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Tooning up: artist Agi Chen offers a cool take on her greatest passion

text by Eric Lin


In recent years, cartoons and comics have moved into the mainstream of contemporary art. But at a time when many artists have been pushing to "deify" comic and cartoon characters, Agi Chen has chosen to express her passion by using the coldly analytical principles of semiotics to break down cartoons. This attitude of "deconstructing something precisely because you enjoy it" makes Chen's work unique and gives it philosophical depth.

Just 31 years old, Chen has already had 11 solo shows and garnered positive reviews for her symbolic "concentric color circle" vocabulary and her series on decoding cartoons and network interfaces.

"When you take away the doll-like shapes, what do the colors that remain reveal? Do colors convey social information?" Having posed such questions to herself, Chen set out to answer them.


When you visit Studio 18 near the Taipei Metro's Guandu Station, you can't help but feel the vibrancy of Taipei's art scene.

The building once belonged to the Guandu campus of Zhi-Ren School of General Education. When the school shuttered the Guandu site some years ago, a group of artists rented the three-story building. Agi Chen and her good friend Wu Yung-chieh now share a studio on the third floor.

Two computers sit atop Chen's large work table. Behind them are huge, brilliantly colored digital paintings, each featuring one or more multicolored concentric circles. Something about the circles seems vaguely familiar, but it's hard to put your finger on exactly what.


Color memory

As we begin by talking about the cartoons we loved as kids, our childhood "playmates" reemerge from the depths of memory. It almost feels as if Mickey Mouse, Superman, and the Little Mermaid have joined us at a class reunion.

"This concentric circle represents Superman," says Chen and suddenly it becomes clear. "Red and blue surround the yellow whorl in the center. Doesn't it remind you of Superman's red-and-blue uniform and the trademark yellow shield on his chest?"

Given how abstract and symbolic her images are, the best way to understand them may be to delve into the principles she uses to create them.

People often remember colors as little more than a hazy block of something. When we recall someone from our past, our recollection is very likely to be vague. But if we think back, we can often recall something such as a mouth from which we can work outwards to eyes, limbs, or hair. Ultimately, our memories are reduced to something like a group of concentric color circles with the person's eyes at their core.

From this, it's not much of a stretch to say that our memories of people exist only as abstractions of color and shape. This idea forms the basis of Chen's artistic vocabulary.

Chen extended her idea further, noting that cartoon characters are composed of brilliant colors and that the color groups associated with them in our memories are fairly distinctive. She wondered whether using cartoon characters as a medium would make it easier to explore human color memory. In the same vein, positing that cartoon characters represent the cultural values of their era, she wondered whether eliminating these characters' forms, turning them into slabs of color like those in memory, would reveal something important.

These ideas set Chen in motion along a creative path that takes analytical semiotics as its foundation and cartoons as its subject. Her work utilizes computer-generated images as its medium, occasionally supplemented by acrylic sculptures.


Vacuum packed

Chen is a classic visual thinker, and her parents, both of them teachers, enrolled her in numerous fine arts classes from an early age. Outside of class, she spent her time watching cartoons.

"When I was in kindergarten, I'd get up on my own at 6 a.m. just to watch Disney programs." She says painting classes have always been a favorite, from her days in the art programs of the Affiliated Senior High School of National Taiwan Normal University and the National Hsinchu University of Education to her current studies in the PhD program at the Tainan National University of the Arts.

After starting her graduate program, Chen began merging her twin passions: cartoons and art. She produced her Impersonal series in her first year of graduate school, laying the groundwork for her "color memory" work.

She collected nearly 300 stuffed toys and individually vacuum-packed them in plastic bags. The process caused them to shrink and lose their shape, turning them into blocks of color that were difficult to distinguish from one another.

Generally speaking, people are attracted to stuffed dolls by their backstories and the childish cartooniness of their colors and shapes. Just looking at them gives pleasure, sweeps away the pressures of the workaday world and propels the viewer into a fantasy land.

