|2013.12.31||[CRETUS] Kuo I-Chen: A Contemporary Mind ....more|
Kuo I-Chen: A Contemporary Mind
12/31/13 By Aniella Perold ArtScopes
If you were standing on the L-train platform at Union Square sometime last January, you might have spotted a serious-looking Taiwanese man with a central stripe of long hair gathered in a ponytail, leaning dangerously over the tracks. He had a device in his hand, of the sort commonly used at New York City delis for reaching items on high shelves. He was picking up trash.
But community service this wasn’t; Kuo I-Chen was there in the name of art. “Soul Out,” one of two pieces he has produced in New York since September 2012 during two residency programs (one at the International Studio & Curatorial Program and the other at the Chinese American Arts Council), is a performative video piece in which Kuo gathers up trash from the subway tracks, collects it in a miniature shopping cart, and, once full, disposes the contents into nearby garbage cans. It is among several works now on view in Kuo’s first solo show in New York, “Home-Less Is More,” at the Chinese American Arts Council gallery in SoHo. I came to talk to him about his art, his first experiences of the city, and the steps (and leaps) that have landed him at this point in his career.
Kuo tells me frankly that he hated college, where he majored in Communications Design—closer, he says, to “art business” than to “fine art.” Students learned web design, graphic design, and animation; from Kuo’s perspective, “the function of design is to make life better, but that wasn’t enough for me.” He would often skip class and instead spend long hours at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. “I almost quit school,” he admits, but one long shadow on a sunny afternoon quite changed his mind.
The Fine Arts Museum, as well as the university Kuo attended, is close to Taipei’s airport, so one could often hear the sounds of planes overhead. One day, Kuo noticed the shadow of one of the planes as he was walking to class and watched as it traveled and crossed with his own shadow, seeming to “invade” his body. He was entranced. He started dreaming of making art that projected this shadow on a grand scale, playing with the imposition of the aircraft on the viewer’s own person.
“That changed my life,” Kuo says with a moving intensity. He started an MFA program in Media Art at Taipei National University of Art shortly thereafter and began to work on the airplane piece. “Invade” showed at the 2004 Taipei Biennale in the very same Fine Arts Museum where Kuo sought refuge during his college years; the plane’s shadow was projected onto the massive museum ceiling in time with the actual landings of the incoming planes, which could be seen from the tall windows of the lobby. Then, in 2005, Kuo was invited to show “Invade” at the Venice Biennial, where he was the youngest artist to be included that year. In a beautiful twist of fate, he reflects, “that airplane took me all over the world.”
Since “Invade,” Kuo has continued to work primarily with video, showing his work at numerous major international art fairs, biennials, museums, and galleries. The universality of his themes—especially those that pertain to urban existence, such as alienation, materialism, advertising, detritus, and the strange and imposing urban landscape—makes his work resonate with city-dwellers across cultures and continents. (Indeed, his tendency to title his city-based pieces using geographical coordinates as opposed to names almost obliterates the sense of separate identities, reducing a city to its placement on the Earth in relation to others. Or, as he explains his reasoning somewhat more darkly, “I don’t know if years from now anyone will know where New York was!”)
The strongest of Kuo’s work seems to me to operate on two levels: the thematic and the experiential. It must be said that some of his pieces are simply pleasing to watch: “Introduction,” a video shown on a digital frame such as one might use at home to display vacation photos, shows a stack of blank pages perched on the seaside, steadily being whipped away with the wind. Another piece in the current show, “Shadow of Light,” observes the effect of a powerful magnifying glass on the first page of a bible, resulting in the mesmerizingly slow curling, burning, and floating off of pages. There is something to be said for art that is both intellectually probing and enjoyable to look at, although the balance is delicate. Kuo’s work often achieves this, and surely that explains some of the success of “Invade,” which is as thrilling to watch as it is reflective on the condition of being a small, vulnerable human in an overwhelming, industrialized world.
When Kuo works in the photographic medium, it is always with a technical bent; he is very interested in how the image, or in some cases the technology, can be manipulated. For example, he has taken to using the Smartphone app “Spy Cam,” which supplies real-time feeds from countless live cameras around the world. Over three years, Kuo has taken over 20,000 screen shots from these feeds and has captured some surprising and striking scenes, from a crazed-looking blackbird that flew right up to the camera to a lone man on a pier, staring out to sea. The conceit here is that even the most intimate of these photos was taken from an enormous remove, challenging the assumption that photos are records of a face-to-face interaction between artist and subject. Kuo draws a parallel between the images he derives using Spy Cam and those sent back from the moon or Mars during NASA expeditions. In both cases, he muses, “we’ve never been to a place, but we have images of it.” Still, he explains, that doesn’t make the photography any less real to us. And perhaps technology doesn’t preclude the possibility of human relation: as Kuo points out the image of the man on the pier, he says quietly, “I was almost asleep in my bed when I saw this come up, and I felt like that man. I saw the ocean and I felt peaceful.”
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