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Thinking about “Experimentation” Within Uncertainty—Interview with WANG Jun-Jieh, Curator of Re-Base: When Experiments Become Attitude

KAO Chung-Li, Narcissus with Echo. Photo courtesy of C-LAB
Re-BaseexperimentContemporary Art

In November 2018, the exhibition Re-Base: When Experiments Become Attitude curated by WANG Jun-Jieh officially opened, involving collaborations with 11 artists and groups, and occupying several spaces in the Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab (C-LAB) complex. Its core concept was “experimentation,” which responded to the historical and cultural meaning of the base itself on the one hand and, on the other, questioned the spirit of creation as the art and thoughts become the essence for constructing contemporary civilization and identity, which is uncertain about the future but persistent. In a conversation with the curator WANG Jun-Jieh, we reorganized his active imagination on the “experimentation” concept of this exhibition.

Please tell us why the theme of the exhibition was “experimentation”?

Curator WANG Jun-Jieh. Photo by CHEN Hui-Chiao

WANG Jun-Jieh (hereafter simplified as WANG): The Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab (C-LAB) was originally called the “Air Force Command Headquarters Culture Lab.” The concept of “experimentation” was the starting point of its development. So, I started from this angle, thinking about “what should be the focus if I intend to interpret this space and find artists?” “Experimentation” seems to be an old word. But we have never really talked about it. In addition, I am deeply interested in art history, so I adopted so-called Western historical views. But I did not necessarily want to interpret the Western structure. It is just that from the time we were very young, our education was influenced by foreign knowledge. But we have never figured this out. Local knowledge is often misused or only used as a tool for political struggle. All the concepts are very vague. I hoped to at least return to the origins of the knowledge acquired during training. For example, why is Western art history constructed in this way? What does it mean to our environment? This was my starting point.

Please explain why the exhibition, Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form, curated by Harald SZEEMANN in 1969, is cited in the exhibition discourse?

WANG: At first glance, it seems that there is some influence from him and an attempt to respond to that exhibition. Actually, it is not true. The Western world has a complete cultural and art context. Every era is connected. Due to those twists and turns, contemporary art developed. But when we look at cultural development in Taiwan today, we find that there are no such contextual turns. Ten years or twenty years may compose a timeline, but there is no procedure for creating effective connections.

Looking back on the space of C-LAB, why is it now a cultural base and why does it emphasize experimentation? In Taiwan, there are diverse aspects of culture, but no experimental context. It just seems to be a noun, a slogan. But, in the Western world, experimentation can be constructed in context. For example, in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, individual and group of artists, and those from various schools broke through conventions and created new possibilities. This was contextual progress. SZEEMANN’s exhibition was only one point but could be regarded as a microcosm. SZEEMANN was a fine arts museum curator, but proposed a new method of exhibition and interpretation, which was fastened to the context of Western art development. As for us, we chose the Air Force Command Headquarters as the cultural base and endowed it with plenty of imagination; what is the true meaning of “experimentation?” For me, the reference to SZEEMANN’s exhibition is more about asking questions rather than responding to it. Such a context is too far away from us to draw an analogy.

It seems that everything makes sense in the context of Western history. In contrast, the progress of Taiwan is complicated, in which Western thought is unavoidably included. The concepts of contemporary art that we talk about today are basically all from the West. Therefore, if we want to discuss the possibility of experimentation without understanding Western thought, how can we treat the history of transformation in our culture? On one hand, we must understand others, while on the other, we must look at ourselves. Finally, from a higher position we can see what our role is in terms of globalization.

In planning this exhibition, what did you think about the connection between the invited artists and the spaces?

WANG: We expected commissioned works and hoped the artists would propose new ones. Therefore, in the beginning when we were contacting artists, we had already compiled information about the history, available spaces, and curatorial concepts. The artists decided whether to join the exhibition based on the information so they would not propose unrelated works. The connection to the space could be easily seen in some works, but for others this connection needed to be discussed layer by layer.

In the beginning, I started to develop and imagine a network of artists first from just a few (CHEANG Shu-Lea, KAO Chung-Li, CHEN Hui-Chiao, and HSIA Yu). Their creations possess an untimely and rebellious style. (The works appear complete but are difficult to market and define.) I think through such relationships, we can have a renewed sense of the path to follow. There is uncertainty in both the existing historical view and the future. If we don’t understand the Western world, we can’t understand why we’ve gone through such development. As for the future, what is the vision proposed in the works? So, it was important to have some openness in this exhibition. Compared with some present-day systems such as the art market, education, and taxonomy, this openness seems contradictory, but we have never really thought about it.

CHEANG Shu-Lea + Matthew FULLER, Sleep 79. Photo courtesy of C-LAB

Despite the many discussions on crossing disciplines, it remains a vague and rough concept today. As to the current trends in Europe, they seldom intentionally emphasize the crossing of disciplines. Museums, artists, and curators are all re-interpreting art history, since the Western art history is very mature, and they are looking for new methods of interpretation. Should we observe the overall environment and incidents from interlaced and different angles rather than from a single one? I think we should return to the base itself to continue the discussion: Why do we want to do this? It is a subjective and partial opinion, but we may start from it. Is it possible to rethink the connection between the mainstream and non-mainstream, core and non-core? Since “experimentation” has been proposed here, it will be a pity if we don’t consider the future development of culture based on experimental thoughts. I hope there will be more diverse consideration of works and the inclusion of different types of works.

We have talked about the untimely and rebellious character of the works. Such characteristics can also be found in your art works, the ones based on the uncertainty such as No-man Theater. What influence do these two traits have on your curating?

WANG: That is a good question. But here we need to talk about something more personal. I entered the art field at an early stage. I have been consistent in my creative views and state, keeping creating conceptual, large, mixed-media installations. Such works are not mainstream. My later works are more personalized or tend to discuss art history and imagery rather than mainstream issues (politics or social intervention). But this does not mean I don’t care about such issues. Instead, everyone has different focus at different periods of time. This is how an artist poses questions to him/herself and it’s a matter of the attitude of an artist and why he/she creates.

On the other hand, it is also my question to the art ecology. And the exhibition is an extension of this perspective. For me, these artists’ works have such an orientation. I want to talk about the nature of art from “experimentation.” What is the basis for art as it develops and affects civilization and culture? Theoretically, it should be a very pure construction of a certain attitude, which in some people’s viewpoint is old-fashioned. But I want to emphasize that Taiwan is not equal to the world. You can neither look at the world from Taiwan nor look at Taiwan directly from the world. You must look at the relationship between Taiwanese history and the rest of the world. Have we constructed a core and solid aesthetic foundation when embracing globalization? If not, how do we talk about the influence globalization has on us? As we embrace the world today, from what angles do we look at art, culture, and the world?

DENG Yau-Horng, Shadow of a Cocoon. Photo courtesy of C-LAB

Untimely, rebellious, and non-mainstream issues are likely to be interpreted vaguely or freely instead of being discussed in terms of their aesthetic or creative essence in Taiwan. We mostly deal with superficial questions. I am always mentioning “in-between.” In 2006, Dirty Yoga also dealt with such a concept: “Is there anything ‘in-between’”? This time, the work of DENG Yau-Horng focuses on something existing in the gap, which we can’t escape from and we haven’t discussed well enough. From the perspective of Western contemporary art, we can see the context of experimental art. But from the perspective of Taiwan, we should construct a new discussion mechanism to talk about the meaning of so-called “experimentation.”

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