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The Dialectics of Reality - "Toy Packaging" of Shih Yung-Chun

Author : Chen Kuang Yi
(Contemporary Art History PhD. Of Université Paris X Nanterre, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts Director,
Dean of Fine Arts College of National Taiwan University of Arts)


Toys or Artworks?

It is not the first time that toys have appeared in the works of Shih Yung-Chun, but it is in his new project “Toy Packaging” that they are seriously confused with works of art. Actually, questions like this are often raised. For example, when Picasso's son was asked whether the ‘toys’ his father made were works of art, he said, "Of course they started out as toys, but they became more and more interesting...Ideas always start lightly, but then they become stronger and stronger. They sometimes spill over the edge and turn into something else.” The toys, as he called them, are in fact Picasso's paper sculptures, which have been described by art historians as one of his most subversive creations. More than one theorist has spoken of the magic of toys: in an article in “Die literarische Welt” in 1853, Charles Baudelaire noted that, “Toys are the earliest artistic inspiration of childhood, the earliest artistic practice”. And toys are made to be played with. In “Meditations on a Hobby Horse”, Ernst H. Gombrich referred to the importance of playing, “When someone decides to ride proudly through the village on a wooden stick, is he doing so as a game or to invoke some kind of magic? And how can we tell the difference between the two?" The boundless imagination of the players gives life, vitality and infinite magic to the toys, while the games are the tricks that allow us to escape temporarily from reality and make up some kind of 'every day or personal myth'.


Shih has a particular fondness for toys, as evidenced by the “In-door Football Table” in his 2012 exhibition, “Soap Opera”. Jacky Yeung once vividly described Shih’s artist residency in Hong Kong in 2013, saying that Shih was casually wandering around the city while not making any progress with his work. At some point, Shih bought a bunch of vintage toys from a toy shop in Sheung Wan, spending some time snooping around, and eventually developed a plan for an exhibition using the toys he bought as a starting point, which ended up to be the exhibition “Play Manuals”. In his new series “Toy Packaging”, which began in 2022, he mimicked and recreated the way toys were packaged commercially, such as in boxes and bags. It can be seen in “Nose job made easy”, “Toy Packaging.A - obstacle training”, “A-Searching for the giant” and “Fire appreciation”. The packaging is somewhat nostalgic, with the printed cardboard paper (actually hand-painted wooden boards) and the attractive toy components inside the plastic bags, evoking the childhood memories of the artist. While Shih used to arrange the collected 'toys' (either ready-made or fake) in his staged scenes or scenarios, this time, he has done the opposite, packing the scenes into the set of “toy packaging”, which reminds us of Marcel Duchamp's “La Boîte-en-valise” in 1936, that packed up all his previous works in a suitcase, which answered the question regarding 'toys or artworks’ in a completely opposite way compared to Pablo Picasso.


Cruel Games

Toy is arguably the most paradoxical object, oscillating between the practical/impractical and the art/non-art. If it has a function, the function wouldn’t be to satisfy any practical need, but to enlighten the mind of its owner. It does not appear to be a necessity, but it plays an essential role in our everyday lives. Toys are also not exclusive to children; they are often made by the huge industry created by adults. We don't know what Shih was trying to say with his toys, but his toy packaging is clearly unusual: a measuring tape and seven different noses that allow the player to change noses to achieve a face of golden ratio, the plastic surgery gift box and the bizarre details in “Nose job made easy” reveal a hint of horror through its own absurdity. Among the figures with different skin colours in “Toy Packaging.A - obstacle training”, one could find the 'yellow-skinned' character who can't get over the wall as well as the seemingly inspirational but awkwardly animated storyline, which can be incredibly confusing. The disproportion between the small people and the big dog in “A-Searching for the Giant” gives a sense of some obscure crisis. “Fire appreciation”, which may have been designed for arsonists, challenges the moral boundaries in terms of its subject matter. The slightly clumsy shapes and somewhat sharp colours, as well as the irrational combination of elements, reinforce the ambience of contradiction and eccentricity, and subtly reveal the photographs of an unknown origin, allegedly collected from old magazines, as the starting point of the painting.


