The Strangely Familiar in Wen-Han Chang’s ‘Strange World’

by Natasha Chuk

Strange World (2018) is a short experimental film and photographic series by artist Wen-Han Chang that merges color, light, and ambient sound at a frenetic pace. The work is inspired by a series of photographic tests made to explore what happens when the artist is asleep: a record of time, events, and slumber, which culminates in a meditative arrangement of optical distortion, perspective, and visual perception.

Chang set up a camera in his bedroom—changing the position to show a corner, the ceiling, the wall—and recorded over the course of multiple evenings. The images depict movement outside of the window, capturing the traces of passing objects and people, whose shadows are cast on the surfaces of the bedroom to form a shadow puppet theater of nocturnal events. In the film, the recorded sound starts, stops, and overlaps in a highly textured aural mix: the combined sounds of a relentless snore, street traffic, sirens, and indistinct chatter collectively whir into a dreamy soundscape. The kinetic frenzy of this experience is delightful in its revelation of the interplay between the artist at rest and the activities that persist around him. 

Uncanny is a useful term here to describe the combined feeling of strangeness and familiarity produced by the environment of Strange World, yet I find this adjective inadequate in describing this work. While it does create (or reveal) the strange world that surrounds one while asleep in a familiar environment, Strange World is more precisely a phenomenological study of sleep, surveillance, and the theater of activity resulting from the interaction between interiors and exteriors. Interior here refers to the bedroom and the dreamworld of the sleeper, and as such, exterior can be understood as the outside world of the dwelling and the external environment outside of the body. In fact, numerous binaries are collapsed here: inside/outside, mind/body, asleep/awake, personal/public, and so on. The effect channels a dreamlike state across the images and the film’s 16-minute duration.

Strange World attends to the soothing yet unsettling aspects of perception—how a place looks, sounds, and feels—while asleep, where time seems to both stand still and quicken, indecipherably. Perception requires a subject, but the subject requires a world. If firsthand experience is the zero-point of phenomenology, then a photographic camera is a tier removed from that starting point. Moreover, it is a fitting counterpart to firsthand experience while slumbering, a state of discontinuity and slippage. The use of the camera teases the idea of a mixed experience: we become witnesses to the environment kept hidden from the artist while he slumbers but also wonder if we’ve slipped into a dream state alongside him, experiencing light and sound in fits and starts, just as we might when we slip in and out of sleep. The work recreates the wonder, mystery, and fitfulness of sleep, blending the suggestion of the internal perspective of a dream world with the recording of public life beyond the sleeper, whose shadows slip through glass in a light show that surrounds the artist as he sleeps.

The room becomes a zero-point of orientation, the point from which the world unfolds and comes together, distinguishing between here and there, and inside and outside. Things seen and unseen, perceived and unperceived, swell as the camera fixes its gaze in different directions. In this way, the camera produces a stage for the spatial sensations that surround the body in its unconscious presence. We are offered hints of the contours of this space, though our perspective remains fixed, oriented toward one corner, then another, of the habitual space. Chang’s camera orients us toward what’s implied outside of the frame. Our orientation is filtered through and translated by light but also partially produced by sound. We are situated somewhere between street traffic and human snoring. It’s hard not to imagine oneself as a specter who hovers invisibly above the sleeper, joining forces with the spirit world to keep watch and form a third-person consciousness. 

We begin to get a sense of how our perception is shaped during moments when we are less aware of our enmeshment in the world. As our bodies rest, the world around us persists: Strange World produces evidence of the nightly ritual that takes place not behind but outside of closed eyes. It offers clues to the relations between the objective world and the perceived world, and as viewers, we sit at the threshold between the two. It calls to mind Merleau-Ponty’s ideas about perceptual consciousness and the ways in which the ties between the self and the world are elucidated. We recognize, and perhaps are asked to confront, the world’s intersubjectivity through the shared perspective between artist and camera. This experiment dissolves the separation between subject and object, illustrating the self and the way it’s entangled with the environment, circumscribing the real—perception—through the imagined.

Strange World offers an account of what appears beyond closed eyes as a kind of night watch to offset the unknown. Despite his physical orientation in space, the perceptual improbability of Chang’s awareness of external events during sleep can be articulated with the assistance of his camera. His previous experience as a medical photographer seems to inform his interest in the camera’s ability to at once resolve the unknown and generate new questions, a reading of perceptual presence and absence with presence understood as much through what is absent from the frame and from our perceptual register as what is evident. The limits of Chang’s camera’s discovery and the presentation of those results are a welcome, disorienting visualization of sleep, waking life, and wakefulness in which the recorded space becomes a perceptually muddled threshold between interior and exterior, time speeding by and stagnating. As we listen to the sleeper in the film, we can’t help but feel an entanglement between this theater of surveillance, the artist’s dream state, and our own consciousness. Though much remains perceptually unknown, our perceptual experience is nonetheless heightened in ways that feel both strange and familiar. 

Strange World is available to stream here.

Natasha Chuk is a critical theorist and writer whose research interests focus on the use of creative technologies as systems of language at the intersection of expression, interface, and perception. She teaches courses in film studies, digital cultures, aesthetics, and art history at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

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