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ESSAYS Mousse 74

This Piece of Land, These Bits of Sea

by Robin Peckham

 

This piece of land is an island. It is no accident that Taiwan’s best-known contemporary artist, Tehching Hsieh, arrived in New York in 1974 to begin his artistic career as a sailor on an oil tanker. By metaphorically jumping ship, leaving home via its maritime connections to the global economy, he repeated his first performance, Jump Piece (1973), in which he jumped out of a window in Taiwan and broke his ankles. Landing at the center of the art world one year later, he left one island for another, traversing two oceans and no continents on his way. In that special genre of world-swallowing historical grand theories, the dialectic of blue and green across the surface of the globe assumes a special importance. Fernand Braudel inverted the commonplace geography of Western civilization by re-centering the Mediterranean sea rather than the European landmass as the cradle of globalization.1 Carl Schmitt, writing during World War II, saw world history as a procession of battles between “sea powers” and “land powers,” a metaphysical distinction that has since lost many of its politically problematic original overtones in the now widely accepted distinction between the occupying continental empire and the trading naval empire.2 Schmitt’s arguments for the territorial integrity of Nazi Germany in the face of liberal Britain have largely been consigned to history, but have recently enjoyed a surge of interest in China, where they were introduced around fifteen years ago by Liu Xiaofeng and quickly made their way into the corridors of power. Unity, integrity, and the consolidation of a domestic nation via opposition to an external enemy: useful tools for any state, these tenets have created a back door for broader geopolitical philosophies of land and sea.

 

Traditionally, China has considered itself a land empire (indeed, both the Yuan and Qing dynasties arrived via the overland routes of the Central Asian steppe). There is the anecdote of Empress Dowager Cixi rebuilding the Summer Palace after the Second Opium War (1856–60) in which she requisitioned funds intended for the modernization of the imperial navy to fix a decorative marble boat. This case, of course, is largely overblown. China’s merchant marine played an active role throughout Southeast Asia, but the perception often exerts more historical force than the reality. Taiwan, like many of the islands on the edges of the Chinese empire, was drawn into the global fold of maritime trade first by the Portuguese and the Dutch, then later by Koxinga, whose loyalist pirate kingdom in the Qing interregnum defined the territory as a place simultaneously within and beyond the imperial fold. Today, diplomatically isolated and subject to cyclical brain drain, youth in Taiwan live on both “treasure island” (one translation of the Ilha Formosa) and “ghost island” (a place with no future and no hope). This second figuration is adopted by Meuko! Meuko! and NAXS corp., the of-the-moment subcultural power couple, in their Ghost Island: Innervision (2018), a VR installation and live AV performance in the 2020 Taiwan Biennial, which works through the phantasmagoria of our technologically networked present to reposition the “ghost” as a future-oriented being.

It is almost a cultural truism that sailors can’t swim; there is a parallel in the mythology that islanders can’t sail. Director Huang Chia-chun captures this supreme irony in his documentary Whale Island(2020), which follows writer Liao Hung-chi and photographer Ray Chin as they challenge traditional cultural perceptions of the ocean as an essentially unsafe place. In choosing these two figures, though, Huang actually strengthens the notion that a love for the sea is fundamentally eccentric and antisocial: Liao is largely estranged from his family as he spends weeks drifting on a raft taking measurements along the Kuroshio Current, and Chin is clearly bored with his own children when he returns home from whale-watching expeditions. The ocean is for outsiders. Ultimately, Whale Island turns the oceanic into a political imperative through Lin Sheng-xiang’s inescapable score. The refrain: Taiwan is “not an island, but a whale” that needs to start moving and swim, swim, swim.

