Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts

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Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts
Memories and Beyond / 2010 Kuandu Biennale
Q&A between Tai-Sung Chen and Pei-Shih Tu
 Q&A between Tai-Sung Chen and Pei-Shih Tu

 

 

Pei-shih Tu (hereinafter referred to as Tu): Since my return from London to Taiwan last year, I strongly felt a change in my own awareness: That, here in Taiwan, it is difficult for me as a creative artist to continue to care about the “others.” By the “others,” I am generally referring to disadvantaged groups who suffer the adverse effects of globalization and those who are living on subsistence levels in the third world. While these concerns are actively discussed in London, the issues that bear the brunt of most public debates in Taiwan are limited to only local and national concerns. What are your thoughts on this?

 

Tai-Sung Chen (hereinafter referred to as Chen): Actually, it is not that Taiwan is devoid of the social conflicts that result as a byproduct of globalization and capitalism. For example, foreign laborers such as domestic helpers and factory workers, and even foreign spouses can all be referred to what you term as the “others.”  This is especially true of laborers, who live and work under very strenuous conditions, bound by contract, and rarely having any time for leisure.  In Taipei, for example, the only time when you can see many of them is during the weekends, where they congregate in churches along Chung-Shan N. Road for Sunday Mass, or around Taipei Main Station. Of course, you might also see them in neighborhood parks, but, they are usually there accompanying children or the elderly.  Foreign laborers are prevalent throughout Taiwan in cities, towns, and farms in the countryside. This is reflected in many works, such as Hou Shu-Tzu’s “Look to the Other Side: The Song of the Asian Bride” exhibition at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts in 2009, and Chiu Chen-Hung’s “Around Us” exhibition in May 2010. Both artists used photography, texts, sounds and installations to portray senses of apathy, avoidance and the tendency to stereotype foreign laborers in Taiwanese society.  Lan Pei-Chia in her book, “Global Cinderellas: Migrant Domestics and Newly Rich Employers in Taiwan,” vividly describes the situations of many domestic workers as individuals beyond common stereotypical notions.  Despite the fact that many in Taiwan are aware of these conflicts, these conditions persist under uncompassionate social norms.  Books and exhibitions do not have a lasting effect.  They do, however, serve as a record, and the new awareness that they may open crosses gender, status and racial boundaries. Through these works, the “others” are given identities as individuals, much like an inscription. This new awareness and sense of human compassion and respect should not be confined within the boundaries of the arts.  We should not be saying, “Sorry, everything reverts back to the harsh reality outside of the exhibition,” seek to broaden people’s understanding and allow them to think beyond their local and immediate concerns. For example, how do we, the Taiwanese people exist? Compared to the native countries of migrant workers, Taiwan lacks international recognition as a sovereign nation despite its wealthy and developed industries. How does this fact affect the relationship between Taiwanese employers and migrant employees? How can Taiwan pursue self-determination for itself while ignoring its harsh treatment of migrant workers?  Is Taiwan falling into a mire of contradiction?  In the 2008 Taipei Biannual exhibition, Matei Bejenaru’s work “Maersk Dubai” points out a poignant reflection: that those Romanian stowaways who perished are victims of globalized capitalism. Similarly in Taiwan, the victims of progress are the aborigines, and these conflicts should not be categorized as merely a category of Han and Aborigine relations.  It is very much a part of a global concern.  Hsu Su-Chen and Lu Chien-Ming “Plant–Matter NeoEden” and Hsu Chia-Wei’s  “Hua-Tung Village” are exhibitions that are raising awareness to aboriginal tribal life.

 

Tu: To elaborate on the question, I think that, for certain artists, their only concern is to make art.  But, because of Taiwan’s distinctive environment and its special geopolitical attributes, Taiwanese artists must first grasp an understanding of their own identity and role.  What are your thoughts on this?

