Drones, Frosted Bats and the Testimony of the Deceased (2017), four-channel video installation, 3 min 40 sec – 8 min 40 sec. All images: Unless otherwise noted, courtesy and © Hsu Chia-Wei.
ART iT: We were just talking about different approaches to history and how they relate to competing understandings of Asia as a region. I find there is a strong archaeological sensibility that informs your works, but does that necessarily have something to do with the experience of colonization in Taiwan?
HCW: I think it’s more that some of the features in my approach happen to resemble archaeology. My works are often rooted in a particular place, but I believe that an event that happens in one place or affects one person is never about that one thing only. It also has to do with the broader space-time of the moment. That perspective relates to archaeology and the idea of different geological strata. There’s no way you could pick up a shard of pottery and analyze everything about it in one glance. You would have to look at in section and compare it with similar styles from the same period and do other research before you could determine what era it comes from or what style it represents. So although my works deal with a certain place or person, I always pay attention to that kind of cross-sectional space and time.
ART iT: And is that something you came up with in response to the postcolonial situation of Taiwan?
HCW: I’d say it’s a coincidence. For example, it just happened that Industrial Research Institute ended up having an archaeological aspect. The research institute is located in Taipei, but now if you go there it’s just a building, with nothing else. So in order to push the project further, I had to look through the research papers the institute produced at the time. But those research papers are now scattered across different sites in Taiwan, so it’s not just about the research institute alone. We found things from scientific projects that were carried out all over Taiwan, and they constituted something like the geological stratum for the research. Although we started with a single topic, that topic was distributed across many different places that were all buried in the same spatiotemporal context. And then, of course, since there’s no one left from that period, we had to reconstruct everything from different clues or materials and documents, and that also became a kind of archaeological process.
Both: Nuclear Decay Timer (2017), Four-channel video installation, 8 min 40 sec.
ART iT: Among the older generation of filmmakers in Taiwan, Hou Hsiao-hsien has explored Taiwan’s recent past in films like A City of Sadness (1989), while in contemporary art the media artist Chen Chieh-jen has also made many works about historical events. How do you view these older artists? What did you learn from them, and how would you distinguish your own practice from theirs?
HCW: I feel there are some parts to my practice that relate to them and others that don’t. To use an old Taiwanese term, Hou Hsiao-hsien is a waishengren – someone who came over from the mainland – who was raised in a military dependents’ village. But everyone feels his films are very Taiwanese. The approach that Hou came up with, which I think was really important at the time, is that he didn’t take sides in the ideological oppositions between what is native and what not. He was concerned with how different ethnic groups could live together and coexist in the present. His works actually broke through the ideological opposition of native and foreign, and we could even say they broke through the issues regarding outsiders making films about native issues. There were a lot of people working with local realism then, but the more works they made, the narrower their perspective became, so that all they could talk about was Taiwan’s locality. It was very limited, whereas Hou’s locality was more inclusive.
The important thing about Chen Chieh-jen is that, even though his works all deal with social issues, he doesn’t make the works at the same time as when the incidents occur. For example, he didn’t start his project about the citizens’ movement campaigning for the preservation of the Losheng Sanitarium in Taipei, Realm of Reverberations (2014), until almost a decade after the height of the movement. Where the news media always chases after newer and newer news, Chen’s work slows the incident down so that people can see it and think about it from a different angle. That is not something that is really possible to do in the moment when everything is happening and everybody is debating what happened.
Both Hou and Chen have certainly influenced me – especially in terms of how I think about historical events. But in the end I come from a different generation with a different social experience. My generation uses computers and the internet and other new technologies, as well as social media sites like Facebook. Given that social context, we will necessarily come up with our own tools and approaches for thinking about the same events that concerned previous generations. My working process for Industrial Research Institute was actually very similar to the way we use the internet, in that it developed out of a network of associations among different keywords. But the internet was not so developed when Hou made City of Sadness, so he was working with a filmic or novelistic language, which had a more or less linear narrative arc. Now when we use the internet and we google keywords, we don’t think in terms of narrative arcs but rather associative relations among different points.
ART iT: So do you feel your historical stance is different from that of the older generation?
HCW: That’s hard to say. Every artist is different, and the same holds for the older generation, too. For example, there were some artists who felt that Taiwanese nativism was important and opposed the KMT. Then there were the leftists, who opposed the KMT but were also sympathetic to communist China. Both of them opposed the KMT, but one was anti-China and the other pro-China. Since they shared the same enemy, the KMT, there were times when they would get together and you couldn’t tell them apart, but behind the scenes they had different stances. So everyone being different makes it really complex, and I’m in no position to say what kind of attitude the older generation had toward history. But that’s probably what Hou Hsiao-hsien wanted to focus on – the way all these positions coexisted. So in City of Sadness, we see mainlanders, native Taiwanese and even Japanese existing together. He’s not trying to say any one of them represents Taiwan, because they are all aspects of the conditions there.
