) who mounted her solo exhibition not in a posh gallery but out in the woods, as it were, as part of the century-old Japanese dwelling, a setting that satisfies her taste for tactile experiences, even in building materials.

Here is where the Tainan County Government, through its Culture Bureau, shares in the national movement toward cultural interaction, where the state plays match-maker in bringing arts and artists to the people.

This venue is where countless neighboring folk gather in the wee hours of the morning for their fitness exercises from taichi to gymnastics, from miniature golf to sword-dancing. People have free access to the shows that occasionally grace this once-handsome Japanese residence.

Even though Chen has been invited to participate in a globe-circulating exhibition of fiber art organized in America where she will show some of the pieces now in Tainan, she retains a strong feeling for the rural, nostalgic and emotive setting of the Tsung-ye Park, and a desire to interact with real community members. So she chose this house without security in which to share the filmy, tenuous, delicate creatures that have been spun from the depths of her feminine consciousness and quiet exploration of complex inner sensibilities that rarely receive recognition in this patriarchal society.

Typically feminine, Chen said this residence has the feel of a "home," with its different-sized, varied-function spaces. So she installed the rooms relating to her own body. In a central but small space she strung her Heart, a huge spiral teepee near which we faintly hear sounds of heart beat, and fingers tapping on various fibers Chen created. Her main ally here is the camphor tree, ubiquitous during Japanese occupation for vermifuge as closets, boxes for valuable documents and scroll paintings. Camphor bark is dissolved into pulp, and Chen draws fibers from it to reassemble into new patterns, and she spins long bark threads to stitch up the pulp-pressed pieces forming pod- and moth-like forms, each with its assortment of tentacles, tendrils and crocheted flange-skirt, creating exquisite wind-blown shadows on the walls.

In a pulp state the fibers are malleable and will embrace extraneous ingredients such as flower petals and grasses and then to congeal together into organic layers.

The exhibition space breathes with a gentle, living aura enhanced by lighting with incandescent bulbs sheathed in paper or other fibers and giving off a warm, diffuse glow to objects and spaces around them. Even with artificial fibres like white plastic ribbons, she has made a tactile corridor of flowing white, touch-me forest.

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