The Taipei Fine Arts Museum recently announced Shu Lea Cheang will represent Taiwan at the 58th Venice Biennale.

The Taiwanese artist will be the first woman to represent Taiwan in Venice, with a solo presentation curated by Spanish philosopher Paul B. Preciado.

Shu Lea Cheng, 'BRANDON', 1998-1999. Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Image courtesy the artist.

Shu Lea Cheng, ‘BRANDON’, 1998-1999. Collection of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Image courtesy the artist.

The Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been organised by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) since 1995. For the past two editions, the Pavilion at Palazzo delle Prigioni hosted solo exhibitions by Wu Tien-chang (2015) and Tehching Hsieh (2017), while earlier iterations presented group shows of Taiwanese contemporary artists.

For 2019, the nominating committee, composed of a variety of professionals including independent curators, performing arts planners, artists and art critics, selected Shu Lea Cheang as the sole representative artist. This marks the first time a woman artist has been chosen to represent Taiwan at the Venice Biennale. Quoted in the press release, Taipei Fine Arts Museum Director Ping Lin remarks:

[…] In recent years Taiwanese artists and art institutions have elevated their participation in the global art community, generating a more refined and complex network of connections. For this reason, the nominating committee employed a greater level of strategic thinking, coloring their artist recommendations with stronger overtones of global strategy. Shu Lea Cheang, a pioneer of net art, not only in Taiwan but around the world, emerged as the first choice.

Paul B. Preciado. Photo: Leo Freemann.

Paul B. Preciado. Photo: Leo Freemann.

In order to strengthen the engagement and dialogue with a globalised, internationl art community, TFAM and the artist jointly agreed to invite the transgender Spanish philosopher Paul B. Preciado (b.  1970) to serve as the curator of the Taiwan Pavilion in 2019. Preciado has been a long-term collaborator of Cheang and holds a PhD in Philosophy and Theory of Architecture from Princeton University. Preciado is today one of the leading thinkers in the fields of gender, sexuality and body studies, following in the footsteps of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler.

Quoted in the press release, Cheang says of her selection for the Taiwan Pavilion:

Since my net art work BRANDON (1998-1999), a trajectory charged with detours and deviations has teleported me to Palazzo delle Prigioni, Venice, where crimes and punishment are revisited in a 16th century prison setting. My growing up in Taiwan was much associated with a tightly controlled society under Taiwan’s martial law (1949-1987). My return to Taiwan after decades of living abroad has exposed me to a liberated, intricate and generous new generation with whom I have only now begun to become acquainted. To be representing Taiwan in its current complex state is a tremendous task, and I am grateful to be accompanied on this venture by the visionary curator Paul B. Preciado and the dedicated VB team at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Shu Lea Cheang. Photo: Jackie Baier.

Shu Lea Cheang. Photo: Jackie Baier.

Who is Shu Lea Cheang?

Born in 1954, Shu Lea Cheang grew up in Taiwan. She received a BA in History from the National Taiwan University in 1976 and an MA in Cinema Studies from New York University in 1979. A multimedia artist, Cheang is a pioneer of net-based art, and works in the fields of net-based installation, social interface, networked performance and film production. While living in the West, including Holland, the United States and United Kingdom, as well as in Japan, she gained a multifaceted perspective that allowed her to establish her own distinctive style.

Cheang considers herself a “digital nomad”, whose “artistic footprint” spans continents, and whose work reflects her life of travels and movements, through net art installation, feature-length films and art actions. In her oeuvre, she explores and rethinks “the middle ground between technology and humanity in the era of globalisation”, engaging with socio-political issues such as gender and body politics, ethnic and cultural diversity, history and the environment. Fluidø (2017), which was screened in the Panorama section of the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, is a recent example of her science-fiction feature film work, in which she explores an alternative reality where gender fluid genetically evolved humans produce a new narcotic inside their bodies.

Click here to watch the trailer for ‘Fluidø’ (2017) by Shu Lea Cheang on Vimeo

For a long time, Cheang has focused on the nature of electronic/digital technology, emphasising collective participation and intervention. During the 1980s, she produced independent videos and grass-roots television programmes, while also documenting street demonstrations in New York City at the time, and starting to create video art. With the spread of computers and the rise of the internet, in the 1990s she began to explore net art, creating installations combining computer programmes and video interaction connecting virtual networks with real spaces. At the same time, she also started a series of creative, performance and action projects. Her work BRANDON (1998-1999) was the first web art piece commissioned and collected by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.

Since 2000, her works are situated in the scenario of a post-netcrash age, in a science fiction environment, as a counternarrative of the optimism about the future of the internet. Cheang imagines an alternative reality where the internet goes beyond its essential function of digital communication technology, and becomes an artistic medium of collective creation, through which viewers confront contemporary social issues. Cheang thus creates collective experiences that cross cultures and bridge the virtual and real worlds. As TFAM writes, her works

promote the redistribution of ideas with the aim of achieving genuine social action, she manifests the concept of contemporary art as a form that spans physical boundaries in the digital age.

Click here to watch a video navigation of the restored web artwork ‘Brandon’ (1998–99) by Shu Lea Cheang on YouTube

Quoted by TFAM, Preciado says of his upcoming collaboration on the Taiwan Pavilion and the relevance of Cheang’s work today:

We are living through a moment of planetary transformation with the advent of artificial intelligence, sophisticated warfare technologies, genetic engineering, and global internet. This is a paradigm shift only comparable to the one that took place with the invention of the printing press and global colonization. The political and poetic potentiality of this moment is as big as the risks of building new forms of oppression and exclusion. We need new grammars and new images in order to forge a new subjectivity, to invent new ways of feeling and desiring.

I see Shu Lea Cheang’s work as one of the most powerful creative and experimental tools to navigate this transition. Bringing together many underground traditions, from transfeminism, queer and anti-racist politics, as well as science fiction narrative, video art, and performance, Shu Lea Cheang’s work is a reflection on what it means to be free, to act freely within contemporary society. The historic halls of the Palazzo delle Prigioni Venice, the former prison of the Palazzo Ducale, are an exquisite site to think about the conditions of contemporary subjection, about the constructed limits between normalcy and deviancy, as well as to imagine new emancipatory practices.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia


The Taiwan Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale will be on view from 11 May to 24 November 2019 at Palazzo delle Prigioni, Venice, Italy.

Related Topics: Taiwanese artists, art and the intenet, multimedia, biennales, Venice Biennale, news

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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