What makes me a bit different from Hou is that I’m farther away from all that. As I mentioned earlier, Hou comes from the generation who were dealing with the experiences that their parents lived through, which they had heard about as they were growing up. That meant they were very close to the history. But what I’m dealing with is more remote – especially when you consider Nuclear Decay Timer, which deals with events that took place 40 million years ago, even before the birth of humans. The history I’m dealing with skips around. I can jump from doing a 13th-century Noh play to something that happened 40 million years ago to something from the colonial period. It’s not like the themes that I’m interested in develop out of issues from my parents’ generation or issues from home, the way it did for the older generation.
Above: Marshal Tie Jia – Jingsi Village (2013), single-channel video, 10 min. Below: Marshal Tie Jia – Turtle Island (2012) single-channel video, 6 min 35 sec.
ART iT: The movement of the camera has a distinct presence in works such as Huatong Village and Marshal Tie Jia – Jingsi Village (2013). And then in SH-SY5Y (2013) and Nuclear Decay Timer you use 3-D animation in a way such that the gaze is constantly on the move. What does the camera represent for you? Does it represent your own gaze, the gaze of a third person, or some kind of external, objective gaze?
HCW: It’s slightly different for each work. With works like Huatong Village, Jingsi Village, and even The Story of Hoping Island (2008), the location is really important – even the titles are taken from the place names. Sometimes stories and memories can be very abstract or fleeting, but they can also be tied to specific places. That’s what we experience when we go someplace and suddenly have memories come welling up. Monuments are a good example of this. Monuments try to tie the memory to the place. That’s why I feel it’s best to start from the place if you want to excavate stories and memories. We can discover many things in the place, including issues of identity. If you feel a place is your home, or your workplace, say, then that feeling is a kind of identification with the place. So we can excavate memories and identities from a place and discover all kinds of other things in the process.
That was one of my main concerns in the group of works I mentioned above. I approached each work through the place, which led my cinematography to take a different tack from conventional films. Generally, the characters in a film are human, and the film tells a story by following the characters around and filming the events they experience – the people are the priority. But in my works, the place is the priority, and the camera focuses on the place and its environment, which are like the stage where things happen. So in contrast to films in which people are the main characters, I film a place.
But works like SH-SY5Y, which is about cancer cells, or Nuclear Decay Timer, which is about zircon ore, don’t deal with a single place, and they mix together many different materials, from 3-D animation to documents to 2-D animations. I feel these works are closer to our contemporary experience of the internet. It’s like when you Google a keyword: You end up getting back all kinds of videos and images in response. Some may be documentary and others animated, some may be unremarkable images and others beautiful images, some will be high quality and others poor. That sensibility informs those two works. They bring different materials together as if they were in a networked relationship. The story is organized through those materials, and it’s not necessarily the case that I took up a camera and filmed everything myself.
Then there are also works like Huai Mo Village (2012) and Marshal Tie Jia – Turtle Island (2012), in which I turn the event of filming into an action itself. Normally when we watch a film we follow a story, but aside from the story, the filming process is itself an actual event. So in Huai Mo Village, I used the act of filming itself as an event for organizing the children in the village, with everybody participating in the filming. In these works, the filming process itself is the focal point and not just a behind-the-scenes process.
ART iT: This time you are working on a performance commission for Arts Commons Tokyo. Having made so many video works, how do you feel about making a performance?
HCW: I haven’t directed many live performances, but I have done many collaborations with performance artists. For example, I worked with Noh performers in Takasago, or Thai puppet theater in Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau (2015), and shamanic dance (nuo wu) in Jingsi Village. So my works are often made in collaboration with different performing arts. But it’s not like I’m telling the performers what to do or how to move. The way it usually works is that I set up the location, and then they do their normal performance there and I film it. Although it’s a little different this time, it’s almost like I’m setting up a film shoot and then having the audience tag along.
Black and White – Giant Panda (2018), single-channel video, 52 min 48 sec.
ART iT: The idea of using the land as the main character in your video works is interesting. In the case of a performance, are people necessarily the main characters?
HCW: It’s true that previous works were more connected to specific places, but after I finished the Industrial Research Institute project I started to think more about the perspective of nonhuman things. That’s what led me to the idea for this performance, which will be about the giant panda. It will talk about geopolitical history through the perspective of the panda. But because pandas are so cute, I thought the topic was better suited for comedy. I learned about Noh theater while working on Takasago, and an important element of Noh theater is the kyogen intermission performance, which is a comedic form similar to contemporary manzai stand-up comedy. So I decided to combine this Japanese comedic tradition with the figure of the panda.
The entire performance will be done by manzai comedians who talk about famous pandas from across history. One panda is related to World War II, another to the Cold War. The comedians will tell the stories of the individual pandas, and as they perform they will act and speak or present historical photographs and film clips.
ART iT: So language will be an important medium for this work?
HCW: Yes. The performers will all be using Japanese, but it should be pretty funny. Although what we consider to be funny or not can also be really abstract and hard to grasp, as it is connected to the particular culture of each place. What Japanese people find to be funny is probably completely different from what Taiwanese people find to be funny.
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Hsu Chia-Wei: Not Only Black-and-White