But once the air was sucked out of the bags, the stories that the designers had labored to incorporate into the figures were lost. When Chen exhibited photos of the figures or piled them up into an installation in galleries, the 300 nearly indistinguishable color symbols fell apart: the cartoon characters we had loved so much were revealed to be nothing but blurry memories of colors and symbols.


Color coded

Once Chen had gotten a handle on her direction, she began her long-term experimentation with what she calls "function color." Her first step was to analyze her beloved cartoon characters using "color codes," a process which led to her Initialization series.

She analyzed the colors used for the characters of Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, and Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh cartoons, then displayed her results as matrices of colored dots. Thus, Winnie, a black-eyed yellow bear in a red shirt, was color coded as a matrix of yellow, red, and black dots in proportions corresponding to the character's cartoon image.

At the exhibition, children immediately knew which was Pooh and which was Tigger, proving that cartoon characters could still be recognized even when reduced to nothing more than colors.

But the matrices were too analytical, completely failing to suggest the excitement we feel and sense of identification we have with cartoon characters. Chen and a classmate racked their brains until they latched onto the gyroscopic nature of people's memories of images. Their big breakthrough was the development of an innovative concentric circle symbolism.

For her 2004 Supermen series, Chen produced concentric color circles for a series of superheroes that included Superman, Anpanman, and Ultraman.

Imagine taking a Superman figurine and spinning it slowly like a top. You'd have a series of concentric circles with the insignia on his chest forming the centermost circle. All of the colors would remain the same but his iconic blue tights and red briefs would be abstracted and deconstructed into a form that better accords with the "color blocks" of human memory.

In early 2005, Chen attempted to make the images more intuitive with her Heroic Color series, in which she inserted concentric color circles into cartoon backgrounds, highlighting the befuddlement that comes of intertwining the "abstract" with the "real." Working with hints from the backgrounds, viewers search for correspondences between the colors, characters and scenes in their memories, turning the act of viewing into a kind of guessing game.

For example, Spider-Man shoots spider silk from his wrists to swing between downtown highrises as he fights for justice. Chen used a wide-angle-lens effect to place concentric red, blue and black circles at an angle in a seam between highrises to suggest Spider-Man's waffling and chronic self doubt.

The Flash, meanwhile, is represented as red and yellow concentric circles speeding by as a bolt of lightening illuminates the night, creating the sense of the hero rushing to someone's rescue.


Ambiguous cartoon heroes

Chen says that cartoon heroes reflect the values of their times. US heroes are strongly typed and symbolic, each designed with colors that reflect his or her character. As a result, these colors have become symbols for particular values.

The Superman of the 1950s epitomizes this phenomenon. Superman's key colors are red and blue. Over the years, fans of comics and cartoon have been trained to understand that these colors represent truth and justice. Since then, the designs of the entire "Superman family" have remained firmly committed to this red-and-blue color scheme.

In late 2005, Chen began investigating different time periods. She soon noted that where the heroes of Cold-War cartoons had moral clarity and carried out missions to save the whole of the human race, those of the digital age have become more ambiguous. Age and gender stereotypes have been turned on their heads, and characters' colors have moved towards more neutral hues.

Her Powerpuff Girls' Wednesday series uses The Powerpuff Girls to mirror the Internet age's rapid dissemination of diverse values and its sharing of life's minutiae.

The Powerpuff Girls, which premiered in the US in 1998, centers on three little girls-Blossom, Buttercup, and Bubbles-with supernatural powers who protect a small town in the US. The show promotes the view that heroes are not unequivocally good and villains are not unequivocally evil. Each person has good and evil inside them.

"The girls are always involved with little things that often go hilariously wrong," says Chen. "So I began to wonder what the girls' life would be like on the most ordinary of Wednesdays. I imagined they'd probably be doing something completely normal and inconsequential." In Powerpuff Girls' Wednesday, three nondescriptly colored sets of concentric circles lazily sip milk, watch TV, and draw. "They're quintessential 21st-century heroes!" say Chen.