An instinctive fear of the ocean is often chalked up to a combination of belief systems derived from mountain traditions (on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, from the Hakka to the aboriginal) and the lurking possibility of amphibious invasion. For her photographic project Landscaping from History (2018), Yunyi Liu visited the Kinmen Islands, a liminal territory administered by Taiwan but located just kilometers off the coast of Xiamen in mainland China. There she documented in highly formal terms a full catalogue of armaments and defenses, as the entirety of the coastline has been militarized to repel a strategic threat. In aesthetic terms this work makes visible the hidden infrastructure of security that is presumed to be everywhere; in metaphysical terms, on the other hand, it redefines the porosity of the shore, turning the sea into a medium of both transport and danger. In Liu’s photographs, however, everything stands in ruins—an outmoded and forgotten system that nevertheless sits squarely in the public mind.

Back on the main island of Taiwan, the government has spent the last few years pushing for the development of a recreational yachting industry, an effort that necessitated transferring the regulation of certain ports from the Fisheries Agency to other state bodies. In several areas, private yachts and the fishing fleets now commingle. One measure of the success of this campaign, and the broader movement toward an acceptance of the ocean: Ni Hao’s installation Thalassophilia (2020), commissioned by the Digital Art Festival Taipei in 2020, which collages together underwater profile pictures shot by female Tinder users interested in free diving, snorkeling, and other aquatic hobbies. Ni sees in this trend an embrace of the ocean in the name of globalization and looking outward, albeit looking outward in a very immediate sense—one can’t get far by fin, after all.

In attempting to read and understand works like these that engage the land-sea dialectic over and through Taiwan, I have come across two broad categories. One is discursive where the other is material; one is cultural where the other is biological. One looks south and east, following policy and retracing the routes of ancient seafarers, while the other looks down, testing out the hardness of rock and the wetness of water.

This first group maps the sea through the land, bringing a terrestrial logic to maritime space. Charwei Tsai’s Lanyu – Three Stories (2012) is an ensemble of three video vignettes shot on Orchid Island, a small volcanic island off Taiwan’s southeast coast. Tsai finds in the island’s indigenous Tao people a spiritual dimension. Two of her stories are actually portraits, capturing subjects performing rituals in which they commune with the seas or the spirits within them: an elderly man requests the soul of his drowned grandfather, while a group of women supplicate for the safe passage of their husbands.

Similarly focused on small islands, Hsu Chia-Wei’s Marshal Tie Jia  (2012–13) returns to the Taiwan Strait, where the Matsu Islands are situated adjacent to Fujian in mainland China. Hsu was fascinated by the discovery of an islet under the legal ownership of Marshal Tie Jia, the Frog God, and documented the process of approaching the deity for permission to visit the island; he later traveled to Jiangxi province, where the Frog God was born before moving to Matsu. Off the west and east coasts, these islands play a strong role as mediums for divine communication, defining inside and out as sites for the beginning and ending of all journeys.

Islands can be tricky things when it comes to identity. James T. Hong’s filmTerra Nullius or: How to Be a Nationalist (2015) centers on the controversial Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, claimed simultaneously by Taiwan, China, and Japan. While Hsu Chia-Wei was able to successfully open a channel of communication with the Frog God and negotiate territorial questions with the netherworld, Hong had no such luck communicating across this impossible nexus of identitarian bureaucracy. In attempting to access the islands from all three political portals, he ultimately documents the civic groups that advocate on their respective states’ behalf—an awkward dynamic that seems worlds away from the people-government conflicts we observe on other islands.

Au Sow-Yee’s ongoing series  The Extreme Journey of Perwira and the Calm Sea: In 3 Acts  (2019–20) pushes these transnational networks of migration, identity, and (it must be said) duplicity into further configurations centered on the character of Tani Yutaka, a Japanese intelligence agent who was active in Malaysia in the 1940s as a state actor and a bandit. Embracing the geographical relativism of this region, Au is fascinated by how the colonial Japanese understanding of Taiwan as the “northernmost point of the south” dovetails with the Taiwanese government’s current New Southbound Policy, which recalibrates international cooperation and exchanges toward eighteen countries across South and Southeast Asia as well as Oceania and the Pacific.

