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Seeking Cultural Experiments within Language and Memory: The Linguistic Explorations of Taiwanese Video Artists, 2007-2011

JAO Chia-En, REM Sleep, 2011. Image courtesy of JAO Chia-En
Text WANG Po-Wei
cultural experimentPerformativityidentification

In the five years spanning 2007 to 2011, numerous relatively young Taiwanese artists around the age of thirty independently showed interest in the relationships between language, memory, and identity. These artists also embraced the video art trend that was ascendant at that time, positioning themselves as part of Taiwan’s “video generation.” Their work addressed the debate over Taiwanese subjectivity that gained prominence in the 1990s through more traditional mediums such as painting, sculpture, and installation art. By exploring how video can express and even intervene in the relationship between language and identity, these artists used the perspectives of image and memory to re-examine the enduring questions of subjectivity.

The Traditional Chinese characters version of Benedict ANDERSON’s seminal work Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism was first published in 1999 and quickly became the central theoretical touchstone for a wave of art projects focusing on image and memory. Between 1999 and 2007, this book was an absolutely unavoidable force in the debate in intellectual circles over nationality, statehood, and subjectivity. We might even say that this text led an entire generation to recognize that the formation of identity is closely linked to language, and that language simply cannot be overlooked in any discussion of identity. Regardless of whether the young artists of those years had actually read WU Rwei-Ren’s translation of this classic text, they were likely compelled by the atmosphere of the times to address this tangled knot of questions. By 2011, so much attention had been devoted to this subject, and such a firm foundation of work had been built around it, that further explorations no longer seemed warranted, and it quickly faded from prominence in concert with the rapid cycle of trends.

In terms of timeline, we can link the abovementioned years of 2007 and 2011 to certain important events. The first such event was asymposium titled “Art of Frustration in Taiwan,” organized by LIN Hong-John in 2007, which addressed the question of “generations” in the development of political art in Taiwan. The second relevant marker was the phenomenon in 2011 of younger artists largely shifting their attention to the opposition of the Kuokuang petrochemical project, nuclear energy, and the Wenlin Yuan urban renewal project. In 2007, many participants in the “Art of Frustration in Taiwan” symposium characterized the current generation of artists in their late twenties as having lost the fervor to intervene in and change society through art like their predecessors; instead, they were “mumbling to themselves.” “Light/shallow/brief/little” and “tiny/secret/odd/quirky” were the descriptors commonly attached to this so-called “cartoon & comic generation” of artists. And yet, in terms of cultural periodization, the “cartoon & comic generation” is essentially indistinguishable from the generation of artists who passionately threw themselves into folk culture, political activism, and societal intervention beginning in 2011 and continuing to this day. 1Aleida ASSMANN reminds us that the formulation of “generations” implies a historical perspective, and that “history” is experienced, remembered, forgotten, and reconstructed by different groups with different methods in different eras. Consequently, it is necessary to consider the varying relationship between history and memory for different generations.2If “culture” implies the solidification of a shared value system within a certain group during a certain time period, then perhaps we can view the explorations of the relationship between language and memory by young video artists in the five years between 2007 and 2011 as one facet of cultural formation. In this way, we can examine how various artists sought to probe the underlying cultural structures within language and memory.

Memory-like Images as Contemporary Myths

The fission between language and memory is clearly exhibited in the artworks of HSU Chia-Wei. The Story of Hoping Island, which he shot in 2008, takes the Hoping Island shipyard in Keelung as its setting. In this film, in which no people appear, a grandmotherly voiceover describes in Japanese the habits of the “Ni-Ku,” a fictional organism that transverses the space between memory and reality. This fabricated species comes to life through the vivid narrative, even though we never see it within the footage of the shipyard. The artist clearly views the shipyard setting as a “crystallization of memory,”3and in the process of making a film with this setting, he creates an expanding distinction between colloquial speech and written language: the elderly narrator speaks in Japanese, which most Taiwanese people do not understand, but the subtitles are in Chinese. The artist wants the audience to realize that everyday language exists within the discrepancy between what is spoken and what is written (and read). As the spoken part of the film, Japanese represents the commonly used language of the generation of Taiwanese who received Japanese educations. In contrast, subsequent generations, who grew up using Chinese after the Kuomintang government arrived in Taiwan, may remember the same history as their predecessors, but these memories are stored in a different language. The Ni-Ku bores through the ground, and it also bores through our memories via the voices. In addition to digging holes in the realm of memories, it also carves tunnels through the layers of narrative voice. The artist draws on this animal, which never appears in the film but nonetheless travels freely through memory and language, to transform memory from its rigid role of checking the truthfulness of an ethnic “(objective) history” into what has already lost efficacy in modern times: “myth.” “Mythic events” serve to reconstruct ethnic origin stories and provide them with a foundation. During the transition between generations, they ameliorate the changes wrought by time and bring new beginnings.4

