Wednesday, July 8, 2009

“Foreign Affairs” at Biennale di Venezia reveals Taiwanese collective subconscious

Photos courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum
By Nancy T. Lu

"Foreign Affairs” means ordinarily relations with other countries but when associated with Taiwan, the expression instantly calls to mind the island’s struggle to break out of its status as a virtual international pariah ever since the country got booted out of the United Nations many years ago. Taiwan has repeatedly tried to force a change, even adopting scandalous dollar diplomacy and finding “allies” to help give Taiwan a voice in its bid to rejoin the international body.

"Foreign Affairs” as theme of the ongoing exhibition at the Taiwan Pavilion in the Palazzo delle Prigioni, a former prison, during the Biennale di Venezia this year opens up ample room for imagination when proposed to four different artists from Taiwan. All four take off to explore Taiwan’s identity and individuality, concluding with revelations of the Taiwanese collective subconscious.

It has been pointed out that Hsieh Ying-chun, Chen Chieh-jen, Chang Chien-chi and Yu Cheng-ta have noticed and observed over time “the disenfranchised suffering that results from unfair treatment within the structures of globalization.”
Let’s look more closely at what the four artists and observers have to say about “Foreign Affairs.” Hsieh Ying-chuan, a 55-year-old Taiwanese architect, comes across as a significant choice of participant in a year of tiny Taiwan’s warming relations with China, a giant neighbor trying to claim it as a renegade province.

The published introduction of Hsieh describes him particularly as having taken up the mantle of “foreign relations” (implying Taiwan’s sovereignty) by helping reconstruct rural China in the aftermath of the devastating Sichuan earthquake on May 12, 2008. Together with his team, he has been carrying out collaborative construction with communities. He has not been totally discouraged by the inadequate budget.

Hsieh is an example of how Taiwan adopts unconventional diplomatic approaches to win friends and validate status. The volunteers of Tzu Chi Buddhist Compassion Relief Foundation are all along getting recognition for being always at the forefront of meaningful international disaster relief work.

Hsieh previously acquired experience helping the Thao minority and disadvantaged group in the Sun Moon Lake area in Nantou County rebuild their lives after the destructive September 21 temblor in Taiwan years ago.

Hsieh is more than just an architect. He goes about carrying out collaborative construction, emerging as “architectural activist” because of the need to deal with societal factors and to become integrated in the system and with bureaucratic policy. He must work with people, who mostly just give up individual creativity under a communal system. Hsieh must learn to understand local culture fast. He must wear, for example, the hat of a “feng shui” expert.

For Chen Chieh-jen, the show participant who has had the greatest international exposure through his video works, the ongoing “Foreign Affairs” exhibition in the canal city of Venice becomes an opportunity to make a statement about countries with a history of imperialism like the United States and their treatment of visa applicants from non-western and weaker countries like Taiwan.

Random suspicion

Chen’s personal experience of verbal violence and humiliation from a consular officer at the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) while seeking a U.S.non-immigrant visa after receiving an invitation to exhibit in New Orleans last year has told him that an individual despite legitimate travel reason must be prepared to face random suspicion, humiliation and disgrace at the hands of the consular officer.

Chen was accused of intending to become an illegal immigrant. His not very pleasant encounter with an American visa officer after he made a mistaken entry in his visa application form led him to set up a Chinese-language blog (, inviting other visa applicants to post and share their bad experiences, he revealed. Within days, he received hundreds of response. The blog is still there.

Chen reconstructs an airport arrival scene for his video on the subject of “Empire’s Borders.” Immigration officers tend to be seated higher than the incoming visitors to suggest position of power, according to Chen.

The immigration section as seen in the arrival area of an international airport sometimes even sees incoming passengers, apart from the local nationals, segregated into groups forming queues in front of counters reserved for those originating from countries where visas must be applied for beforehand and different ones marked out for those privileged to just request for landing visas.
Class consciousness not just on a global scale but even in a society is very much alive, refusing to die, according to Chen. Taiwan is just as guilty in the treatment of mainland Chinese and Vietnamese spouses, observed Chen during an interview in Taipei.

Illegal immigrants

For his part, photographer Chang Chien-chi has put forward his “China Town” series, documenting the trail of illegal Chinese immigrants from Fuzhou to New York’s Chinatown over a 17-year period. He knows quite well the subjects of his dramatic black-and-white New York shots or colored pictures taken in Fuzhou. Their future may seem uncertain. But these people cup hope in their hands even as they show a willingness to sacrifice personal happiness to give their sons and daughters, all waiting back home, a better life. They do not have many choices though.

Some of his subjects make a living as sidewalk vendors. But a few with skills in repairing and restoring old houses hit a gold mine in America where labor cost is extremely high, according to Chang.

Chang said he knew of one particular case, who had a very humble beginning in the United States but who has worked hard to become an owner of many houses on American soil. The fellow found a partner, who invested in the rundown houses, which he then repaired for eventual sale.

Yu Cheng-ta, the youngest among the four artists in focus, addresses the subject of identity and finds something to say about person-to-person relations, even using voice in creating sometimes funny pictures. He takes great interest in the foreigners encountered right in Taipei and in how they blend into the society.

Sounding out foreigners

Yu came upon two enterprising Filipinos, Liang Mei-lan and Emily Su, inside the Won Won Building not far from the St. Christopher’s Church on Chung Shan North Road in Taipei. Both have been married to their Taiwanese husbands for more than 10 years, becoming resourceful enough as to set up profitable business in their adopted homeland. One runs a beauty parlor – more than one, in fact – and the other manages a store (more than one, too) specializing in the retail of imported Philippine goods.

In their everyday life in an environment of different culture, both have learned to cope by picking up Mandarin and even Taiwanese. They, of course, also communicate in English and Tagalog. Yu talks to them, using a mix of English, Mandarin and Taiwanese as well as relying on guesswork in making out their words and sentences.

One of the two Filipinos gets captured on video, belting out without fully understanding Jody Jiang Hui’s very popular Taiwanese heartbreak song, “I Am Not Drunk.” The other one sings “Lovely Roses,” karaoke style, in Mandarin.
Yu, too, shares his video on foreigners, transients who are asked one by one to repeat self-introducing Mandarin lines the playful Yu voices out (usually somewhat descriptive of each picked individual) while hiding unseen behind. Inaccurate pronunciations and sounds result in funny situations.

The people in Taiwan need to be privy to the ideas and reflections brought up through the “Foreign Affairs” exhibition in Venice. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum agrees on this point.
"Foreign Affairs” will be on view at the Taiwan Pavilion near Piazza San Marco in Venice until November 22.

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