Quiet Violence

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Image: Stella Chen, Mossko (2017), Sphagnum moss, glue, gold leaf, 190cm x 170cm


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Image: Stacks Projects,Installation view of exhibition by Stella Chen ‘Living with the Past’,  including artwork (at back)  Mossko (2017), Sphagnum moss, glue, gold leaf, 190cm x 170cm

On the work of Stella Chen, in response to her exhibition: ‘Living with the Past’, Stacks Projects, Sydney, 16 MARCH – 2 APRIL 2017

Emerging artist Stella Chen’s first solo exhibition Living with the Past marks the culmination of many months’ work exploring ideas of human resilience primarily through the botanical and aesthetic properties of sphagnum moss. At the heart of Chen’s multidisciplinary practice, is her deep and abiding curiosity in the contradictions inherent in the human condition; more specifically, those contradictions that can lead a civilisation from war and political oppression, to peace and emancipation, and in so doing, travel the bandwidth of imposed suffering to a kind of collective healing or social restoration.

Chen’s intuitive appreciation of the role of healing in human resilience has been thoughtfully outsourced to the materials she has chosen. Phytology (plant biology) is the science of plant life and Chen works both with and against the biological characteristics of sphagnum moss, at times imposing her will upon it, while remaining receptive to the ways in which the moss asserts its will in return. For example, in the large work ‘Mossko’, Chen spent up to 12 hours a day for several days carefully harvesting and sorting the moss by dividing it into tones, using its natural colour variations. She then constructed a mould for the moss and after mixing it with archival glue, shaped the various tones into a field of warm woody colour based on the optically pulsating ‘multiform’ paintings of Mark Rothko. The labour intensiveness of this method was aimed at mimicking the process employed by a group of Irish women who made surgical dressings of sphagnum moss in World War I, as the moss was in ready supply and provided an excellent alternative to surgical cotton due to its antibacterial qualities.

Sphagnum, or peat moss, can hold up to 26 times its dry weight in water—a highly absorbent material, it responds to the amount of moisture in the air by expanding and contracting in a way that suggests breathing. In Sydney’s late (and wet) summer, Chen found that the surface of the two metre high work became looped in a reciprocal exchange of forces with the environment. It developed a mottled, depressed and scarred surface in line with its alchemic engagement with the atmosphere. Chen applied gold leaf to the resultant depressions in the artwork, tending to what she saw as ‘wounds’, in what could be thought of as a form of artistic reverse psychology—memorialising the deteriorated, unintended and subdued elements of the work while deemphasising modernist conventions of flatness and rectilinearity.

These empathic engagements with materiality reflect current theoretical and philosophical tendencies involving the decentring of the human in favour of a concern for the ‘nonhuman’. These tendencies have been variously explored in relation to the ‘body’, affectivity and organic and geophysical systems.[1]

Through the attempt to side-step an anthropocentric viewpoint, Chen is sublimating herself to the position of ‘conduit voice’ (that is, the voice of materials) which seeks to reform human-made hegemonies with a quiet but assertive warning, as if to say ‘your will will be your undoing.’

The underlying socio-political framework of Chen’s work is influenced by her upbringing in Taiwan. She was born into the last years of a dictatorship—a period of martial law which lasted for just over 38 years (1949-1987). Referred to as ‘The White Terror’, this was an era of political suppression following an anti-government uprising in Taiwan in 1947 in which thousands of civilians were killed in a violent act of suppression carried out by the Kuomintang-led Republic of China government. Prior to this, Taiwan was occupied by Chinese, Spanish, Dutch and Japanese regimes, all of which controlled Taiwan’s aboriginal inhabitants through the political apparatus of colonisation. Before colonisation, recent research suggests the ancestors of Taiwan’s indigenous population lived peacefully in Taiwan for around 8,000 years.

