陳思穎的創作元素有其先例，例如以歡樂氛圍展示奇異物件的珍藏閣（Cabinet of Curiosity）、歐洲醫學收藏及展示解剖人體及動物的奇特近代解剖劇場，這些與當代具備數位掃描、增色呈現的醫療院所不同，反而偏向18、19世紀菲德里．勒伊斯（Frederik Ruysch）和歐諾黑．福拉歌那（Honoré Fragonard）這類解剖標本製作專家們，有著黃銅、玻璃、福馬林、水銀和豐富展示品的失落世界，以栩栩如生、凝結生命般的創作令世人震驚，爾後的藝術運動將這樣的美學發揮到極致，成群對死亡題材著迷的愛好者、藝術家、策展人和文化歷史學家收集各類藏品，展示於思穎曾汲取靈感、拼貼創作元素的阿姆斯特丹弗羅里克博物館（Vrolik Museum Amsterdam）、巴黎福拉歌那博物館（Fragonard Museum）和展示蠟像標本的倫敦戈登病理學博物館（Gordon Museum of Pathology），他們欣賞死亡及解剖技術在這些玻璃瓶標本上呈現的變化，秉持著好奇的精神對物質進行嫻熟的處理，展現對死亡的敬畏，後者也正是這些收藏最原初的成立目的。
這一系列作品的命名也提供觀者詮釋的線索，或至少以狡滑暗示的手法提示某種氛圍，展覽的同名之作《愛的花園》（The Garden of Love）參考的憂鬱短詩，來自以想像力豐富著稱的英國詩人威廉．布雷克（William Blake），是悼念失去孩童天真的作品，同時也感嘆英國國教的負面影響力，漸漸醜化人類的生殖天性和對性的慾望，而搭配這個標題的畫面則令人難忘，如夢如幻：一個完全以布雷克風格的荊棘交織而成的生物，以一隻割除一切後剩下的獨眼，悲傷的望著觀者，除此之外這生物全身沒有皮膚，也沒有嘴，身體鏤空如某種生命的殘餘，流露著被揮霍的生命，卻也已步上生命之輪，在身上開出了花朵，長出其它生命，這畫面令人不安卻又深具吸引力，令人不斷回視，卻也無法完全明白箇中涵意； 另一件名為《慣性2》（The Way Things Are 2）的作品，呈現二隻巨蛇相互吞咬，暗示著悲觀氣息，但仔細觀察畫面後又不盡然如此，牠們雖然咬著彼此卻沒有相互吞噬，彼此攻擊卻沒有造成傷害，畫面中沒有傷痕或死亡，反而在二隻份量相當、彼此滋養的生物之間達到平衡，浮現某種僵局、甚至理解，牠們交纒的身軀框在周圍精緻的捲鬚及嬌柔的花朵之中；《為你的付出》（All I’ve done for you）的標題必然會令觀者想到親子關係，畫作的主角是一隻美麗又可愛的雛鳥，在這個脈絡下，我們多少可以推敲藝術家曾經歷的家庭關係和責任義務，那可能是為人子女都會感受到的父母期待，或為人父母在孩子身上看到的潛力，或幼小生命的脆弱，這不是博物學的插畫，這是象徵主義：主題是人類的生存處境，這隻雛鳥有著更深層的涵意，在另一件作品中，牠代替了聖塞巴斯提安，以天真無邪的殉難之姿，轉化這位被刺穿的聖人，雖痛苦萬分卻也相當聰明，而透露這些雛鳥身分的線索滿布於畫面之中，不受驚擾的沉睡、緊密交織又封閉的鳥巢，全都再一次置於畫面的前景，逼進觀者眼前。
又或是骷髏馬身飄著花朵及捲鬚，奔馳過畫面背景的虛空來到觀者眼前，這幅名為《解剖學家的讚美歌》（A hymn to the Anatomist），有些相關的背景和詮釋，可以讓我們更清楚理解思穎的轉化手法，這裡的解剖學家指的是歐諾黑．福拉歌那，一位生在巴黎大革命時代的動物解剖學教授，是實體標本製作的先鋒，不僅著重理性思考，更是具高度爭議性的人物，據傳曾犯下謀殺以製作解剖標本，福拉歌那的解剖標本，以真實身軀和聖經中的姿態，活靈活現的展示在福拉歌那博物館中，體現我稱為「解剖表現主義」（anatomical expressionism）的登峰造極，展現福拉歌那的愛好，令人不安，卻也具教育功能，思穎的這件作品靈感來自福拉歌那的《啓示錄騎士》（Horseman of the Apocalypse），駿馬及騎士的遺體被保存下來，以灌蠟手法使血管清晰可見，解剖後塗上蟲膠保存的肌肉組織看似飛揚，描繪出主角的動態，泛著地獄的氣息，而思穎取材自這個主題，保留原作的精細形式，再將其動作和捲曲的線條，轉譯成繾綣蔓生的藤類，以飄揚的花朵替代嚇人的肌肉組織，讓這個生物看似在舞動，而非在死亡驅使下奔騰，就連面部的表情也轉化成愉悅的笑容，而不是原作中掙扎著要把空氣吸入脫水乾燥的肺臟，在思穎的畫作中，死亡和生命達到平衡，演繹著開始及終結的舞碼，而捲曲的線條—思穎的線條永遠是捲曲纒繞的—持續而不停歇，在這幅畫作中，可以看出藝術家從主題中提取的重點、如何將其轉化並賦予意義：的確，她的主題是死亡，但如此無懼的直視死亡，散發的是力量而非恐懼，她的創作一向是將衰亡轉化成美麗。
雕塑家 & 倫敦皇家藝術學院與牛津大學拉斯金美術學校 藝術解剖學 講師
A twisting line like a path to the underworld
The Drawings of JSYC
If you are new to the work, and world, of JSYC the first thing that will twine its way into your attention will be her line: twisting and tortuous, it is strikingly elegant, connecting the fauna she draws to the flora, the bones to the branches, the arteries to the roots. It is a line we associate with decadence, a voluptuous ornamentation that we might expect to find decorating fairytale images, dreamy gardens and bowers, weaving through heady opium visions. Allow your eye to be spun into her picture by this dancing, teasing line. What do you find? Subjects that will surprise: baby birds seen with a zoologist’s sharp observation, skeletal horses smiling and rearing, foetal skeletons suspended by tendril placentas, osteology, carnivores, fear. So much beauty, to render painful objects. Such persistent skill, such deliberate process, to contemplate the macabre. It is a powerful combination, inviting interpretation, or rather, dissection.
