Issue 14 : Spring 2008






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Chen Chews: Musings on Cultural Indigestion

by Sylvia Schedelbauer

13 Mar 2008

bored of boredom

Yin-Ju Chen is a Taiwanese video artist, who has lived and worked in San Francisco for over six years. Since her arrival, her work has continued to evolve through a variety of artistic approaches. Her series of experimental pieces range from self-parodying video performances, through lyrical cine-poems, to political agit-prop, the latter often produced in collaboration with James T. Hong. The common denominator of all of her work is her personal experience about isolation, anxiety, and cultural alienation.

In most of the earlier video performances, the gaze is turned on herself as a subject: the “Asian” woman living in the US. Usually framed within an interior setting, they both accentuate her marginalized position in Western society as well as reference her occupational condition: working from her home studio as a free-lance artist. Not unlike early feminist performance video of the ‘70s, autobiography, relation of self to others, and questions of visual representation play a central role in her work. Chen employs stereotypes of the female “Oriental” worker: the cleaning lady, the copycat, the sexualized object of desire, and the speechless immigrant. In more recent work, she explores self-ghettoized psychological conditions.

Recycle System 1

In Recycle System 1, a woman emerges from the door at the end of a long hallway in what appears to be a public institution, with her back turned toward the camera. The sound and motion suggest that she is carefully vacuuming every corner of the hall. As she gets closer, the viewer realizes that she does not, in fact, have a vacuum cleaner, but is embodying it: the tube is affixed to her mouth and she is sucking in everything off the gray PVC floor. The piece could be viewed as a cynical commentary on Capitalist consumerism, as Chen states: “Nature is a circle––those who damage the environment will eventually be damaged themselves.”

But the piece works on more levels than that. It plays with the attributes of the character depicted: the woman is cleaning the halls of a public institution, physically taking in all the shit comes in through the hose of the cleaner. At the end of the performance, she steps over the camera while she goes off frame, and we hear her burp, as if she’s already finished digesting. She has a good and fast metabolism, probably crucial to her own survival.

She is a smart-looking woman, dressed in casual jeans; and does not look like a physical laborer. And yet, through the depicted gestures and actions, she uncomfortably evokes a stereotype that Westerners may have of the marginalized immigrant worker, who is commanded to internalize what the dominant culture dictates: in a one-way relationship, she is forced to take in, barred from speech, she has no choice but to suck it up––there is no space, place, or time for her voice (Do your job or else go home!).

In many of Chen’s performance pieces, the critical edge is subtle. She engages the complicity of the viewer in a gentle, yet provoking way, while playfully affording associative connections. In Recycle System 2, again her body is turned into a vessel, subject to ongoing use. And again, it takes in from the mouth, this time from a phallus. A woman is seen sitting on a toilet, casually performing fellatio. Both protagonists are half-undressed and the situation is intimate: the bathroom looks domestic and nothing seems forced––the representation is almost naturalistic, clothes are strewn around on the floor, underlining the spontaneity of the act. After gingerly sucking for a little while, she milks the cock, and we hear her urinating into the toilet.

“Nature is digesting” reads the caption on Chen’s webpage, which reminds me of Sherry Ortner’s article “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” If the “universality of female subordination”, still “exists within every type of social and economic arrangement and in societies of every degree of complexity” [1], then perhaps it may seem natural that a subjectivity living on the margins of Western society has little else to do other than ingest, process, absorb, and pass through.

Recycle System 2

However, I wouldn’t say that Chen is entirely the subordinate in Recycle System 2. The representation is ambiguous, and can be read in different ways. The man holds her head against his crotch, while she rests her hands on her knees. Is she voluntarily giving him a blowjob, or is she obliged to do so? Any signifiers of desire of both the protagonists––sighs, grunts, and moans––are clearly omitted. As in Recycle System 1, it is up to the viewer to decide in which way to read and contextualize the gesture. I see the piece almost as a metaphor for Michel Foucault’s description of the (social) body, which is susceptible to “subtle coercion” and a “machinery power,” by which the individual internalizes a “meticulousness of regulations” including the self-governance of gestures. [2]

