Taiwanese contemporary artist Yeh Wei-Li’s collaborative project explores the concept of production and the meaning of junk material in today’s society.
Yeh Wei-Li’s project “Antiquity-Like Rubbish Research and Development Syndicate” showcases assemblages of trash and photographs of previous site-specific presentations at Hong Kong-based Hanart TZ Gallery until 5 March 2016.
“Antiquity-Like Rubbish Research and Development Syndicate” is a multi-artist, process-oriented project begun in 2010 by Taiwanese-born, American-educated artist Yeh Wei-Li. The primary process of the ongoing project is collecting trash as materials from all sorts of spaces – construction sites as well as riverbeds – and reassembling them in different forms and media.
The works that result from these processes have been presented in site-specific installations in different locations in Taiwan, especially urban spaces due for renewal. These spaces are particularly significant for the “Syndicate” project as they are on the cusp of “transformation” – whether from functionality to dereliction, or from dereliction to historical and artistic reinvigoration. The works in “Antiquity-Like Rubbish Research and Development Syndicate” have also been shown in institutions and galleries, far removed from where the original objects were found.
“Art”, “Antiquity” and “Trash”
Much of a society’s labor is spent keeping objects and their classifications pure and stable… But before, underneath, and after this order, there is plenty of uncertainty and impurity. “Antiquity-Like Rubbish Research & Development Syndicate” […] is dedicated to this uncertainty and to the movement of things across boundaries… [It maps] the processes and movements among the categories of “art”, “antiquity”, and “trash”.
Laden with seeming contradictions, the name of the project “Syndicate” captures the “uncertainty” and “movement across boundaries” alluded to by Franke. “Rubbish” is by definition worthless upon being discarded. No matter what function an object had before, once it is thrown away, it enters a category in which objects are no longer differentiated by their characteristics or functions.
“Antiquities”, on the other hand, are things whose value is actively preserved. Like “art”, “antiquities” have no inherent value as usable objects: their values are given externally – as Franke puts it – through “analysis”, “evaluation” and “aesthetic judgment”.
Through developing “antiquity-like rubbish”, the “Syndicate” challenges the previously fixed boundary between a class of objects deemed worthless because of its lack of utility, and another deemed valuable for the same reason.
Transformations and Shifts of Identity
Salvaging trash objects and giving them new value – what Hanart’s curator Chang Tsong-Zung calls “the shift of identity from ‘trash’ to ‘art’” – are the painstaking processes at the centre of the “Syndicate” research.
According to Chang, Yeh’s project is similar to “the enterprise of the anthropological museum”, which seeks to illuminate cultures through objects that have been displaced from their uses and places of origin within museum walls. Similarly, the “Syndicate” offers a “detached visual experience” of seeing trash – which had a previous existence with both functions and owners – with a “new significance”. He writes:
[Yeh’s] artwork is not about the way he makes or alters the installation objects, but in raising the query of identity change, and offering a solution about how identity gets transformed.
A few of the selected works are “company property” made from trash. Antiquity Core Value and Production (2010) consists of thin wooden boards painted with “values” and “products” of the “Syndicate” work, including puns and pseudo-auspicious expressions in Chinese. Although the salvaged wood still does not serve a legitimate purpose – no less because of the tongue-in-cheek phrases on the signs – its inutility seems to have shifted from one form to another when transposed from the Syndicate’s premises to the gallery.
Company Products Plaques and Antiquity Office Table Without Chair (2011) consists of a large wooden desk set up as a work station to make “no begging” (不求人) back-scratchers. The table and everything on it are refashioned from trash. Bottle caps are in a bamboo holder on one side, sorted by colours, next to a spool of wire, wooden sticks, hammers, an abacus, an ashtray, cigarettes and a notepad with instructions to make “a baker’s dozen” of the “products”. A wooden cylinder holds 13 finished scratchers with bottle caps attached to sticks with wire.
These two reassembled works and others are made to seem functional office furniture – the table even churns out a highly practical “product” – but their staged nature within the gallery highlights their improbable transformation from trash to objects much more valuable but equally inutile.
