null Enacting identity equipment


Jussi Lehtonen went to see documentary arts in Taiwan. Che-Wei Chen’s exhibition Oblivion traces the marks of total institutions in the cityscape, communities and the human body. 

In early summer 2016 I visited local community art projects and their creators in Taiwan.

I also went to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum to see what kind of visual arts are made in the country today. Many of the exhibitions I saw were quite interesting and also of very high quality.

Social themes seem to be in the fore. The exhibitions addressed, for example, the relationship between humans and animals, oil dependency and the status of psychiatric patients in treatment and society. Many of the exhibitions were also based on a personal documentary approach. The son of a Taiwanese family in the oil refinery business had made all the works in his exhibition Wait Until It Dries of oil. The image of the viewer was mirrored from the black oil surfaces lit in various ways. The underlying premises of Che-Wei Chen’s solo exhibition, Oblivion, in turn, centered on a mental asylum, were also personal, even though this is not directly implicated in the works or the texts. But it was the video installation that caught my attention instantly with its special pull. First it started to open up to me due to the familiar topic, as I had, over several years, been bringing theatre to more or less total institutions. I soon realized that, moreover, the piece as a whole spoke to me with its exceptional performativity. I later contacted the artist, met with him and got a chance to ask him more about the backgrounds of the exhibition.

Oblivion is a kind of urban archeological study of the Yang Shen Yuan mental asylum in Taipei, which was demolished in the 1970s, and the marks it has left on history, the community and human bodies. Yang Shen Yuan was Taiwan’s first state asylum for psychiatric patients, founded in the 1930s during the Japanese rule.

The exhibition features three entities made up of video projections.

The first one, Notes on Oblivion, presents the mental asylum as a building and as part of the cityscape and its history. It is made up of two angularly positioned projection surfaces, one showing a reproduction of the demolished asylum and the other the apartment buildings that were later built on the property. By scratching the surface of an Asian metropolis we end up at the ruins of a total institution. How may it still be present in the lives of the people living in the buildings? The details of the buildings start to speak a surprising language, accompanied by speech on speakers. A woman’s voice speaks in Japanese about the ill-reputed hospital and how people lived there. The voice repeatedly begins the sentences with the words: “You still remember...”. It speaks to the viewers as if presuming that they have also been in the hospital and know what went on there. Chinese and English subtitles run across the bottom of the projection of the buildings. Chen tells me that he did a lot of research for the piece. The demolished hospital still has bad karma in Taipei and the hospital records have for some reason not been preserved. Chen surmises that the place was more like a quarantine than a hospital. Now in its place stands a high-income residential block. People would prefer to forget about the visage of the hospital so that it wouldn’t affect the prices of homes there. The piece speaks about different levels of absence, of memories and how they change. With our stories we change each other’s memories. We can also change our own memories ourselves. When I was interviewing him, Chen told me he wanted a woman to be the narrator because a female family member of his had been hospitalized due to depression. More importantly, it serves to underscore the traumatic effects of how history is written by men.

The title of the second part is Body Not Mine. It is made up of two parallel projection surfaces, both showing a youngish man wearing only underpants. In one of the projections we only see his face, in the other his whole body. At times he gestures strongly, at times he is expressionless or apathetic. Occasionally he hovers against the wall, occasionally he stands up and moves. I asked Chen about the backgrounds of this part of the installation. He said that he wanted to show something about what kind of marks being in the psychiatric treatment system leave on the human body. In cooperation with his actor friend they went through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and its descriptions of the externally perceivable symptoms of different psychiatric disorders. In the videos the actor fully throws himself into performing the symptoms. The impression is amazingly powerful. Even though the idea has surely been tested before, there is something new, poignant and exceptional in the way the piece comes close to the viewer. The actor’s body and expressions seem to ask the viewer: Am I like this? Are you? Is this what all this is about? In the images not only the human being but also the animal inside the human being come close to us. I can’t tell whether the man in the projection is really in contact with me or not. Is this true or total theatre? The projection doesn’t leave you in peace, it is ruthless. Chen told me that his actor friend had studied Japanese Butoh theatre, and its influences are visible in his work. Chen also pointed out that he wanted expressly a male actor for the video because he himself had been in hospital for depression. I realize that what we have here is a self-portrait.