 

Chen: No art can be separated from the realities of an artists’ origins. Today, we define art as a form of communication.  Depending on how one’s notion is towards their own identity, the way their message is conveyed will take shape into many different forms.  Perhaps, what you are asking about is the problematic nature of art.  Recognition of the value of art is a common concern for our community.  Art’s value may be derived from how widely it is shared and debated.  Like you stated, Taiwan resides in a very special geopolitical position.  We can better our understanding and observation of Taiwan’s development by comparing and observing the histories of other marginalized states throughout the world.  To illustrate Taiwan’s geopolitical position, the international community and cross-strait regions wish that Taiwan maintains the status quo: sealed hermetically like a capsule and not declaring sovereignty, but, at the same time, treading carefully to further expand its economics, political and military presence.  However, nobody can ask artists to work under any preset perspective.  Whether an artist will respond to that calling is their own individual decision; furthermore, subjects like these are often labeled as controversial and they might not wish to introduce such drama into their lives.  For example, an artist may have strong views and passion for a particular cause, but they might not choose to reflect these in their work.  Though, I want to emphasize that artist self-expression regarding private matters is equally commendable because it is a method of communicating an artist’s unique perception and analysis.  It also shows the public the results of their “self-interest” and own way of life.  Indeed, there is a movement in our current era that has expanded the scope of art.  We have begun to utilize modern art as a format to further examine the effects of the forces of culture and identity politics on the land we live on.  I feel that “self-interest” can also be a part of this movement, not necessarily opposed to it. However, even if it is in the opposition...so what?!  Art is created for the public.  Even if only a few individuals end up participating, it is still worthwhile. On the contrary, to lean one’s work towards social issues does not make it more accessible to the mainstream public.  It may be wrongfully labeled as controversial, dissentious, or derogatory, perhaps because people in Taiwan are highly sensitive to roles they propose to play in society as they balance self-determination against economic incentives.  Therefore, I am asking how a person perceives identity politics.  And, in terms of artistic creation, it becomes a question about aesthetics.  An artistic awareness possibly started with Huang Tu-Shui’s 1920 work, “Aboriginal Child”, and developed from an exploration of local Taiwanese culture to find a wide range of internationally applicable aesthetic and ethical politics.

 

Tu: British director Terry Gilliam’s film, Brazil, depicts a dystopian world pervaded by bureaucracy and terrorist bombings. In the film, society’s over-reliance on machines brings the whole world to the brink of catastrophe. At the end of the film, the protagonist recedes to a catatonic state, living in a utopian world within his own mind. Personally, the need for fantasy has always been a driving force behind my creative process.  What are your views on the role of fantasy as a concept in the film?

 

Chen: When you talked about this creative idea, the first thing that came to my mind was this film.  The hallucinations and fantasy near the end of the film present a powerful scene: when the protagonist Sam becomes catatonic, his eyes stare blankly at the idyllic picture behind the executioner.  Going back just previous moments, Sam is arrested, terrified as he is placed onto the execution chair.  Though, we do not know when exactly he sees that painting, the movie plot tells us that moments before his brain is neutralized, Sam has actually experienced in his mind/imagination a whole series of twists and turns: rescue, escape, destruction of the government structure, rescue and escape with his lover into that same picturesque location depicted in the painting.  Some say that this painting is an illusion used by the authorities to anesthetize their citizens and a device to tame any measures of resistance.  This type of explanation is too static because, from Sam’s point of view, he uses the object for his own purposes, seeing past the illusion and making a Deluze-style escape.  The saying, “when a person dies, they have nothing,” is true, but I don’t read it that way.  First of all, Sam is very intelligent, with a well-connected family background, a work ethic that is able to satisfy the society, and a promising career.   However,  he placed his focus on other areas to escape the declining and seemingly dead system of society; Second, before he dies, the world in which his mind had been living was unable to be eliminated or taken away from him.  After viewing Sam, the executioner stated that, “he has left,” as a way of saying, “he has died.”  Instead, he could also be saying, “He has left this world system.” Of course, being human, this is not possible, and director Terry Gilliam intelligently provides an image: tragic optimism to avoid falling into a conventional happy end.  So, does he espouse a Christian-based theology of resurrection, happiness, and heaven arranged in the world after death?  No!  This is absolutely about the seizing of the moment before death.  It cannot be missed because this is the road in which one is liberated from the world, led into by the illusion provided by the system and then escaped from into one’s own realm.  Is this death a type of moral victory?  Even less so!   Sam’s death is a metaphor.  One must know that that period of escape is the exact time when his brain is neutralized, and we are only led to believe that he has escaped.  However, the main focus is not interpreting whether he has died or not, but what the film, Brazil, is trying to tell us.  In the middle of the film, Sam is battling a helmeted enemy.  When Sam defeats him, he is surprised to find out that he had actually been fighting himself.  From this key image, Brazil, shows me that: to escape from this lifeless, but all-encompassing societal system, we must first realize that it uses “subject me” as an identification system.  To escape from it successfully, one must let “subject me” die – and only when facing death, can one see through the illusion that the system gives to us and pass into a world where our desires are not tied down by a system.  We must hang closely to this near-death for it is a stage in time...one that is both critical and filled with crises: a moment of judgement.  It is noteworthy that Sam did not want a revolution, and thus, there was no plan for a revolutionary new system.  He only pursued a dream lover with an innocent romance at heart!  This innocent romance became a driving force, setting up a near-death escape that surpassed all illusions.  In short, illusions should not be gotten rid of unless one needs to overcome its propagandist or invasive characteristics.

