Debt Space：A scenario world revealing a tree’s rite of transcendence
By CHEN Yen-Ling
The solo exhibition of HSU Ching-Yuan is located in an abandoned iron factory in a Kaohsiung industrial zone. It’s a building with brick walls and a corrugated iron roof. Even though it’s right next to a major road, it somehow projects a very solemn and tranquil atmosphere. Disused machinery and the imprint of human labor can still be found here on the ground and on the wall of the old iron plant. Even more obvious are the thriving traces of plants. The industrial scenery of old times has gradually integrated with the vitality of nature. It’s as if the viewer has intruded upon an uninhabited land. Standing on the sandy soil one perceives a slight odor of earth. A tour thus begins, with breaths - in a narrative flashback of a transcending rite of trees.
The first encounter is the last chapter of life: the mourning hall. An independent private room is partitioned out of a rectangular white building installed inside the factory. A large format photograph, The King Boat (燒王船，2018), is shown on the wall leading to the entrance, representing the rite of the boat burning. Inside the white building, three kneelers are installed representing the realm for worship. Gazing, instead of joining the palms of the hands, the viewer pays homage to the tree trunk ahead, covered with the debris of burned votive golden paper money. A small screen is placed to one side. It plays a loop of a time-lapse image of moving the tree remains. The tree trunk underwent the rite of cremation at the seaside, was moved to the iron factory and planted in the earth temporarily. It was then dug out and moved again to a set-aside farmland. An excavator serving as the vehicle for shifting the tree corpse had a pinhole camera attached to it recording the lengthy procedure of the tree digging and transporting. The time compression shortens the sadness; the looping of the sequence of shots prolongs the time for standing guard beside the bier. The white halo emitting from the screen puts one’s consciousness into a trance, stepping into another dimension of time and space. Then, turning around, there lays a pool of water, clear and calm, reflecting the long and rich history of the tree’s life. This life has withered and disappeared because of human demands: A Tree fell, A House rose (倒了一棵樹，長了一棟房子). A paragraph of text denounces the fact that trees have become the resource of urban construction, and that humans believing in capitalism have become those “(You) who cut down woods ”, as labelled by Bruno Latour, a French sociologist.
Bruno Latour questioned that there is only a “pure relationship of exploitation” between trees and men. In other words, do humans really have the right to exercise a “purely objective control” of trees? Undoubtedly, the existence of trees is a “force”. Latour described it as such: “We have allied ourselves with them in endless ways. We cannot disentangle our bodies, our houses, our memories, our tools, and our myths from their knots, their bark, and their growth rings.” People can’t possibly deny their close links with trees, yet they intend to master the natural world with the posture of “those who dominate and who colonize.” The tree in this realm of grief no longer has flourishing branches and lush leaves. Its bark is covered underneath the remnants of golden papers and its annual rings extend endlessly into the human living sphere. The place is decorated with a lamp that shines through a round hole cut out from the wall and casts a shade over the ground. Murmuring while remembering the tree, the viewer meditates on our human burdening of nature. The “force” lingers in the words, haunting the thoughts.
Stepping out of the mourning hall, a glass coffin filled with sand greets the eyes (Coffin and Coffin - 棺與棺, 2019). Will a fallen tree be like a human body with a departed soul turning into ashes once put in a coffin over the years? Or cremated into cinders and spread over the sea? The cinders are scattered towards the boundless blue, drifting away with the current towards the unknown destination hinted at by the canvas painted in blue: a pure land which once appeared vaguely in a dream, with you humans lying there and wandering peacefully in the breeze from the sea.
Opposite the Coffin and Coffin, comes the moment before a corpse is put into the coffin for burial – the naked tree trunk is hung in front of the viewer’s eyes. Gazing intently at the natural remnant, one pays homage at the same time as being attracted to the dried-out but persevering posture. It’s of an organic composition that cannot be imitated by men. Suspended above a pool of water, all is ready to cleanse off the weight the tree has endured: being allocated as a resource of timber in order to accomplish humans’ plan of civilization.
There exists no boundary, no viewing order and no marked path in the Debt Space. The artist's intervention with the essence of space is free and open. Once stepping into the Debt Space, the reverential tour begins. As such the viewer can walk back and forth through the factory, or stroll around in any order to participate in the consecration: preparation for burial, the setting-up of the mourning space, the guarding of the bier, and the mourning form a circle of metempsychosis, guided by the full artificial moon hung high above and swinging in the white gap between rebirth and a departed soul.
Wandering towards the back of the factory, dainty shrubs, burgeons and little flowers mushroom here and there. They sway around carelessly in the factory. The artist has withdrawn his right to a voice in dominating the space and he allows new lives to bloom everywhere and to embellish this dedication. Has that heap of soil been piled there deliberately? Was that clump of leafy greens planted by the artist? Is the dainty grass an arrangement as a surprise? Or, are those swinging bugs and ants one encounters accidentally part of the exhibition? The intervention of the artist and the random interactions make the Debt Space an artistic exhibition full of more natural whispers, and a venue with an ever richer essence for exploration. This is the artist’s “scenario” for his creation implying his way of presenting the work and the deployment of the lighting. He, however, has left the natural factors of the venue to speak for themselves, including the weather, natural light, humidity and odor, to develop independently of the artist and making them the conditions present when visiting the exhibition. As if it’s a drama without script, it evolves at any moment – the wind breezes freely; the rain falls willfully; the Sun blazes; the dust drifts and plants thrive at the corner. Though the visitor is guided in a specific space and follows some sort of customary “exhibition visiting path”, the undiminished natural traces within bring about a casual pace and the unexpected pleasures of encounters. As such, the poetic landscape of the Debt Space forms between the inherent rules and the accidents.
The "scenario" of the drama unfolds with changes constantly. Plants grow arbitrarily; insects dance about happily; the wind flicks freely through treetops and branches spread around the whispers of our sorrow. The ever-changing Debt Space does not depend solely on the artist. All these, along with the viewer, a human coexisting in this very space, makes up a big network. Controllable or unstable; artistic or natural; artificial or organic coexist here. In contrast with the common anthropocentrism argument in art exhibitions - that everything in the world exists as human resources, and that human beings have the right to give meaning to all things, this exhibition feels rather more like a centerless interconnecting space. The seemingly opposite substances already mentioned all prosper here. The whole of the exhibition links up physical materials of various forms (organic or inorganic), and different ways of presentation (collective plants and individual tree). The artefact makes up only a part of the whole; the implicit meaning of the industrial land is the past whereas the intervention of humans (the artist and viewers) respects the space and interweaves tenderly with the environment. As a contemporary exhibition, Debt Space exercises an organic model. Without a fixed art form, among rudimentary industrialism, it reduces the minimalism and blandness that are commonly seen in contemporary exhibition spaces. “Contingency” adorns the exhibition structure; humans, bugs, flora, soil, stones, minerals, glass, canvas, pigments, images, water and trees constitute the web.
At the end of the visit, I gradually realized that the slightly damp earthy smell was actually brought about by the ocean image, mixed with the mist summoned up by the transcending ceremony. Humans’ dominating consciousness has faded gradually with the mist; the air of reanimated nature nourishes the Mother Earth and that after the invasion of capitalism, the Debt Space counterattacks in an anti-anthropocentric stance.
The author is an Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Contemporary Visual Culture and Practice in National Taiwan University of Arts.