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Political Provocation in YAO Jui-Chung’s Republic of Cynic

YAO Jui-Chung, The Republic of Cynic: 1969, 2020. Photo © C-LAB
TEXT Ericamigo WU
historyCynicContemporary Art
Did Taiwan score a diplomatic win? A virtual nation, called the “Republic of Cynic” (R.O.C.), recently opened its “Embassy in the R.O.C.,” located at Art Space V (former U.S. Aid Building) at C-LAB. The nation comes with its own emblem, flag, anthem, and even passport. Artist YAO Jui-Chung was invited here to curate a solo exhibition featuring video installation works and contemporary art featuring paintings, photography, video installations related to the territory. Visitors only need to be stamped at the check point of Art Space V to be “admitted” beyond its borders, to discover and understand the foundational stories and aesthetic principles of the nation.

Originally conceptualized in 2008 by artist YAO Jui-Chung, the Republic of Cynic remained an uncompleted project until now. In it, the cynic and the devil are spiritual figures of the state, though paradoxically the cynic, who should be skeptical of all thought, dogma, and custom, sides with the devil in using the latter’s supernatural powers and uttering of morally corrupt, lustful words towards “nation-founding.” Conjoined at the hips like Siamese twins, they are portrayed in the national emblem as giving birth to Golden Baby, with their body gilded and heads horned, continuing to bring chaos to the world.1

The Cynic and the Devil Together Founds the R.O.C.

“Cynic” originates from the Ancient Greek school of Cynicism, a group of philosophers who scorned authority, questioned dogmas, and despised monetary and material wealth, who by exaggerated daily behavior and dialectics ripped apart the hypocritical ways of others in a radical manner. As time went on, however, cynicism is itself changed; the contemporary cynic carries a face of criticism and skepticism, or even mockery of commonly accepted, positive values. YAO in the creation of The Cynic (2004) and the Republic of Cynic (2006) series uses the word “cynic” as title words, responding to the absurdity of Taiwan’s politics through mockery and ridicule,2 but also calling out the contemporary cynic’s deal with the devil, commingling but separately harboring ideas of self-interest. YAO alludes to the international reality of how the Republic of China (also abbreviated R.O.C. as the Republic of Cynic), as well as other colonized nations, needs to deal variously with the established superpowers, each devil-like in their own way, in a bid to survive. Thus, the cynic/small nation and devil/superpower remains lockstep in a symbiotic relationship.

YAO Jui-Chung, The Republic of Cynic: 1979, 2020. Photo © C-LAB

Read from this angle, it is not hard to grasp YAO’s train of thought in the newly commissioned by C-LAB, four-part video installation of the Republic of the Cynic, and why he had chosen the U.S. Aid Building as its setting. The four new videos are based respectively on the: 1969 U.S. Moon Landing, 1979 U.S.-P.R.C. Joint Communique, 1989 Tienanmen Square “June Fourth Incident,” and 2001 September 11 attacks in the U.S., in which the artist reinterprets each of these major historical cross-sections in his deliberate “YAO’s style.”

1969, 1979, 1989, 2001, New Works to Provoke the Politically Sensitive

In 1969, the video broadcast of American astronauts planting a flag on the moon not only marks human history, but solidifies America’s position as a global superpower. YAO visits Tianliao Moon World in Southern Taiwan to film The Republic of Cynic: 1969, in which he performs as an astronaut putting a golf ball into the hole, taking down the American Flag and jettisoning it, and replacing it with the Flag of the Republic of Cynic, declaring a “takeover.” During the cold war, the U.S. and the USSR had the support of nations in their respective capitalist and communist blocs. However, the U.S. established ties with the PRC, essentially recognizing the P.R.C. as the sole legal government of China. The Republic of Cynic: 1979 invokes the memory of the eve of the establishment of formal political relations with the P.R.C., when the U.S. ended political ties with the Republic of China, causing mass anti-American demonstrations across Taiwan. Curiously, the police guarding the embassy of the Republic of Cynic looked the part of a body builder, who after being hit by 500 eggs, carries out the signature posturing moves of a body building contestant, as Taiwan’s historic trauma mixes with the muscular male body awash in egg liquids, reeking of eroticism.

The Republic of Cynic: 1989, in its recreation of the “June Fourth Incident,” shows the infamous photo of the “Tank Man” facing a convoy of approaching tanks. YAO bought four inflatable decoy tanks from China as props and filmed the sequence on set at C-LAB. During his solo exhibition, the four partially inflated tanks are exhibited in the square—with none of the atmosphere of pending doom, but four flabby tanks looking rather like “paper tigers.” The similarly harrowing real-life event of 9/11, arguably one of the most representative scenes of modern day crises, gripped the world with fear in the wake of terrorist attacks. In The Republic of Cynic: 2001, a masked man donning full body armor with a specially designed firecrackers jacket, walks into the Republic of Cynic Police Station, and sets them off in a flashy pyrotechnics show, not a sign of terrorism to be detected, only a lavish air of Hollywood special effects.

