Taiwanese artist Liang-Pin Tsao explores state-sponsored memorialisation in his solo show “Becoming / Taiwanese” at TKG+ Projects.
The photographer’s extensive project peers into collective subconsciousness, Taiwanese identity politics and the erasure of history.
Liang-Pin Tsao: the introspective archivist
Born and raised in Taiwan, Liang-Pin Tsao is a Taipei-based artist who holds an MFA from the Pratt Institute and has composed an impressive résumé of international exhibitions. As a former resident of the New York Residency Programme and recipient of the Pak-Hing Kan Arts Grant, Liang’s career has made a curious global journey through photographic practice, curation and pedagogy. Much of his work delves into relational tensions between identity, personal worth and nationalised histories, and investigates the socio-cultural significance of its artistic – and, therefore, public – display.
As a longstanding proponent of arts education, Liang has played the role of author, theorist, curator and mentor, having conducted a series of lectures, workshops and exhibitions at Taipei Fine Art Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei and the Taipei Artist Village. Since 2015, the artist has been the instigator of a symposium project titled PHOTO TALKS, which helps promote contemporary photography in his country and internationally. Along a similar vein, Liang founded the Lightbox Photo Library, a non-for-profit organisation supported by the National Culture and Arts Foundation and the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture (MOC), which is free and open to all, and employed as a nucleus of cultural exchange in Taiwan.
“Becoming / Taiwanese”
For more than 300 years, Taiwan has been the subject of foreign regimes. Years of warfare, cultural pillaging, economic plundering and public shaming has left the island longing for a history and place of their own. This lingering sentiment for autobiography has cultivated Taiwan’s cultural and ethnic ecosystems and has left, in its trail, a crisis in local identity politics. Though the island has seen recent progress in its legal and public foundations, namely the 1987 lifting of martial law, ways of articulating a dispossessed past and questions about future sovereignty remain haunting.
“Becoming / Taiwanese”, the English title of the exhibition, subsequently shares the same name as one of Liang’s most comprehensive photo series. The two words are purposely left separate, as one does not become Taiwanese, nor does the act of identifying as Taiwanese lead to a sort of ‘becoming’, a perpetual changing. By juxtaposing “Becoming” and “Taiwanese,” the artist contemplates fluctuating definitions of nationality in a country that has been characterised by an expansive history of colonialisation. Images, experiences and varying narratives from a just-lived past maintain their daunting presence in “Becoming / Taiwanese”, surreptitiously shaping contemporary Taiwanese identities.
The Chinese exhibition title, “Xiang Xiang Zhi Suo“, is directly translated to “imagination”, noting Liang’s exploration of fictionalised or fabricated subjectivities. Inspired by historian Benedict Anderson’s seminal text, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, the photographer aptly refers to Shinto martyrs’ shrines as products of imagination, prompting viewers to understand the fluid definition of nationalism itself. The artist investigates nationalism, in its adaptable meaning, as the product of consensus, belonging to individuals with histories and memories of their own. According to the exhibition’s press release, Liang approaches the shrine “as a testament to the state’s manipulation of people’s imagined history through cultural dominance”. The memorial is thus a sacred space that clutches onto cultural heritage and nurtures imagination.
Liang’s project at TKG+ Projects captures various martyrs’ shrines across the island, many of which stand as renovated versions of Japanese Shinto shrines. The images are illuminated by light boxes and juxtaposed with documentary text and archival material, thereby highlighting Taiwan’s longstanding relationship with Japan and the fragmented perception of identity that has resulted after years of colonial rule. As early as the Qing Dynasty, Zhao Zhong Shrines or Yimin Temples were being constructed to commemorate religious or wartime sacrifice. However, the Chinese martyrs’ shrines or Shinto shrines in Japan offered more than a space of commemoration or worship. They provided the then-ruling regime with a sure-fire way of obliterating existing history and redistributing economic resources. Through the erection of a sacred worship space, those in power could easily infiltrate political agendas into people’s daily routine.
Ostensibly, historical narratives are premised on previous understandings, which are themselves premised on the distribution of archival power. Attempts to disrupt the formation of an archive amount to efforts to disrupt the narrative, to relegate it to the realm of unacceptable, or fabricated history. By photographing such charged locations, Liang prolongs the lives of the Shinto Martyrs; he memorialises and immortalises them.
His project thus becomes a practice of narrativising or writing history – one in which martyrs ask questions about collectivised identity. However, while images of martyrs outlive their mortal subjects, they are not eternal. Each remobilisation of the martyrs’ images, in each of Liang’s prints or exhibitions, re-distributes their memory and separates their martyrdom from the cause for which they died. Never left to rest in peace, Taiwanese martyrs are brought back to life in the gaze of gallery visitors. According to the scholar Johnny Alam, this is how martyrs become “undead beings” that keep watch over the living. Liang has opened a conversation between these ‘undead’ figures and their audiences.
A major portion of “Becoming / Taiwanese” stems from Liang’s personal encounters with tourists who wished to photograph the martyr shrines. Through this, the artist came to realise that the shrines no longer held the nationalist or propagandistic significance that they held not long ago. Whether this be because state-sanctioned worship has been replaced by consumer culture and leisure travel, or because the lifting of martial law has left Taiwan in a (seeming) state of progressivity, Liang holds no doubt that the processes of national memorialisation have shifted.
Despite the fact that the shrines no longer function as tools of political indoctrination, Taiwanese state power continues to glorify martyrs and the fallen soldiers of the Sino-Japanese War, as stated in the tourist placards next to each site. The authority that once instigated a state-wide call for national identity consequently stays in place. Pondering the issue of memorialisation and the search for justice through archival work, the artist prompts the viewer to consider the abolishment, the preservation and the transformation of the memorial. “Becoming / Taiwanese” is, accordingly, an attempt to not only commemorate martyr sacrifices and educate the public about Taiwan’s recent identity crisis and struggles through colonialisation, but to also rid the shrines of their prior nationalist sentiments.
“Liang-Pin Tsao: Becoming/Taiwanese” in on view from 3 March to 29 April 2018 at TKG+ Projects, B1, No. 15, Ln. 548, Ruiguang Road., Neihu District, Taipei 144, Taiwan.
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