Chen's series isn't flashy, but captures the zeitgeist in two dimensions. It also won her a Taipei Arts Award and an SANCF Award, drawing attention to and heating up the market for her work and earning her a steady stream of invitations to take up residence in arts villages abroad. The resultant massive increase in her income also relieved her of worries about how to pay for her materials and living expenses.


Wacky heroes

In 2010, Chen introduced her Key Frames series, the most mature realization of her concentric circles concept to date. The series took as its subject the controversial cartoon Sponge Bob Squarepants, which educators have criticized for causing an ADD-like disorder, and fully captured the jittery, over-the-top nature of the show. In these works, Chen also moved beyond flat images to 3D sculptures.

Her exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, inverted sea and sky. Children seeing concentric color circle sculptures stuck to the ceiling when they entered the building pointed and exclaimed, "Sponge Bob!" They then discovered the concentric circle sculptures representing Mr. Krabs, Patrick, and Squidward in the corners of the exhibition space. The closely hung paintings on the walls alternated fish-eye, wide-angle, telephoto and macro views, and depicted explosions, squirts, and leaps in a completely over-the-top fashion.

"I often watch Sponge Bob with my niece, both of us roaring with laughter from start to finish," says Chen. "It exaggerates every little mood and situation to an extreme, which makes kids remember it better, while adults are amused by the absurdity of the story lines."


Electronic interfaces

If Chen's concentric color circles are a love-letter to the comics and cartoons of her childhood, her "electronic interfaces" are a profound reflection on the world of digital images.

Her 2007 Messenger series explored humanity's dependence on electronic media. In it, she arranged televisions, computers, and cell phones such that you saw people staring at screens everywhere you looked, gravitating to these "signal" lights like moths to a flame.

She offers a grimly humorous perspective on the phenomenon, showing people fixated on screens at KTVs, bus stops, and movie theaters. In the "Phototaxis KTV" set of images, she gives us deindividualized views from the front, side, and back, depicting the people in the scenes as symbolic phototactic objects "getting high by themselves" by staring at the same monitor from different locations.

For the exhibition, she also installed 24 sculptures of bobble-headed "messengers," arranging the lighting at different angles to show phototaxis in three dimensions. The work suggests that when life is lit by electronic media, it loses direction and people lose their sense of self: they simply move in the direction of whatever signal light happens to be flashing.

In 2009's The Reproduction series, she sent up the notion that the Internet has infinitely expanded and extended our imaginations, that it is a digital prosthetic moving us beyond our physical limitations and making us capable of anything. Instead, she suggests it has caused us to ignore and marginalize our physical bodies and senses.

For the series, Chen created 3D external scans of men, women, and fruit, then turned them into 2D images and lantern installations, in much the same way that the Internet turns the events of everyday life into Facebook pages on an easily grasped chronological axis. Reproduction: Man and Reproduction: Woman depict human forms mediated by electronics. Once unfolded, nothing remains of them but their skins. They are lampshades, surfaces emitting a faint light but lacking any of life's depth.

In our era of rapid innovation, cartoons encourage our imaginations to race forward and the Internet connects us to the whole world. But our senses are now constrained by computer keyboards and our brains filled with stolen images. Most of us are captivated by the current state of affairs and simply go with the flow. But these fragmented images vaguely glimpsed are robbing our lives of their depth of field.

Viewers willing to lift their gazes and join Chen in seeking a higher vantage will notice that they've been caught in a whirling vortex of stimuli in which life has been reduced to a toy top, wearily spinning and vague as a color memory.From this perspective, Chen's works can be seen as laments on the state of the contemporary world.


(November 2011 Taiwan Panorama p.110-117/tr. by Scott Williams)

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