Introduction (2001)

A little over two years ago, I wrote a lengthy introduction for Sun-chang’s second photography book, Metropolis: A Prime Vision, in which I attempted to analyze the essence of his photographic art. Subsequently, I retired from public service and was adapting to a new way of life when Sun-chang once again came to Taiwan requesting another article for his forthcoming photography book. Even though I felt that I had expressed a thorough view on his art and would not have much more to offer, Sun-chang was willing to wait until I had well settled into my post-retirement life for the present introduction.

I knew Sun-chang’s intention was to have his recent photographic output evaluated; but his previous work has already established him as a mature photographer with a distinctive style. For someone who is as persistent and consistent as he, it is unlikely that Sun-chang would abruptly alter his world through the lens. This article is merely a follow up with a few more unique characteristics of his work that I had overlooked previously.

In my last introduction, I made three main observations. First, Sun-chang’s work is saturated with poignant compassion. He appears to be impassive but is actually an impassioned artist who is forever focusing on the depressing urban environment in order to witness the plights of the people. Second, Sun-chang is an abstract painter whose creative medium is the camera, with which he unceasingly captures images from reality to express the timelessness of an artist’s conceptual world. Equipped with the mind’s eye, he discovers the inevitabilities of life amid life’s utterly insignificant and utterly helpless vestiges. Third, without showing man’s images, Sun-chang’s work reveals a high degree of humanistic compassion. His sights invariably focus on the phenomena of decay and neglect, which depict convincingly the action of nature’s forces within the framework of time and space. Sun-chang is, therefore, an artist who reflects on the destiny of mankind by probing nature amid humanity.

With regard to Sun-chang’s latest work, the above observations are still generally valid. Here, I would like to discuss four more issues to facilitate further understanding of the photographic art of Sun-chang.

Sense of Order

On top of the profoundly emotional content, Sun-chang’s photographs exhibit a singular pictorial quality of order, a feat that may be attributed to his highly refined sensibility in the art of architecture. As an architect, Sun-chang’s aesthetic is rooted in his total immersion in the absolute serenity of the universe. The twin pillars of his art are the Mondrian-like theorem of geometry and the spatial organization of Japanese residential architecture. Generally speaking, it can be explained by the philosophy of ming hsin chien hsing or probing the mind to reveal the human nature of Zen and the Tao of the East. This is precisely the reason Sun-chang finds it difficult to practice architecture. One can hardly expect a client to recognize architecture as a medium in which hsin hsing or elemental intuition is expressed.

To reveal elemental intuition, the visual format must be pure and simple. It is as true in photography and painting as in architecture. Only when the mind is free of distraction will the significance of visual forms manifest themselves, and the precise proportion and composition be fully grasped. And only in the realm of elemental intuition can one comprehend the relationship between sense/sensibility and the formal proportion/composition.

In recent years many Taiwanese celebrities have paid lip service to humanism and science/technology without ever being able to make sense of the true spirit of humanism. The fault lies in their inability to engage in the spiritual investigation of elemental intuition. 

To establish visual order, one must begin from ground zero before adding a few horizontal or vertical lines. Sensitive readers may have noticed that most of Sun-chang’s photographs are composed of either horizontal or vertical planes: some with one single line separating into upper/lower or left/right portions, some with two lines dividing into either three rectangles or one vertical and two horizontal sections. Using such simple means, Sun-chang transforms life’s vestiges into fantastic visual feasts.

When I look at Sun-chang’s work, I imagine him sitting silently, or rather, meditatively with his back erect, mind and spirit focused, sights fixated, observing the world as it parades in front of him. This corresponds with the way he holds the camera, always running parallel with his subject matter. He will not allow any uncustomary angles or special techniques lest they disturb the tranquil state of his mind.

A camera is capable of capturing depth, but Sun-chang’s approach is to treat pictorial surfaces as mental plates upon which visionary images are engraved. Not surprisingly, what he records through the lens are always flat planes. To him, flat planes generate conceptual spaces from ground zero to infinity and eternity. In the world of architecture, space is composed of planes and it is this intangible flatness that is the source of aesthetics, and ultimately the origin of life.

Sense of Drama

Aesthetics in dramatization and geometry are polar opposites. Without an acute sense of life’s drama, the geometry is reduced to lifeless skeletons, devoid of meaning.

To infuse a sense of drama within a simple pictorial composition requires not only sensitive observations, but also a sense of humor. Outwardly, Sun-chang is a serious artist, a philosopher who discerns the objective world through meditative scrutiny. Underneath, however, he holds a sense of humor towards life that is repeatedly reflected in his work. There is also a certain romantic trait to his personality, a lively component that is essential to the dynamics of life. These bring out acknowledging smiles from the heart when his work is being appreciated.