In the late nineteen eighties, Chen was of course too young to fully understand the political climate around her but she remembers a sense of pervasive oppression—she says, “my family in Taiwan were not allowed to express their political views to outsiders, or in public, for fear of being a missing person the next day.”[2] Chen can trace her paternal family tree back by more than 200 years, explaining that her family “built relationships with local Taiwanese aboriginals through marriages and trade.”[3] She describes the inherited and experienced effects of colonisation as extremely complex and cites the attempt by both Japanese and Chinese occupying governments to impose controls on language as an example of cultural oppression. Even in the last years of the 20th Century, Chen herself was subject to this—until the age of twelve she was not allowed to speak her mother tongue (the dialect Hokkien) at school, because “there would be public shaming and punishment if you did not speak in proper Mandarin.” [4]

Professor Marianne Hirsch asks, can we remember other people’s memories? Her concept of Postmemory “describes the relationship that the “generation after” bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before—to experiences they “remember” only by means of the stories, images, and behaviours among which they grew up.”[5] Chen investigates the way materials such as sphagnum moss and surgical cotton wool (in certain forms known as ‘gun cotton’[6]) can act as a trigger or metaphor for both sensation and the transmission of memory. In exploring the associative potential of these materials, she brings to light the quiet violence of conflicting forces and in so doing highlights the many edicts of society that are fraught with contradiction, particularly those based around the power structures of colonisation and war.

A great deal of artistic and scholarly attention has been applied to the concept of memory and the act of remembering. Conversely, much energy has been expended on history’s fateful propensity to forget—as we know, history is largely written by the ‘winners’. But, memory in its most basic capacity memorialises, and in doing so draws attention away from the prescribed narratives of history towards the lesser-known or hidden caches of past events and human endeavour. Chen creates a rich dialogue between objects that contain and stimulate both personal and collective memory in a way that is commensurate with her materials—humble, tactile and multifaceted.

In conversation, Chen returns to the terms ‘violence’ and ‘trauma’ in a pragmatic, almost cheerful way, as if to acknowledge that these things are deeply rooted in the fabric of life (and life is for getting on with). In this sense, her approach to thinking about and making art is equally curious and straightforward. To draw a comparison again to Mark Rothko, the American painter of Russian Jewish descent who inspired Chen’s large sphagnum moss ‘canvas’, both Chen and Rothko petition the power of materials to take over and say something beyond the self. Rothko grew up in an environment where Jews were blamed for many of the troubles that befell Russia, hence his early childhood was plagued by fear.[7] It is perhaps not surprising that he was attracted to the philosophy of Nietzsche (who claimed that Greek tragedy served to redeem man from the terrors of mortal life) as a means of relieving a perceived spiritual emptiness that may have been a result of early exposure to censuring and fear.

Rothko said: “I realize that historically the function of painting large pictures is painting something very grandiose and pompous. The reason I paint them, however […] is precisely because I want to be very intimate and human. To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience, to look upon an experience as a stereopticon view or with a reducing glass. However you paint the larger picture, you are in it. It isn’t something you command.’[8]

Like Rothko, Chen grew up in an environment where oppression and fear were so ingrained that one logical way to deal with it was to quietly force it to morph into something else, and thus escape its occupation—a kind of pragmatics of resistance. In Living with the Past, Chen guides material recalcitrance in a way that balances its force with her own to speak to themes of intergenerational trauma and human resilience.

Chelsea Lehmann, 2017.


[1]This description is paraphrased from the introduction to The Nonhuman Turn edited by Richard Grusin, (‘The Nonhuman Turn’. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, p. vii).

[2] Email interview with Stella Chen, 1/4/2017.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] Marianne Hirsch, Postmemory (web), http://www.postmemory.net/. Accessed 1/4/2017.

[6] Gun cotton was known for its highly flammable properties and was used as a low grade explosive in WWI amongst other diverse applications. https://www.britannica.com/technology/guncotton. Accessed 1/4/2017.

[7] Breslin, James. E.B. Mark Rothko: A Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

[8] Rothko, Mark, ‘Statement 1951,’ Interiors, Vol. 110, no 10, May 1951; as quoted in Abstract Expressionism Creators and Critics, ed. Clifford Ross, Abrams Publishers New York, 1990, p. 172.

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