‘Not a Thing’ Turns Perception on Its Head

"Ah-dub." Granite, Pine, Earth, 2006

By Trista di Genova
The China Post, 7.20.07

‘Not a Thing’ is a powerful new exhibition by artist Chang Nai-wen (張乃文), opening Saturday at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM).

The Taipei National University of Art teacher turns a sharply questioning attitude toward all things worldly – above all religion and politics — making a powerful challenge to our unquestioned beliefs and assumptions.

Chang said in an interview at TFAM this week that he views his work from every aspect during the process of creation, to the point where “I seldom find the audience has a different view from mine.”

Known for his iconoclastic sculptures in granite, marble and mixed media, such as “The Hard Buddha,” and “Secret of God,” Chang’s work deconstructs rituals within the representation of the philosopher Prince Gautama (Buddha). At the same time, his work fundamentally questions religious beliefs in contemporary Taiwan, an island estimated to have the most temples per capita in the world.

As a native of southern Tainan County, “I grew up in a superstitious family, and lived next to a temple,” he said, and found religion to have “a negative influence.” When his family responded to his father’s car accident by deciding to follow a temple leader’s divination and wait three days for his father to wake up, Chang signed the papers for surgery.

Chang’s work takes nothing for granted; it’s full of negatives that become positives, finding a well-spring of inspiration in Buddhist symbolism and sutras, or religious texts, turning meaning on its head — literally.

"Wu Ming," resembling a steel trashcan in the shape of Buddha's head. Photo: TFAM
One of Chang’s new works, “Wu Ming,” is made to resemble a steel trashcan in the shape of Buddha’s head.

“People always visit the temple with their own desires or wishes,” he described his reaction to the piece. “You aren’t going there for Buddha, only to ask something for yourself, from the Buddha. But it doesn’t exist when you have desire in your mind; we can say then that the Buddha doesn’t exist.”

“People who see the Buddha’s head as a garbage can and upside down might take this work as blasphemy toward the Buddha,” he continued. “But only when they think they have shown aggressive behavior toward the Buddha can we say then that the Buddha actually exists.”_

Though religious groups might have some objections to his work, he said “They don’t do something,” adding, “If you view the work from the perspective of the self, where you are the subject and the Buddha is object, that makes you feel the Buddha’s head is placed reversed and the work’s not respectful toward the Buddha. But if you don’t view yourself as the subject, there won’t be any problem seeing the work.”

Chang Nai-wen preparing for the opening of his exhibition at TFAM. Photo: Trista di Genova
His inspiration, Chang says, does not appear suddenly; it comes from experience, and from ruminating on the many books he reads.

His new installation, “Pagoda,” is in the shape of submarine made of clay, lined with enshrined Buddha figures; inside, a moth is stuck in a no-win situation where any path leads to certain suicide. The work reflects the artist’s opinion on Taiwan purchasing “old military equipment from other countries,” such as submarines. “We’re just like the moth,” he says.

Chang also suggests the government think more clearly and thoroughly about its arts policy, mentioning that Taiwan’s government currently tends to focus on supporting artists working in New Media.

“It’s not a bad thing,” he says, “but for those who spend one year on only one work, the lack of support will gradually cut artists’ willingness to innovate.”

“For most people in Taiwan, art is an export from a foreign country,” he laughed. “But art is actually something to find out who we are. Only when you can speak for this art, with no rules, will it belong to you.”

Additional reporting by Phil Wu (吳昇府)

“Not a Thing: 2007 Chang Nai-Wen Solo Exhibition of sculpture at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 181, Sec. 3 ZhongShan N. Rd., from July 21st to Sept. 16. Open 9 a.m. to 5:30pm from Tuesday to Sunday.