Although a tendency undoubtedly common to all photographers, Sun-chang is especially keen on color and texture. Accurate rendition of color and texture is critical to the presentation of inner sense of drama. Pervasive throughout his work are fuzzy traces of graffiti, pictographs and reflections. Attentive viewers may find them to be the very focus of interest. If not for Sun-chang’s uncompromising attitude towards quality printing, subtle details would be lost, thus diminishing the impact on the expressiveness of his photographic creations.

One needs to exercise some imagination to fully appreciate the sense of drama in Sun-chang’s abstract compositions. He does not exactly relate a story, but because of certain intriguing pictorial elements, we tend to conjure up one. The two completely identical black metal shutters on page 78, with identical padlocks on either side of a column but with one side slightly lower than the other, is such a case. In addition to the powerful composition, one cannot help but ponder what these two doors signify in terms of human relationship. What does the portrait with the Afro stand for? The dark red ‘I love Michael’ graffito on the left door, in contrast with the overall color scheme of gray, black and blue, evokes a hint of romantic ambience. A mystifying story seems to be hidden behind those closed doors.

Meditative Reflection

For me, the most striking aspects of Sun-chang’s work echo the spirit of meditative reflection of the East. From one perspective, all things enjoy thriving existence; from another, all phenomena are nothing but vanity and all glamour lead to eventual desolation. Meditative reflection is indispensable for the human spirit to rise above this endless perturbation in the realm of the senses. It is at this state that artistic creations and life’s worth coincide, and artists become philosophers without having spoken or written a word.

Aesthetics spring from meditative reflection, and are captured at the transcendent moment. Su Tung-po (1037-1101), the great Sung poet and artist, offered an insight when he said, “the gentle breeze over the water and the luminous moon amid the mountains became music to ears and paintings to eyes; nature offers inexhaustible inspiration from the creator”. Adapting ancient wisdom for contemporary application, the scope goes beyond gentle breeze and luminous moon. Through meditative reflection, everything in sight and within reach can be tapped and expanded into supreme aesthetic experiences.

This is the missing component of modern Western art. The Western culture, too secularly oriented, revolves around the exploitation of mundane aesthetics and the exposé of social deformity. All the energy is expended on tangible externality, easily swayed by fluctuating realities. Even the abstract art is saturated with unsettling agitation, the result of an externally influenced mind. Sun-chang’s work, however, enables one to instantly retreat into one’s own inner sanctuary.

When I went through his color photographs, I suddenly realized the futility in trying to distinguish realism from abstraction in art. There is but one phenomenon in this world – the phenomenon of the mind. In meditative calmness, it can either be a fascinating macrocosm or just a configuration of colors and forms. This phenomenon is fundamentally illusory and can only be realized within the mind.

A Naked Vision

It is quite remarkable that the beginning of the book is comprised of 18 or so images depicting mainly circular forms. Geometric forms are the ultimate of abstraction. In Chinese culture, however, due to the veneration of nature, circular forms did not appear in art until the formation of the Tai-chi diagram after the Sung dynasty. As a symbol for the primeval chaos, the circle in the Tai-chi diagram is simultaneously the ultimate of abstraction and the cosmic representation for ultimate meditative reflection. It is significant that each circle in Sun-chang’s work displays completely different colors and textures. What’s more amazing is that an image that cannot be simpler and purer is capable of directing our thoughts to such vast and infinite terrains of the universe. These are neither suns nor moons; they are also suns and moons.

On the other hand, if one is looking for figurative images, Sun-chang offers many naturalistic impressions. Those who enjoy scenes from nature will be treated to a multitude of spectacular landscapes. Perhaps they are accidental drippings and smearings by careless painters; perhaps they are surfaces of rust and corrosion by rain or acid; or perhaps they are cracks and blisters from the scorching sun. If one is inclined to see them as landscapes, they are indeed alluring landscapes with dense forests and layered peaks. However, once the frame of mind is shifted back to reality, the visual feast one has just savored is nothing but an incidental hallucination.

By the same token, for those with Western cultural background or those who relish seeing human figures, this book also presents more than a few touching facial expressions. On pages 91 and 92, the three square holes on rusted metal plates instantly engages one’s humanistic imagination. That Sun-chang is a deep-rooted compassionate humanist is again evident here: from such a corroded remnant, one can discern expressions of utter fear, grieving and cries of humanity. It is a level of achievement Western artists can hardly match with their paintbrushes. But again, once the image is placed upside down, all emotional associations will disappear and return to the silent eternity. It is a poem without words.

This is perhaps the naked vision as envisaged by Sun-chang?

Pao-teh Han
National Foundation of Culture and Art