Other artists map the land through the sea, using the materiality of water to destabilize the cultural order of land. This has been a dominant trend in Taiwan’s landmark exhibitions over the past year. For the 2020 Taipei Biennial, titled You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet, curators Martin Guinard and Bruno Latour invited the artists Chang Yung-Ta and Su Yu-Hsin to participate in a series of residencies spanning the Taroko Gorge in Taiwan and a research lab in Berlin, both resulting in digital Land art projects that represent and transubstantiate the materiality of the earth in novel forms. Chang’s resulting work, the scape.unseen  series (2020), consists of tall, transparent columns in which water slowly erodes soil and rock, mimicking the geological processes of Taroko and paying homage to Carl Cheng’s iconic Erosion Machines of the 1960s. Su’s work, Frame of Reference (2020), for its part, hones in on the visual politics of representing this kind of scientific research, creating an immersive environment in which the viewer becomes overwhelmed by the presentation of information—scientific data as cable news.

Having premiered at C-Lab this past fall and produced in collaboration with Performa New York, Su Hui-Yu’s The White Waters (2020) is a retelling of a retelling: his direct inspiration was a 1980s play of the same title from Critical Point Theatre Phenomenon, an experimental theater group involved with AIDS activism, which rewrote the ancient legend of the monk Fahai and the White Snake, two spirits battling over the right to immortality. In Su’s version, these characters face off on a series of flat-screen monitors on wheeled dollies while a dancer spins them around at a dizzying speed, forcing the audience to step quickly over spooling wires and continuously move around the exhibition space in order to get a view of the action between constantly reconfigured video walls. Water becomes a primordial force, this time drawn straight out of accretions of history and tradition. Wu Chi-Yu portrays something similarly elemental in  The LED Future  (2020), imagining a time without natural light. Intriguingly, Wu begins this four-channel essay film, ostensibly all about the sun, with a long look at maritime connections and the fiber-optic cables that run light beneath the sea. The question, always, is what these elements, these materials, these substrates, want with us and how we can engage with them after we have relinquished the fantasy of control.

This material dimension continued in the 2020 Taiwan Biennial, a separate large-scale exhibition curated by artist Yao Jui-Chung. There, Luo Jr-Shin installed the environmental work  Like a filter, matters passed through you and became a part of you  (2020), an expanded version of an ongoing project that brings together urinals, sticky floors, and snails in a meditation on the chemical changes that occur through and around us on a daily basis. Luo is particularly fascinated by the process of fermenting beer before it is then swallowed, digested, and exuded again. Pointing to the high percentage of bacteria within other organisms, from trees to the human body, he wonders if the things that colonize us might also control us. Zooming out, Yang Shun-Fa’s masterful project  Taiwan To Go  (2018–19) captures wild dogs on the tidal flats of the west coast, variously wading, swimming, and running across and between sandbars, mapping an ever-shifting topography through the direction and redirection of their own bodies. The lines they draw define the physical boundaries of a place where regulatory borders break down—somehow, it is nonhuman life that brings meaning, context, and grammar to the social. Lu Yu-Jui pushes this borderless network further afield with  Fishing Area  (2015), which tracks a Taiwanese fishing fleet harvesting squid half a world away, off the Falkland Islands. Where the viewer expects a conservation narrative, we are struck instead by the sheer density of life, as shot after shot frames so many millions of squid bodies that the mind can hardly keep track. Lu is absorbed into the metaphor of the squid fishing boats as a hungry beast absorbing the marine creatures day and night; the fishermen seem to work on a time zone of their own making, without recourse to rest until their holds are full.

Shifting borders between the social and the geological are particularly evident in the recent work of Lin Chuan-Chu, whose plein air landscapes of shores and hills seem at first to fit into the familiar genre of the literati retreat to nature modulated in a contemporary language—the artist studied ink painting, after all, and spent time depicting the forms of scholars’ rocks. Looking deeper into his practice, however, reveals an obvious ecological bent. Lin’s major intervention came in 2007, when the JUT Foundation invited him to produce a work on the bare site that would soon become a museum. In the resulting Rice for Thoughts (2007), he planted the entire city block with a functioning rice paddy, echoing Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield (1982) but bringing his life in the art world together with his childhood in a farming village. Wu Chi-Tsung, whose own work with cyanotype seems to contain both towering mountain peaks and cresting waves all at once, further brought the outdoors in when he invited the artist Saverio Tonoli to produce work in Taiwan with their shared medium of xuan paper. To make Self-Absorbed on the Rocks (2020), Tonoli impressed a long roll of paper directly onto wet rocks in the east coast tidal zone, then took the material back to the studio and used ink wash to complete the composition. Here nature as signifier is completely subsumed into nature as material, an intentional misreading of the sea as an open space that then allows it to be rewritten as a cultural territory.