In the last part we see a projection surface accompanied by a man’s voice speaking Chinese, with subtitles. It is titled Dual Portraits. In the image we see a constantly changing face. Chen told me that combined in the image are faces of psychiatric patients from the days of Japanese rule up until present time. The voice speaks in the first person, apparently telling the story of his own suicide. The piece is however quite detached. I asked Chen what materials it had been born from. Chen said that he had collected newspaper reports on accidents, depression and suicide, and revised them into the first person form. It is by no means a question of speech based on individual experience but of speech generalizing the community, a tapestry of gossip, of how the press takes hold of the sufferings of an individual and mental health problems. Chen has treated the images so that they glide into each other and create an impression of stream. Both the image and the story transform the individual into the collective. The viewer’s mind in turn transforms them into private again; a pendulum movement between the first person singular and the first person plural.  

Oblivion is a skillfully scripted story about how total institutions live in us, and we in them. Chen essentially looks at it and films it from somewhere very close to himself. So close that he almost casts himself in the role of the ‘other’. The exhibition is a statement on behalf of psychiatric patients and, foremost, against their stigmatization. It takes a critical position also in relation to the institution of psychiatric hospitals. It doesn’t however point fingers, but comes towards us through a surprising distancing. The relationship between text and image is ripe, at times even overcharged.

I find myself thinking about the Taiwanese culture of community. When a person ends up in hospital in Taiwan, one family member has to come along to the look after the patient. The hospital offers only medical aid. Might this also be the practice in institutions of psychiatric care? I also think about the Taiwanese culture of hunger for success, the pressures of working life, the need of parents to provide the best possible education and career to their children (and thereby ensure themselves security for when they themselves age?). I also think about how psychiatric patients have been associated with murderers, and the consequent witch hunt in Taiwan, which Chen told me about.

Then my thoughts shift to Finland. Our individualistic culture. If I end up in hospital no one will come to stay there with me. Someone may come and visit, I suppose. I think about our psychiatric hospitals, how they are being closed down and the wards have been relocated to somatic hospitals. I think about the role of artists in relation to total institutions and, contradictorily, to the ongoing dissolution of the welfare state. Art theoretician Shannon Jackson sees the actions of socially oriented artists as somewhat ambivalent in a broad sense. The artists question the patronizing institutional structures on the one hand, while fearing, on the other hand, their dismantling and trying to compensate for it by means of art. This is probably the case in other Western countries than Finland, too. What about in Taiwan?

I also think about sociologist Erving Goffman’s classic conception of total institutions as places where people are stripped of their personal “identity equipment”. In Goffman’s mind, everyone should get to be what they present themselves as. As a social determinist he believes that a person’s self is a social and institutional construction. I believe that through art we get to peek behind these constructions. It is easy to agree with Chen’s perception that every diagnosis is a normative simplification of the unique life of the human individual.

Finally, I think about the conception of ‘documentary’. Chen’s approach is strongly documentary. In his previous video installation I’m with You in Rockland he simultaneously filmed the faces of four patients in psychiatric hospitals. Their monologues are heard on the soundtrack. I asked Chen if it was okay if I mention his own experiences as a psychiatric patient in this text, since they are not directly referred to in his exhibition. “Of course”, he replied. “That’s where I met these friends of mine and my ideas of addressing these disquieting themes were born.”

Jussi Lehtonen is the artistic designer and an actor at the Touring Stage of the Finnish National Theatre. In the ArtsEqual research initiative he carries out artistic action research centered on developing community-based documentary theatre and an audience contact course at the University of the Arts Helsinki.

English translation: Susan Heiskanen

Photos: Taipei Fine Arts Museum


Goffman, Erving. 1969. Minuuden riistäjät: tutkielma totaalisista laitoksista. Lohja: marraskuun liike.

Jackson, Shannon. 2011. Social works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. New York: Routledge.


Another blog post from Jussi Lehtonen: Kirja vankilasta vapautuvien teatterista

Another blog post from Jussi Lehtonen: Onko hulluksi tekeytymisellä hyvinvointivaikutuksia?

Another blog post from Jussi Lehtonen: Let’s make this prison an art school