It is no surprise that the work offers an interesting fusion of subjects and influences. JSYC has travelled, studied and researched widely, dividing her time between her native Taiwan and her artist’s life in Northern Europe, studying in Britain and settling in the Netherlands, choosing and binding together tastes and obsessions from either culture like a collector-traveller. She allows her sensibility to respond to what she finds in her new environments and gives time for the emotional, personal worlds of family, relationship and friendship to develop and entwine with the subjects of her drawing. The situations within her drawings work through symbol and synthesis, with animals embodying emotions, figures embodying feeling, tendrils always connecting and binding. Her observation – visual and psychological – is acute without being cold. This scientific eye is not emotionally detached, and this is what gives her work its true value: it is a product of depth of feeling expressed with great control, rather than a mere exercise in skill. In a world that prioritizes technique without feeling on the one hand and formless expression on the other, this is rare.
The space of these drawings is essential to their effect. The subjects – bodies, creatures, flowers, eyes – are presented to our inspection very close, all foregrounded, as though urged upon our attention: look! They confront us, right on the picture plane, on the place where the world of the picture touches ours. Look as close as you can and the fascination of the intricate line intensifies: approach, the detail will not disappoint. The complexity writhes and multiplies like a Fractal pattern. Behind these subjects lies dark void, an inky blue/black, the darkness of a tunnel or of deep space. There is no middle ground, not spatial context, and if you reflect on that for a moment you will see that there can be none. These objects have been picked out to be shown to us very deliberately, and they appear out of nowhere like frighteners in a dream or like hallucinatory visions. Imaginary and peculiar, they hover for us to peer upon, webs to walk into. The contrast between the pale subject and the dark void is dramatic, inky soak offsetting precision of line, like the contrast between the pale bone and the dark crypt, a contrast as Gothic as the subject matter.
For JSYC’s material has its antecedents in the gleefully morbid milieu of the Cabinet of Curiosity, the European medical collection, the spectacular early Modern anatomical theatre of the dissected and displayed human and animal body. Not so much the contemporary clinic with all its digital scanning and colour-enhanced rendering, but the lost world of brass, glass, formaldehyde and mercury, the richness of display of the 18th-19th century anatomical preparators like Frederik Ruysch and Honoré Fragonard whose productions mocked the living with their lifelike and lively suspended animation. An entire art movement takes this aesthetic to its heart, a group of morbid enthusiasts, artists, curators and cultural historians, gathering in collections such as the Vrolik Museum Amsterdam where JSYC draws and makes collages, the Fragonard Museum in Paris and the Gordon Museum in London with its wax anatomies. They admire the changes death and dissection have wrought on the specimens in glass jars and follow in the spirit of curiosity and material dexterity, coupled with awe in the face of mortality, with which these collections were originally built.
