Setting Sail into the Lost Landscapes of Memory

Article by Chang Li-Hao

“Standing there in that white box of light I was transported for a moment to some far shore, real or imagined, I do not know which, although the details had a remarkable dreamlike definition…” - John Banville, The Sea

The photographs taken on this coral reef island have yellowed, indicating the passing of time. The boy in the photo is four or five years old, wearing a white short-sleeved polo shirt with red lining on the collar and sleeves, along with beach pants with sunflower patterns. Perhaps due the blinding sun, or maybe because he was simply unaccustomed with the camera lens, the boy, standing not far from the embankment, seems nervous, with a slight frown and hands crossed before his pants, hesitant and uneasy. Behind his small figure are a few fishing boats painted in red, blue, and white, swaying in the flickering lights of the water. This image composes the future memory of the boy (we can almost be certain that the boy did not have a clue of this when the picture was taken), a harbor of eternal summer and guidance that leads one back to the hometown of the spirit.

The Coordination of the Secret Spiritual Land

Little Liuqiu lies at East Longitude 120° 22', North Latitude 22° 20', and is artist Cheng Kun-Feng’s secret spiritual land. For Chen, the deepest impression of his childhood is the image of boats dutifully carrying passengers between Little Liuqiu and Taiwan, regardless of the circumstances at sea. Standing at the pier, Chen could always see the boats from afar, gradually getting closer, at a speed that is almost undetectable and letting out people with a sense of drama, each person with different destinations and sentiments. These people are like the groups of fish that travel with the ocean current and tidal movement, unchanging and never losing their way. Within these images that seem to repeat but are actually filled with change, Chen is able to rediscover and reexamine the various details of his hometown, which further reflect varying sceneries throughout the stages of life. Today, the boy in the picture has grown into a man and father; his child, also a boy, is almost the same age as the boy in the photograph. As he is overwhelmed with memories, Chen realizes that despite the changes in living spaces and life, a person’s hometown remains the same; it simply exists in another form, deep in the heart. Therefore, just as watermen pass down knowledge of the sea obtained with bodily sensations down to younger generations, Chen Kun-Feng has a strong urge to present past moments and personal memories to the young.

Exhibition Lost Landscapes can be seen as an extension of Chen Kun-Feng’s last solo exhibition, dismantling and transforming images with calmness and reason, further regenerating them into a new expression of personal memories. Despite the unchanging context of this creative expression, the different boats in the images are no longer merely spiritual imprints of the individual, used to recall beautiful moments of the past, but a legacy of delicate and tender emotions, a sense of nostalgia towards one’s hometown, passed down from the boy in the photograph to another boy, one that holds his hand and calls him father. We can almost see the two figures, with similar facial features but distinct differences at the same time, boarding the boat into the unknown side by side. Standing on the deck, the rear profile of the two seem to overlap and separate in the blur of time, forming a glittering scene of light and shadow with only the unique taste of sea salt as a guidance to viewers.

The Flickering Imagination of Sailing

For instance, Beautiful Liang Tai is composed with three canvas that are slightly different in size, depicting the side of Liang Tai Express, the transport boat that sails on the Tungliu Line, like a puzzle against a background of blue, yellow, and purple. The lightly-colored human figures scattered in the scene look as if the people have arrived at an ocean playground, joyfully idling away and presenting a childlike appearance, undoubtedly a projection of the shared love for models between father and son. In work This Time in Another Place, the column shape in the middle created by color blocks of different hues is like a narrow wormhole passage, separating the scene into two parts and hinting at the connection between varying perspectives. The left side depicts the moment a boat sets sail, sailing further away from the row of housing in the background, emphasizing the theme of farewell, while positioned in the middle on the right is a lighthouse, shining a beam as bright as the sun, conveying the clear message that: “the homeland never disappears and is forever waiting for people to return.”

Sharing the same name with the exhibition, work Lost Landscapes is sized almost five meters long and composed of harmonious tones of blue, gray, and purple, depicting a bustling harbor scene. Numerous ships are stationed at the modestly-sized harbor, taking up most of the image. A few people are seen scattered near the ferry in the remaining space, either standing or stopped in their tracks with bicycles, looking out as the boats rock in the wind, a scene that conveys the slow proceedings of time. What’s interesting is that the upper and lower parts of each canvas are either flat-coated with color pigment or present geometric shapes that are deliberately depicted, creating a contrast with the subject of the scene. This design seems to be reminding the viewer that no depiction is a simple objective reality; the slightest change in weather and dampness, a shift of mentality, or the tiniest external element, are all capable of creating nuanced or enormous changes to the viewing experience.

It can also be said that while viewing these works, people are transported into the scene of misty seas, with no clear imprint telling them the direction to proceed or the location of the destination. As waves rise and fall in different heights along with the ship rail, the unknown world bearing the familiar scent of sea salt, continuingly adding layers to the rocky shores of memory. The blurry impression between forgetting and remembering not only becomes a new memory shared between the father and son, but also a departure for you and me, a flickering imagery about to set sail.