Chen’s political confrontation is more aggressively displayed in her collaborative work with James T. Hong. Here, the personal perspective opens up to more universal events. Total Mobilization arguably borders between the politically correct and incorrect, but the first thing that comes to my mind is former French Prime Minister Edith Cresson’s description of the Japanese economic success of the 1980s: While in office, she declared it was hard to compete with the Japanese because they lived and worked like ants. In the video, the worst nightmare––or best dream––becomes true: White American hegemony is overruled and subverted. Ants symbolically represent the feared immigrant; they transgress, settle down, and take over. “Migration is fact; immigration is destiny.” [3]

total mobilization

Chen’s more recent works can be described as experimental videos that poetically relay aspects of her anxious psychology. In Three Decades of Static, the camera is positioned at the top of a spiral staircase, but there’s something wrong with the perspective. Creating a digital collage, she cut and skewed different angles of the stairs, at once creating both one-point and three-point perspectives, while fitting top views of three levels of the stairwell into the 16:9 frame. One is reminded of Dutch graphic artist M.C. Escher, of impossible structures, Ascending and Descending, in which lines of people ascend and descend stairs in an infinite loop, in an architectural arrangement which is possible only by taking advantage of quirks of perception and perspective.

three decades

In Chen’s video, the stairs seem to grow out of a giant clock that is based on the ground floor. The time is ten-thirty. “How many more times do you think you will remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon so deeply a part of your being that you can’t conceive your life without it? Perhaps four or five more times, maybe not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise, perhaps 20 more times? And yet it all seems limitless.” [4]

As the protagonist, Chen walks up the staircase of her life; she appears and reappears, on different levels, all the while looking at her ‘other’ selves, in digital multiplication, as if to evaluate where she has come, and how much she has accomplished. The synopsis on her website states: “The stress from self-pressure, the artist imagines three decades of herself”. Pressure to get somewhere, to achieve something, to do something meaningful in life, to be empowered, to succeed.

Her art productions can be seen as a visualized diary of her life. As a whole, they lyrically portray a narrative arc of her subjective experience. Waking Terror is about a stress indicator; it “uses the sufferer’s point of view to express the terrifying experience of Sleep Paralysis.” Sleep Paralysis consists of a period of inability to perform voluntary movements either at sleep onset or upon awakening. The Stanford University medical dictionary suggests a “sleep hygiene” to overcome this symptom––”getting enough sleep, reducing stress, exercising regularly (but not too close to bedtime), and keeping a regular sleep schedule” [5].

sleep paralysis

Instructions that seem unrealistic from the perspective of cultural producers, who often incorporate a “precarious” life model: no warranties for a stable income, always taking on different jobs, projects, with little certainties or securities of what the future might bring. “Everyone has to remain on speed, otherwise you might drop out. There are no clear times for relaxation or recuperation. This kind of reproduction has no clear place, which, in turn, results in an unfulfilled yearning and a continuous suffering from this lack. The desire for relaxation to find oneself becomes insatiable.” [6]


Her most recent piece, CH3CH2OH likely presents the viewer with yet another stereotype that society has of a “traditional” artist-turned-drop-out: itinerant urban nomads are "expected" to take to alcohol abuse after their career fails to go anywhere. Shot in black/white HDV, the interior scenes depict that of anonymous motels. The ambience, editing, and sound design somehow seem to refer to a mystery story: The point-of-view camera enters a room with unmade beds, as if expecting to find something or someone. A phone rings but no one picks up, the camera spins, creating a suspenseful atmosphere. The entire video reveals an introspective, psychological condition. No people appear throughout the piece. Where has everyone gone? Is this lady on the run? What is she hiding from?

In an email correspondence Chen claims: “My artworks function as forms of aesthetic therapy. I follow a spirit of experimentation––I do not have strict scripts for my videos. The concept comes first. I shoot the footage. I do the research, and later I experiment with the materials on an editing system until a structure begins to appear”. Chen is planning to leave San Francisco to live in Germany for a while. I am very curious to see what the next step is, after she gets out of her “therapeutic art practice”. Will she emerge a healed, self-empowered woman?

Yin-Ju Chen is currently working on several new experimental shorts, as well as a couple of new collaborations with James T. Hong. Her videos have been shown in numerous festivals around the world, including the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Flaherty Film Seminar, the Antimatter Underground Film Festival, Lightcone in Paris distributes her videos. Some of her work, including her latest short “Transaction”, is featured in Other Cinema’s April 12th show, “New Perspectives on New Asia”.

Sylvia Schedelbauer is a half-German-half-Japanese filmmaker whose work often deals with identities oscillating between different places of belonging.

[1]Sherry B. Ortner 1974. Is female to male as nature is to culture? In M. Z. Rosaldo and L. Lamphere (eds), Woman, culture, and society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 68-87

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of The Prison (NY: Random House, 1979), 137, 140


[4] Paul Bowles in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Sheltering Sky

[5]sleep paralysis

[6]Isabell Lorrey, Governmentality and Self-Precarization. On the Normalization of Cultural Producers;