 

Tu: Have you ever read Sung Tse-Lai’s novel, The Ruins of Taiwan? This fictional novel depicts a nuclear power explosion in the year 2010 that reduces Taiwan to ruins and leads to the setup of a totalitarian system.  However, the island’s people are apathetic to their condition.  It is now 2010.  If you have read this novel, do you have any thoughts regarding it?

 

Chen:  I read it a long time ago, and my first response was: I hope that this does not ever really happen.  The novel has a political, ecological, and social cautionary message...an eschatological parable of Taiwan – of course, it can also be magnified and interpreted to a global-scale ecological crisis.  However, I want to see it as an exercise, like a disaster film or a psychological exercise that follows various models to act out possibilities or purely imaginary catastrophes.  The Ruins of Taiwan is an imprint of the literary era (Taiwan’s 80’s era) and the social culture at that time.   But, nuclear safety has always been a concern for the small island of Taiwan.  Green Formosa and nuclear energy have formed a type of juxtaposed image of crisis that has been deeply burned into the thoughts of Taiwanese people.  Other thoughts are more fundamental and basic than the ruins caused by a nuclear disaster, such as the island of Taiwan being abandoned or losing geopolitical importance.  This subject exists within a state of loss, such as industries moving out to China while Taiwan becomes one of China’s military bases, waste dump sites, vacation resorts, or transfer stations, becoming ade-localized” “non-place.”  Or, Taiwan’s status will become ambiguous as if returning to pre-sixteenth century times when it was just an island with no recordable history.  Civilization would become just a remnant of its past and the environment would finally be able to be returned to balance.   However, the part in Ruins of Taiwan that really interested me was how the crisis was created, which actually lies outside the grand narrative.  A small narrative was made concerning the crisis of diversity and invention, including the removal of crisis prevention measures.  In reality, all so-called local cultural logic and symptoms operate within this creation and removal.  Reading Ruins requires a post-perspective, where one can question how things got reduced to ruins and the meaning behind them.  It is in this way that this so-called “meta-ruin” issue is raised.

 

Tu: Finally, how do you assess artistic creation in terms of the effectiveness of the overall society?   For me, art is not the same as a social movement or political action.  I also believe that to make real changes to the social condition, one must not use art as their “primary” state of mind (but do not reject that it can change, and even welcome that it does).  Do you agree with this idea?  Or do you have different views?

 

Chen: I agree with your opinion.  Compared to a social movement or political action, art holds some inherent inconsistencies.  Moreover, art is no longer like avant-garde art, which contains a deep desire to change the real world.  This disillusionment is not a bad thing because reality is far too complex to be fathomed through art alone.  Maybe, art is not out to change anything, but to open something: opening a new perspective in a rigidly defined reality.  If there really is nothing to change, then it refers to attitude.  Real change requires a pooling of forces.  Even if an artist is really interested to make change, he/she will find themselves just one of many different forces.  Moreover, even if this power manages to attract the community and lead to new social networks, art still uses physical works to display a sensibility that spans time.  While some works emphasize social involvement and the production of social forces, they all eventually just become a part of the artist’s resume, not to mention the loss of its original intent through its discussion, interpretation, or collection.  In other words, its effectiveness lies in its role as a cultural symbol, and the measure of its lasting value must come from the arts.  The demonstrations, protests, appeals, and other activities of social and political forces let people hear the immediate sounds of specific issues.  Art certainly has its sound, but it acts more as a timeless guide to listening.  Making a sound, regarding a plan’s effectiveness, and listening to it?  A kind of deliberation, a kind of infection...it, to varying degrees, bides for opportunity and time.