In fact, toys and games are not uncommon in artworks. We see children holding dolls, wooden horses and other toys in family portraits since the fourteenth century. Pieter Bruegel de Oude's famous work “Children's Games'' listed 91 toys, as well as the games that went with them. Today, Jeff Koons' brightly coloured, shiny inflatable toys are still sweeping the art world. But the tone of Shih’s work is closer to that of “Hell” and “Fucking Hell” by Jake and Dinos Chapman, made in 1999 - 2000 and in 2008 respectively. They bought 60,000 toy soldiers and spent two years cutting them up, transforming and reshaping them. While the first thing the viewers saw in this detail-oriented work was the chilling Nazi holocaust, the toy soldiers designed to be played with made the viewers hesitate towards such an interpretation, as these brutal 'toys' not only posed a difficulty of interpretation, but paradoxically presented a seductive appeal. Or Paul McCarthy's studio videos since 1970, in which he dressed up as doll-like Santa, chef, painter and other everyday-life characters, and then committed acts of disorder or violence. The unbearable content was presented through paintings, performances and videos, with the intention of highlighting the abnormality and perversions of routine American life. Shih's toys and games are also full of contradictory elements, not as brutal or perverse, but certainly not innocent. His unique cross-media presentation adds an element of ambiguity and vagueness in our attempt of interpretations towards his work.


"Elegant Corpses", "Fetishism" and "Mise en abyme "

Although we do not know the extent of Shih's interest in and understanding of surrealism, his approach does have a lot to converse to the surrealists: firstly, the surrealists liked to play in groups, and when they gathered together, one of their most common games was called “cadavre exquis” (elegant corpse). Each participant wrote or drew on a piece of paper and then covered up the finished part before passing it on to the next player, so that the result was not revealed until all participants had finished. The game became popular in the art scene in the 1920s and was quickly adopted by the surrealists as a technique for producing works because of its randomness and the concept of collage.


Secondly, the surrealists had a certain degree of fetishism, in which they transformed ordinary objects or materials from everyday life into artistic objects in a fetishistic way. In his 1924 manifesto, André Breton stated that mannequins were one of the objects most conducive to generating surrealist 'surprises'. Since then, mannequins and wax or plastic figures have become an important form of expression for artists. The most obvious example would be Hans Bellmer's “La Poupée” (1933-1934), which was inspired by the parcel containing his childhood toys sent to him by his mother, “among the dreamy remains of a surprise box, mixed with disarticulated dolls and indescribable remnants…” In a press release for the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition of Objects, Breton listed a number of objects as the surrealist objects, including, natural objects, minerals, plants, animals, natural objects interpreted or incorporated into sculpture, disturbed objects (altered by disasters), ready-made objects, barbaric objects (American and Oceanic religious instruments and masks), mathematical objects, and so on. These objects later appeared as “cabinet of the curiosity” in Breton’s studio and soon spread to the exhibition space. The “mise-en-scène” of the exhibition space, which Marcel Duchamp deployed for the 1938 exhibition, “Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme”, was considered the pioneer of installation art. Finally, there was a technique known as “mise en abyme” ('a play within a play'), such as the recurring subjects in the paintings within paintings in the works of Dali or René Magritte.


Shih’s creative process began with a playful and random collage, supplemented by a fetishistic collection of everyday objects that were morphed, transformed, or simply assembled in a deliberately constructed display environment. For example, his “Delicate Vintage Shop Project” in 2014, had the scale of a cabinet of the curiosity and, like those old cabinets, allowed for the coexistence of poetic intuition and rational knowledge, with 'props' acting as concrete embodiments of dreams and desires that can be given an open interpretation subjectively by the audience. However, in his new project, “Toy Packaging”, Shih moved towards a deliberate narrative structure, particularly shown through his preference for applying mise en abyme to deal with the relationships between images and between media, so that his narrative entered a kind of closed loop, a self-loop that has no beginning and no end, opening up different levels of reality and disrupting the chronology of time, making it difficult for the audience to distinguish whether there were toys first? Or photographs first? Or the paintings/animations/videos? Or the scene? Or can we randomly start from any one of these as the starting point? It is clear that Shih’s approach is not one of escapism, but rather of an obsession with the iterative dialectic between reality and reality. As he described himself, he is fascinated by the subtle aspects of human behaviour in everyday life, and these behaviours are often improvised, repetitive and simplistic. Shih applied the signifiers to create concentrated and subtle differences that changed their signified, and repeated the process of imitation, appropriation, creation and reproduction until the uninterrupted operation changed the reality itself.

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