Kao Chung-li is one of the most important artists working in Taiwan today. His practice combines film-making, painting, photography, sculpture and installation. The artist was undeniably influenced by European avant-garde cinema, when works by auteurs such as Alain Resnais and Jean-Luc Godard were introduced to Taiwan by Theatre Quarterly in the 1960s, but he has also created his own aesthetic language. In particular, he has modified a variety of cinematic devices in order to reflect the socioeconomic complexity of contemporary Taiwan – which he describes as the ‘audio-visual underprivileged of the Third World’. Reflecting on the way in which cinematic mechanisms of the West have been transformed and interiorized by the visual culture of Taiwan, Kao has modified 8-mm film and slide projectors, renaming them ‘photochemical mechanical mobile images’ and ‘slideshow cinema’ respectively. Adapting cinematic devices in this way is a critical gesture for Kao since he notes that ‘film history in the West is created by the film camera [which represents] the viewpoint of filmmakers’. Kao focuses his attention on the role of spectator – whose cinematic experience, he feels, is informed by the film projector, which in turn impacts upon the way ideology and identity are formed. In order to initiate critical viewing, Kao consistently employs machinery such as emblems of systems of power. He obsessively collects and transforms outdated audio-visual equipment that has been pouring into Taiwan from the ‘First World’, especially the US. He is a media archaeologist who is perpetually creating his own idiosyncratic histories of cinema.
Kao lives and works in Taipei. Born in Taiwan in 1958 to a second-generation family of Chinese immigrants, he uses his work to investigate the complex relationship between history and personal biography. Though he had no official training, he made a name for himself in the circles of photography and experimental short films in Taiwan in the 1980s. At that time he also began working with 8 mm film. One of Kao’s best known projects features an 8 mm projector made out of different objects. Alongside this construction, the artist hand-drew a series of images with a pencil and then turned them into a short animated film. The animation was integrated with actual objects to form what he calls a ‘photochemical mechanical animation’. The new type of art developed by Kao is particularly poignant in the present era of proliferating digital image technologies. He returns image production to its early, or even primitive, stage, with a view to exposing the power struggles behind the image technologies through a creative process that resemble a handcraft. Interestingly, the artist does not edit or carry out post-production work. From hardware to software, Kao is moving towards his ultimate goal – ‘to liberate the visual world – the world of the “audio-visually” disadvantaged’. He believes that the West’s control over the Third World countries is being executed via audio and video technologies, a process that remains unnoticed or is even welcomed at times. Yet Kao wants to take apart and expose the individual steps of the visual production line, so that the viewers can understand and participate in these processes. He hopes that this this will allow them to become more aware of the mechanisms through which images emerge.
Kao developed his hybrid artistic language both through his artistic practice and his everyday life. By making 8-mm home-movies in his spare time, Kao documented his family life as well as an array of unusual and eccentric sub-cultural activities. These recordings all became source material for his experimental film creations, and therefore it is almost impossible to locate the artist’s practice in one genre. His art reflects his everyday life, but it also engages with Taiwan’s cultural and media history. He filmed his father with an 8 mm camera, he photographed cultural events as a journalist and later, when he left his journalist job to take care of his son, he converted children’s toys into what he called a ‘Palm-Sized Physical Mobile Imaging Device’. Currently in his mid-50s, Kao’s failing eyesight means that he is no longer able to draw or make films. He now plays the role of an archivist and has begun collecting amateur photo slides for his latest project: ‘Slideshow Cinema’.
Kao’s early works received five Golden Harvest Awards – Taiwan’s preeminent short-film awards of the 1980s – between 1984 and 1988. Kao also worked as a photojournalist for China Time Weekly in 1984 and later became an editor for Sunday Comics (1989-91), a cartoon periodical. In 1986, one year before the lifting of martial law (an order promulgated by the exiled Republic of China government, who had taken control of Taiwan, and in effect since 1949), Kao, Chen Chieh-jen, Wang Jun-jieh and Lin Ju organized a series of underground and avant-garde exhibitions called ‘Living Clay’ that took place in abandoned apartments and filmmakers’ studios in Taipei. The aim of these exhibitions was to challenge the ‘official’ version of avant-garde art that promoted largely ‘formal, self-contained’ Modernist abstraction.
Kao participated in the Taiwan Pavilion, ‘The Spectre of Freedom’, at the 51st Venice Biennale (2005); the Taipei Biennale ‘Modern Monsters/ Death and Life of Fiction in Taipei’ (2012); the Kuandu Biennale ‘Recognition System’ in Taipei (2014) and at the Shenzhen Independent Animation Biennale in Shenzhen, China (2014). His most recent solo exhibitions were ‘Kao Chung-li: Watch Time Watching’ (2010) at Tina Keng Gallery, Taipei, and ‘Kao Chung-li: The Man with the Film Projector’ at The Peltz Gallery at Birkbeck, University of London (2015). The latter exhibition was curated by Chou Yu-ling as a part of the Taiwan Spotlight Project, presented by Birkbeck in collaboration with the Taipei Representative Office in the UK. The material featured in Photomediations Machine here is based on this exhibition. We are grateful to Chou Yu-ling for allowing us to publish it here.
Chou Yu-ling is a UK-based Taiwanese curator, specialising in media art theory, cinema and photography.
The still and moving images by Kao Chung-li featured in this article are published here courtesy of Chou Yu-ling, Yu Wei and Ting Ting Cheng. They were all shot at the ‘Kao Chung-li: The Man with the Film Projector’ exhibition at the Pelz Gallery, Birkbeck, April-May 2015.