Displayed concurrently at Art Space V are YAO’s previous works in the same vein, offering a glimpse of the relationship between the cynic and the devil. These include: Hovering “Propeller Man” motif (1994), Recover Mainland China: Do Military – The Florist’s Daisy Compendium (1994-1996), urinating like a dog declaring its territory in Territory Takeover series (1994), sarcasm towards objectification in consumerism in Beyond the Human Being series (2001), The Cynic (2004), and The Republic of Cynic (2006).  Also presented in the exhibition as a retrospective on YAO’s formative years, as well as to provide context, are the Pro-Unification Journals founded by YAO while studying at the National Institute of the Arts (present day Taipei National University of the Arts), and archival material on Ta-Da-Na Experimental Group, formed in collaboration with theater, dance, music, and fine arts department on campus.

The U.S. Aid Building was built in the 1950s during the period of U.S. foreign aid, when the R.O.C. Air Force received most of its equipment from the U.S. The U.S. Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) also set up operations at R.O.C. Air Force Command at this time. Thus, the reinforced concrete and hollow concrete masonry unit structure is a testament to its history. Following the evacuation of R.O.C. Air Force Command in 2012, U.S. Aid Building has been disused, until preliminary renovations were undertaken prior to its opening for this exhibition. Presented in its state of semi-ruin as the “Republic of Cynic Embassy in the R.O.C.,” it is also a metaphor for the state of the R.O.C.’s (Republic of China’s) diplomatic impasse.

Funnily enough, YAO (b. 1969), who was drafted here in 1994 to serve at the Political Warfare Division of the Air Force, working on thought education and recreation affairs,3 so his life experiences overlap with his creative endeavors, and his solo exhibition at this space seems preordained.

YAO conceptualizes the Chung-Cheng Hall as the “Republic of China Museum of History,” in remembrance of this non-existent phantom political entity. Photo by YAO Jui-Chung

A Patriot’s Summons, and the Absurdity of Taiwanese History and Politics

In the 1990s, YAO in his 20s rose to prominence through works such as Territory Takeover (1994) and Recover Mainland China series (1994-1996). These works, made prior to and following his military service, on the one hand spoke to the collective memories of Taiwanese people born between 1969 and 1979, who experienced party-state education, end of martial law, and authoritarian rule. One the other hand, they indicated the shifting political discourses and historical interpretation across the times. Thus, “Recover Mainland China” became a bona fide motto, individual thought systems were leveled, and historical realities which put people into confusion, dissociation, despair, blackout, and apathy came to define the generation. YAO’s political art, from the early work of “Propeller Man” motif to the Recover Mainland China series, and Mt. Jade Floating, not only mocks the absurdity of authoritarian education, but also speaks to the vanity of thought and disjointed history through the metaphor of the hovering body. These works are on display at the Art Space IV (former Zhongzheng Hall).

The Art Space IV was an assembly hall, which still retains the patriotic slogans of the past. YAO conceptualizes the Hall as the “Republic of China Museum of History,” in remembrance of this non-existent phantom political entity. In the Hall, he displays personal artifacts of military service, such as draft documents, records of merits, military propaganda such as National Revolutionary Army and Guidelines for National Unification, invoking the collective memory of thought control under the Party-State education system. Also on exhibit are video installations of Recover Mainland China: Action, Mt. Jade Floating, Phantom of History, March Past, Long Live, Long Long Live. Through exposition of private documents, YAO presents the interplay of personal life and Taiwanese politics, and offers a view on how he utilizes these materials in artistic creation. Addressing the absurdity of Taiwanese history and politics, as seen in Long Live, YAO plays the role of military commander, shouting “Long Live!” to the top of his voice in an abandoned hall, to a non-existent audience, summoning the phantom of the party state with the slogan of dynasties past, which reverberates in the emptiness of the Zhongzheng Hall.

Whether it’s the naked bodies urinating for snapshots in Territory Takeover, or the sexual act as a metaphor for unequal footing between superpowers and weaker nations in The Cynic (2004), or political provocation of sensitive topics in video installations of The Republic of Cynic (2006), YAO casts a cold eye with his consistently deprecating, mocking, and taunting “YAO-style.” Time is like a runaway train, barely has the fog lifted on our own history before we’re thrown into an unfathomable digital era of risks and opportunities. The search for reality or the truth is no longer relevant: cynicism and mockery is the politically correct posture going forward. In a future where one cannot shake the scorch marks of history’s absurdity, what is the harm in it to join the Republic of Cynic and provoke some?

TEXT Ericamigo WU
historyCynicContemporary Art
National Emblem from YAO Jui-Chung’s 2004 The Cynic: People to People, Government to Government, featuring the inscriptions “ASS TO ASS, ANUS TO ANUS” and “PEOPLE TO PEOPLE  GOVERNMENT TO GOVERNMENT”. The origin of this is from the first president of the World Anti-Communist League (WACL) Ku Cheng-kang’s (former Minister of the Interior) address in English, stating that the League is a “people to people” organization, rather than “government to government”. Due to his Guizhou accent, many mistook his words to mean “ass to ass“, and “anus to anus”.
From Beyond the Human Being to The Cynic series, YAO transliterates English pronunciations into approximate Chinese sound meanings for titles such as Hold and Get Shit (War and Peace), He Plays She Dies (Taiwanese), Kick You Dead (Chinese), as a mockery of politics.
According to YAO, university graduates were to be drafted into the Army. But since he had suspended studies due to failing a class in his 5th year, he was drafted into the Air Force on the basis of his high school diploma.
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