In the longue durée of geological time, Taiwan refers to a dramatic spike that occurred when the Philippine Plate collided with the Eurasian Plate. Increasingly, the language that describes Taiwan is drawn from this definition: the phrase “this piece of land” seems, anecdotally, to be slowly replacing the more standard references to political jurisdictions, specific cultural backgrounds, and shared immediate histories. It is a phrase that recognizes a complex reality, including the arrival of successive waves of colonizing and occupying powers, settler societies, and the displacement of Indigenous peoples. In extending this claim to geoontology, contemporary Taiwan subsumes Aboriginal historical time in a way that could be seen as either inclusiveness or appropriation, and no doubt contains elements of both. The 2020 Taipei Biennial integrates the work of Cemelesai Takivalet and Aruwai Kaumakan, both of the Paiwan tribe. Takivalet contributes Virus Series (2020), a site-specific mural depicting a virus in a quasi-traditional motif; while the subject is somewhat on the nose in the age of COVID-19, this virus actually refers to a mysterious illness the youths of his tribe contracted when visiting an ancestral site several years ago. In Vines in the Mountains (2020), Kaumakan adapts a traditional circular weaving technique to bring her community back together after a forced relocation, physically weaving the social fabric anew. Culture is materiality, and biology is culture.

When we turn from “this island on the edges of empire” to “this piece of land,” an accidental displacement occurs within the logic of land and sea. Returning to Schmitt, there can be no appeal to territorial contiguity where we stand now; strictly speaking, there is no land. Instead, Taiwan writes a new dialectic between mountains and sea, between the materialities of earth and water, with the speaking subject pinned along a narrow strip called civilization wedged in between the two. If there is a universalism to be discovered here, it is in the ecological nature of the consciousness that is created in this matrix of desires. Mountains and seas do not provide source matter for stories but rather become the very substrate of what can be said. In our moment we can no longer speak of empire as an organizing principle. Even the most aggressively expansionist polities cannot compete with the network effects of social media, financial instruments, and semiconductor supply chains, all of which are alternately pressed into the service of the state only to find themselves suddenly breaking loose. Without empire, these fragments of geology, these pieces of land, offer something like a grounding reality so seductive that no dating app profile is left bereft of mountain, sea, sky: a shared dream of a better world.

 

[1] See Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean in the Ancient World (London: Penguin, 2001).
[2] See Carl Schmitt, Land and Sea: A World-Historical Meditation (1942; repr., Washington, DC: Plutarch, 1997).

 

Robin Peckham is a curator and editor currently living in Taiwan, where he is codirector of Taipei Dangdai. He previously served as editor in chief of LEAP, the international art magazine of contemporary China; founded the Hong Kong exhibition space Saamlung; and organized exhibitions for Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Fosun Foundation, K11 Art Foundation, M Woods Museum, and City University of Hong Kong. Peckham sat on the jury for the Hugo Boss Asia Art Award in 2015, and for TAICCA’s Cultural Content Technology Application Innovation Industry Flagship Project in 2020. He was on Apollo magazine’s “Thinkers” list of “40 under 40 Asia” in 2016, and had one of his shows listed by Artnews as one of the twenty most important exhibitions of the 2010s. His writing and lectures focus on technology, immersion, wellness, and popular culture. Peckham is also the founder of Friends and Family, an initiative to celebrate the cultural family and support and serve families through culture.

 

Originally published in Mousse 74

 

 

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