The making of the video originated from a photograph (taken by a French soldier in 1904 or 1905) of Lingchi, the cruel execution practiced in China.
Throughout the Chinese history, there have been three photographs of prisoners suffering lingchi and the photos were taken different French soldiers. These photos served as the proof of a “cruel and barbarous” China as well as an exotic attraction. Being associated with “the crucifixion in the East,” they were soon made into postcards and became popular in Europe. In Les Larmes d'Eros, written by the French thinker Georges Bataille in 1961, Bataille offers a philosophical interpretation of lingchi and brings it (the execution itself and the image) to the knowledge of Western intellectuals. Bataille’s argument that the prisoners are experiencing the “erotic extreme” has also become the most quoted theory when lingchi is discussed in the Western society. In recent years, the studies of Jérome Bourgon and other French history scholars has extended the discussion of lingchi to the comparative research of the East and the West in terms of laws, ethics, cultures, philosophies, and etc. The practice and the image of lingchi thus becomes a concept mixed with multiple perspectives and imaginations. In 1996, Chen Chih-Jen adapted the photo mentioned in Georges Bataille’s book into computer graphics to reveal “the history of the photographers” which is hidden in the history of photograph and has not been written yet.
In 2002, Chen made a video to further explore the possible meaning derived from the images of lingchi in a contemporary society. For Chen, the “visualized” lingchi, particularly the moment when the prisoner in the photo and kino-eye in the hands of the French solider look at each other in the eyes, not only demonstrates the torture practiced in feudal China but also “prophesizes” the modernization experiences of the non-Western world – being “dismembered” in every new possible way by the colonizers/photographers (known as the agents of imperialism/colonialism) in the name of modernization.
Meanwhile, Chen associates the two dark wounds on the chest of the prison in the photo as the gateway connecting the past and the future. In the video, Chen directs the camera into the passage-like wounds, inviting viewers to “see” the inside – they are the Anglo-French expedition to China, Beijing’s Yuanmingyuan Imperial Garden destroyed by the Eight-Nation Alliance, Japanese Unit 731's human experimentation labs in Harbin, jail for the political prisoners in Taiwan during the Cold War, the high-polluted areas caused by cross-national enterprises, and the abandoned factories after the industries were moved offshore. After the inward journey, the camera turns its gaze outward through the two wounds from the inside of the prisoner’s body – the collective images of Western photographers in the history and the unemployed workers in contemporary society. To look inside the prisoner’s body, we see the architecture ruins which have been “dismembered” and ‘deserted,” while to look outside from the body, we see the consecutive shots of the unemployed workers in contemporary society. The video shows the ongoing practice of lingchi in a symbolic way.
In the photo of lingchi, the prisoner looks up to the sky with a perplexing “smile.” For Chen, the perplexing smile drags all the viewers into the giant swirl of confusion, while viewers cannot help (out of the desire for an interpretation) but come up with every possible imagination about the reason of the “smile.” In Chen’s belief, the perplexing and confusing smile not only includes the two key experiences – “followers of Christ praying for salvation as they were nailed to the cross, or Buddhists meditating on the death of all beings; both of which are transcendent forms of peace that arise from extreme suffering” as explained by Bataille, but also the Buddhist belief of “huishiang” – to return (transfer) one's merit to another.
Chen further explains the relation between the prisoner’s “smile” and the idea of huishiang. “The smile of the prisoner appears at the liminal state when someone, deprived of any chance of escape, is tied up, dismembered, photographed, and fed with opium that he can no longer take any action but to ‘smile’ – while the subtle facial expression is captured by the camera of the colonist soldier and transformed into an extremely perplexing image for viewers in the later generation; and the extremely perplexing image makes it possible for the photo of ‘the prisoner with a smile,’ (who is photographed, dismembered, and killed) to continue the conversation with viewers in the future generation,” says Chen. Therefore, according to Chen, “although the prisoner is trapped in an extreme situation without any possibility to escape, he still takes an initiative action of ‘smile/subtlety’ which cannot be erased by death and the passing of time.”
The prisoner’s smile in Chen’s imagination becomes an action/attempt to create a conversation with viewers from the future. Similarly, in Lingchi – Echoes of a Historical Photograph, Chen creates a metanarrative of the video based on historical photographs. The image thus reconnects itself to contemporary viewers who suffer the new status of “lingchi,” a “painless” and “invisible” practice of the contemporary politics. Within the political context such as neoliberalism, the society of the spectacle, bio-politics, and anti-terrorism, the alternative subtle action in the history is now given possibility to “re-extend” the action with multiple significances and insights.