Balls, Concrete, Wood, Plastic
Balls (2010 – 2012) is a collection of smut-covered balls of various sizes and colours arranged with the smallest in the middle, ranging from marbles to ping pong balls and, most prominently, baseballs. Given the popularity of baseball in Taiwan, the work reinforces curator Chang’s point that Yeh, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11 and only went back to Taiwan a few years ago, invents a personal history for himself as a Taiwanese artist by engaging with old objects representative of his home country.
Miscellaneous Objects (2010 – 2011) are different trash objects found by the sea and reassembled into new, composite forms. The “artworks” in two pristine glass cases are a mix of wood, plastic, metal, cement and strings in various stages of decay, intertwining trash both organic and inorganic. One piece of cement shows a leaf vein pattern made with coloured tiles like a fossil – waste is turned visually into a piece of “antiquity” everyone can relate to.
Rounded concrete balls feature in many works, most prominently in Seven Lady Stars (2011), which consists of seven stones supported by bamboo cylinders. The title of the work – listed as one of the “products” on the wooden signs – alludes to seven women figures. This symbolic reference gives the salvaged concrete a pseudo-mythological significance.
Three Concrete Ball Crates (2011) consists of three wooden crates with stones sorted into different sizes. With wooden stools around, the set-up appears to be another work station for the sorting of the stones by their physical characteristics, an act that defies the “undifferentiated” nature of trash as a class of objects.
Beach Plastic Curls (2010 – 2011) are made of different shades of plastic melted down into thin strings and reconstituted into disc forms with different colour combinations. On some of the “curls”, the plastic objects in their previous incarnation are still visible, betraying their former uses. Salvaging useless plastic and making it even more undifferentiated by melting and remoulding it creates new forms that are, intriguingly, visually refreshing.
Ice Mountain with Penguins (2010) consists of three pieces of plastic shaped like mountains – perhaps from a toy model – put together with penguin figurines to form a small, strange diorama. The parts making up the form have lost their appeal as toys, but in the present constellation, they gain an unlikely decorative charm.
The most large-scale of the selected works is Wooden Box Shoe Collection (2010 – 2012), which consists of many wooden boxes put together into a large, uneven platform, on which many single, dirty, broken shoes are presented, including a kid’s slipper, a sneaker, a sandal, a rain boot, a high-heeled shoe, and even a furry slipper propped up by mannequin and doll limbs.
The shoes have long lost their function of being worn, since they exist only as single shoes and are broken beyond repair. In the gallery, the new significance of the whole constellation – as an inutile “shop display” that makes viewers wonder who once wore the shoes instead of desire them – is reinforced by a photograph titled The Shoe Salesman (2016) on the wall behind. The image shows the same “collection” set up on the side of a street in a previous showing, as an equally unlikely yard sale.
The World of Da-Tong in Cologne #2 (2012) and Dr. Sun Calligraphy Wooden Relieve (2010) are presented side by side. On the left is a work of calligraphy in relief – wooden characters painted black – that has been taken whole from a building demolition. While the work looks like a simple remounting of the found materials, a C-Print to the right shows the same wooden characters strewn in the corner of a gallery space.
The juxtaposition of the mounted version of the calligraphy in relief with the scattered version in the photograph highlights the displacement of the materials, inducing viewers to consider how, although the wooden Chinese characters are the same in both renditions, they are seen as “art” on a wall in the gallery, but meaningless “trash” when scattered in a corner without any order.
Number 22 Public Cemetery in Dayuan (2012) and Cemetery Stool on Wheels also highlight the shift of trash materials into “art”. A large photograph shows a dirt road in the titular cemetery where discarded headstones have been piled up with construction waste. In front of the photograph stands a “stool” of concrete and bricks mounted on a wheeled cart, physically displaced from the centre of the photograph – the tile decorations of the Chinese gods Fu, Lu and Shou on the side allow it to be easily identified. This realisation highlights the displacement of that stool from a cemetery garbage dump in Taiwan all the way to the gallery in Hong Kong, where it is seen in a new light despite not being any less “useless” as an object.
Levelling the hierarchy between “trash” and “art”
In his essay, Franke ends with the question:
Can [the project’s work with discarded debris] challenge the hierarchy between trash and art…?
Whether or not they provide answers to this, the selected works of the “Syndicate” project put viewers in a position to reconsider constellations of objects that under any other circumstances would have been seen as an undifferentiated and worthless mass. This opens up the possibility of levelling hierarchical relationships between classes of objects seen as “valuable” and “valueless”.
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