Taiwan’s “Floating Islands” and the politics of art

Taiwanese and Chinese artists united to examine the shared history which often keeps the countries divided.

In August 2013, residents of Taiwan’s Kinmen archipelago, situated a mere three kilometres from China’s coastline, noticed public artworks popping up across their islands. A long-term collateral project of the Shanghai Biennale 2012, “Floating Islands” brought Chinese and Taiwanese artists together in a determinedly political way.

Han Zi-jian, 'The Maze forest:Wooden Dummy Transformation Project', 2012, wood, iron turntable, FRP, 170 cm. Location: Zhu-Zi Shrine. Image by Wu Xinying.

Han Zi-jian, ‘The Maze forest:Wooden Dummy Transformation Project’, 2012, wood, iron turntable, FRP, 170 cm. Location: Zhu-Zi Shrine. Image by Wu Xinying.

The nineteen works in the “Floating Islands” exhibition, which ran from 4 August to 4 September 2013 on Taiwan’s Kinmen island, ranged from unassuming sculptures of marine life, through video works parodying Straits militarism, to provocative performance art. Incorporating pieces by seventeen artists or art groups from five countries including China and Taiwan, the exhibition explored a phrase more often applied in political theory than political practice: “all under heaven are equal.”

Shanghai Biennale and a “social experiment”

The third and final iteration of the ninth Shanghai Biennale‘s Zhongshan Park Project, Kinmen’s “Floating Islands” exhibition was, according to Co-curator Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo, a “social experiment”. From its starting point in Shanghai the project migrated to China’s Fujian coast, the cities of Zhangzhou and Xiamen, and on to Taiwan’s Danshui, Hualien and finally Kinmen. At each location, artists from both countries as well as a handful of international participants reflected on the shared history and politics of Taiwan and China. Devised in collaboration with biennale Chief Curator and Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie, the Zhongshan Park Project explored contentious aspects of national memory and identity.

Waterfield Studio, site-specific performance art. Performance date: 5 August, 2013; 14:00 - 15:00. Location: Zhaishan Tunnel. image by Wu Xinying.

Waterfield Studio, site-specific performance art. Performance date: 5 August, 2013; 14:00 – 15:00. Location: Zhaishan Tunnel. image by Wu Xinying.

“Qiu Zhijie and I have been discussing a collaborative project for many, many years,” explains Lo. “Because we both thought it was ridiculous that Chinese and Taiwanese artists separate like this. Artists from China and Taiwan easily become friends when they’re outside their countries, but at home everything becomes political.”

The politicisation of space, particularly public space, was a keystone of the Zhongshan Park Project. Launched before the official opening of the Shanghai Biennale and running beyond the event’s close-out, Zhongshan Park Project hinged on the importance of public parks dedicated to politician Sun Zhongshan, better know in the West as Sun Yat Sen, across China and Taiwan.

“We chose to do a project on Zhongshan Park because it is the most controversial idea we had,” admits Lo. “Sun Yat Sen is controversial in both countries: he’s regarded as the father of the Republic of China – not Taiwan, the Republic of China – which is associated with Chiang Kai-shek‘s Kuomingtang. And that’s why he’s controversial in China too; it’s very complicated and politicised.”

Shen Xiao-min, 'The West of Taiwan Strait in 1949', 2008-2010, light box photo printing. Location: Zhaishan Tunnel. Image by Wu Xinying.

Shen Xiao-min, ‘The West of Taiwan Strait in 1949’, 2008-2010, light box photo printing. Location: Zhaishan Tunnel. Image by Wu Xinying.

The complexity of the project’s politics was a deciding factor on where the travelling exhibition was held. Of course, says Lo, much of the art was staged in various Zhongshan Parks themselves, which can be found in cities across both countries. As Lo and Qiu Zhijie see it, the public parks provided a map of shared culture and history: “Zhongshan Park is the reference point. If you want to research a city – its history, culture or politics – Zhongshan Park is the place to start.”

While the project started in Shanghai’s Zhongshan Park, Lo was determined to explore the geopolitical aspects of other spaces in China and Taiwan. Kinmen, which for much of the last century lived under siege as Maoist and Kuomintang troops skirmished over the island, provided an opportunity to bring Chinese and Taiwanese artists into dialogue among visible remnants of recent conflict.