One feels, however, that the mortality JSYC presents us with is not final, does not tend towards oblivion or the end of movement. It seems rather a stage in the fecund cycle of life: that new life forms writhe to emerge from the moribund, that the death, say, of a young bird trades its vitality for a different kind of life energy, that decay is as fruitful as generation. The line itself, ever restless and returning, should alone convince us of an endless transforming process. This circularity is made explicit in the drawings that show the self-consuming serpents, the Ouroboros, with their muscular undulation where energy is somehow contained and expended, devoured and produced. In other pieces, the skeletal dead leap, writhe or cringe with more life than the living, the energy implicit in the curvaceously tense bones brought out by the quality of the observation that gave rise to these renderings. Her use of cyclical imagery distinguishes these skeleton images from the more often seen Memento Mori genre. In this exhibition we are not reminded that we are mortal, but that we are on the wheel of life inescapably – and it is turning. This message comes across very clearly in The Dangers of Comfort, where I see an ambiguous figure – foetal position but also in the position of a burial – laid coiled ready for birth or internment, already giving rise to flowers and creeping creatures as though decaying, surrounded by nourishing roots or perhaps a placenta – against that insistent void, a void of the tomb or maybe the void of pre-existence. Birth and death balanced in impossible simultaneity, a highly PREGNANT moment.
The titles JSYC applies to her work offer clues for our interpretation, or at least suggest an atmosphere, a sly implication. The Garden of Love, the title also of the exhibition, refers to a sombre short poem by the visionary William Blake, an elegy to lost childhood innocence and a lament for the creeping negative energy of Anglican Christianity upon fecundity and sexual desire. The image to which she gives this title is haunting and dreamlike: a creature made entirely of Blakean briars, staring sadly at us from a single dissected eye, all that remains of its skin, no mouth, hollow and residual, full of squandered potential yet already on the wheel of life: giving rise to flowers and creatures. It is unsettling and attractive, an image to which one might return again and again without quite draining all of its meaning. Her title “The Way Things Are”, given to two magnificent serpents devouring each other, hints at pessimism but a close inspection of the picture offers comfort. They devour without consuming, and attack without harming. Here is no injury or death but rather a balance of two equal creatures who nourish each other, a stalemate or even an understanding, and their intertwining is framed by elegant twists and delicate open flowers. The title “All I’ve done for you” is bound to remind anyone of the parental relationship and we find it applied to images of a baby bird – a very beautiful and lovable baby bird. In this context we might speculate on the artist’s experience of family ties and obligations, the expectation we all feel upon us as sons and daughters, the potential we see in the children we may have, the vulnerability of the very young. This is no natural history illustration, it is Symbolism: the human condition is the subject, the bird is more than a bird. Elsewhere it turns up in the place of St Sebastian, martyred in all innocence, a painful but witty take on the often-pierced Saint. The clues as to the real identity of these baby birds are all over these pictures: the self-absorption of slumber, the close entwining and claustrophobia of the nest, all, again, right up against our eye on the front foreground of the picture plane, painfully close.
The skeleton horse trailing flowers and tendrils as it gallops across that void to greet us, bears the title “A hymn to the Anatomist”, and some background and interpretation here will cast light on JSYC’s transformative method. The anatomist is Honoré Fragonard, professor of veterinary anatomy in revolutionary Paris, pioneer preparator of real specimens, man of the enlightenment and a highly contentious figure who in his day was rumoured to have murdered his human dissection subject. His anatomical preparations, real bodies posed in Biblical poses as though full of life, still to be visited in the Musée Fragonard, represent the pinnacle in what I call anatomical expressionism, as passionate and disturbing as they are instructional. This drawing is inspired by his Horseman of the Apocalypse, a horse and rider preserved and wax injected to show blood vessels with dissected muscles preserved in shellac flying back to show the movement. It seems full of infernal energy. Somehow JSYC has taken this subject and kept the intricacy of forms, the movement and the twisting lines, and translated them into swirling vegetating vines. Flowers trail instead of morbid tissue, the creature dances instead of galloping in a death drive, and even its facial expression smiles with the joy of transformation, whereas the original seems to fight to draw air into its desiccated lungs. In the drawing, death and life are in balance, the dance is one of beginning and ending, and the swirling line, always the swirling line, is one of continuation. In this drawing one sees what the artist takes from her subject , how she transforms it and what she gives in its place: morbid, yes, but the unflinching gaze at death is energizing not fearful, and decay turns to beauty, always beauty.
This exhibition brings together many enthusiasms, deep research, a love of drawing and of learning by looking, a rich aesthetic and a determined and committed practice. The subjects you see are the big subjects in art – of life, death, vulnerability and transformation. These subjects are approached by JSYC with wit and tremendous style, and it is a great pleasure for me to attempt to describe their effect in mere words, and to commend this work to you, as you enjoy discovering it.
Sculptor, Lecturer in Art & Anatomy Royal Academy London & Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford
London September 2019