Yang Chun-Sen , 'The Era of Horseshoe Crab', 2013, bronze, granite. Location: Jiangong Island nearby reef. Image by Wu Xinying.

Yang Chun-Sen , ‘The Era of Horseshoe Crab’, 2013, bronze, granite. Location: Jiangong Island nearby reef. Image by Wu Xinying.

While Kinmen as a location may be contentious, many of the “Floating Islands” works were not overtly political. Yang Chun-sen‘s The Era of the Horseshoe Crab examined natural resources through permanent bronze sculptures inlaid into coastal rocks. Finnish environmental artist Marco Casagrande also chose to reference Kinmen’s maritime resources through large-scale steel silhouettes of oyster fishermen, visible from a distance and “celebrating the living connection between modern men and nature.”

Marco Casagrande, 'Oystermen', 2013, steel, high-tide 3 m high, low-tide 6 m high. Location: Jian-Gong Island. Image by Wu Xinying.

Marco Casagrande, ‘Oystermen’, 2013, steel, high-tide 3 m high, low-tide 6 m high. Location: Jian-Gong Island. Image by Wu Xinying.

Deke Erh, 'Deke Erh and 108 Taiwan Veterans', 2013, workshop. Location: Syong-Shih Fort Elderly activity center. Image courtesy the artist.

Deke Erh, ‘Deke Erh and 108 Taiwan Veterans’, 2013, workshop. Location: Syong-Shih Fort Elderly activity center. Image courtesy the artist.

Other works in the exhibition did have a more obvious political dimension, notes Lo. In Deke Erh and 108 Taiwan Veterans, artist Deke Erh recorded conversation with some of the island’s aging soldiers, documenting lived memories of war. Chinese artist Bing He also worked with the public, performing A Swiss Cheese Full of Holes on the ferry from China to Kinmen, which asked the passenger-audience to re-examine the island’s recent past.

Yao Jui-chung , 'Long Life', 2011, single-channel video, colour, sound, 5 min 30 sec. Location: Zhaishan Tunnel. Image by Wu Xinying.

Yao Jui-chung , ‘Long Life’, 2011, single-channel video, colour, sound, 5 min 30 sec. Location: Zhaishan Tunnel. Image by Wu Xinying.

Kinmen’s unique landscape and architecture provided inspiration for many of the participating artists, with decommissioned bunkers appearing in several works in “Floating Islands”. Taiwanese artist Yao Jui-chung exhibited three video works and a series of photographs in Zhaishan Tunnel, a former military landmark, parodying militarism and the construction of national power. Ella Raidel‘s installation Metaphorm, located on the beach within sight of China, is both a “home and a bunker,” explains Lo, “in dialogue with [Kinmen’s] battlefields.”

Ella Raidel, 'Metaphorm', 2013, GRC, 480 x 330 x 8 cm. Location: Kinmen Seashore Recreation Park. Image courtesy the artist.

Ella Raidel, ‘Metaphorm’, 2013, GRC, 480 x 330 x 8 cm. Location: Kinmen Seashore Recreation Park. Image courtesy the artist.

The Zhongshan Park Project invoked a variety of reactions from the public and critics, notes Lo, mostly owing to its political nature. “I was criticised for working on this kind of project. Some people called me a traitor.”

Rather than entering into the divisive ideological dialogue that has historically seen China and Taiwan at loggerheads, Lo says she and Qiu Zhijie were inspired by the ideal that “all under heaven are equal”, a phrase belonging to Sun Yat Sen.

For Lo, an artwork by Taiwan’s Gao Jun Hong, which was shown in Zhangzhou, represents this phrase and its application throughout the Zhongshan Park Project. After interviewing local people and learning elements of their trade or handicraft, Gao put their image and story onto largescale paper currency.

“Have you ever looked at currency?” Lo asks. “It’s very symbolic. Gao’s subjects are just ordinary people, not big guys like Dr Sun Yat Sen! So to see ordinary people on currency is something powerful. Gao transformed currency into something else: into a social contract, a human contract between people. For the public, because ‘all under heaven are equal’. It’s an impossible dream, but through art we can try to make it come true.”

Cassandra Naji

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Related Topics: open air exhibitions, Chinese artists, Taiwanese artists, international artists, biennales, public art, art and politics

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