HSU Chia-Wei, The Story of Hoping Island, 2008. Image courtesy of HSU Chia-Wei

The memory expressed through the use of the deserted shipyard in Hoping Island is clearly spatial, contributing to the layering of language in the film.5This treatment of video as memory space is even more evident in HSU’s 2009 work March 14, Hong Kong Coliseum. For this work, HSU showed his footage of a Fish LEONG concert from her tour in two channels. The first channel consists of narrative images that center on the performance venue, and is projected onto a hard screen; the second is projected onto both the front and the back of a soft screen, and portrays the city itself in the form of background images for the event. In this way, the exhibition space is transformed into a memory space created by images. The artist seeks to create an analogy between exhibition space, memory space, and video space, thereby transforming the video into a perception-altering “event” rather than merely entertainment to be consumed. This approach is yet more evident in a subsequent work, Huatung Village (2009). The film relies on obviously artificial smoke and light effects to create a disaster scene in order to demonstrate how special effects are the means by which films create (contemporary) myths. These scenes of memory become narratives in the form of myth. On the linguistic level, they are structuralized and gradually stabilized, transcending the limitations of space and time in which events happen, and transforming into frameworks of identity and recognition for future generations.6

Forms and Symbols of Communication

Unlike HSU Chia-Wei’s exploration of scenes of memory with layers of language, JAO Chia-En, another artist of the same period, similarly pays attention to the intense relationship between language and identity, but more closely addresses the complex interaction between spoken language and shared senses of meaning. In other words, he emphasizes how different elements of significance are structured on the linguistic level, a question that HSU Chia-Wei seldom touches on. In his 2007 work Father’s Tongue, JAO demonstrates the difference between pronunciation and meaning on an individual level in everyday speech. In the film, the artist speaks in a quiet voice to a foreigner who does not speak Chinese well. The foreigner repeats the sounds he hears to the camera at a normal volume, not knowing what he is saying. Although the audience can more or less surmise the content of the foreign performer’s “speech,” the communication is still failed. The speaker is merely imitating the sounds, leading to the divergence at the level of “meaning” between the speaker and the audience.

JAO Chia-En, Father’s Tongue, 2007. Image courtesy of JAO Chia-En

JAO Chia-En is preoccupied with the exploration of forms in which meaning can stabilize, allowing communication to occur and maybe even become effective. His 2009 work, Taiwan Protest Typography, also addresses forms of communication. In the process of exploring communication forms, the artist discovers that the effective “communication” within our society’s social movements contains a distinctive writing style and logic of display. In this way, the artist finds that visual language is a crucial aspect of rapid communication in our everyday lives. He then explores these forms of meaning gradually from verbal communication to the level of more abstract and universal symbols. Following this thread between artworks, we can view JAO’s 2011 work, 30 Proposals of Flag, as an attempt to deal with the relationship between memory/pronunciation/meaning/communication within the linguistic framework of itself.

The artist’s examinations of the forms, psychological foundations and societal relations of language are not limited to the use of language by Taiwanese people. He is interested in every miscommunication between peoples with different linguistic habits in Taiwan. His 2011 work, REM Sleep, is a film of foreign workers describing their dreams in a relaxed setting. The artist seeks to use the workers’ verbal descriptions to transform their dreams, which the artist sees as the content of the subconscious, into a substantiated (and articulated) form. In this way, the video transcends the twin barriers of the foreign workers’ psychology/physiology and their non-Taiwanese linguistic/Taiwanese social identities. Thus the film creates the possibility of bridging the gap to unfamiliar languages and cultural frameworks in both the visual and auditory ways.

Performativity and the Frameworks of Language/Memory

Since relatively early in his career, YU Cheng-Ta has focused his artwork on explorations of the limitations of language, and he has positioned “performativity”7at the core of his concerns. His work sharply diverges from HSU Chia-Wei’s memory films and JAO Chia-En’s explorations of forms of communication in that YU expresses more doubt about the continuity of language and of memory. Instead, he seeks to deconstruct existing frameworks of language and memory. She is My Aunt (2008), a video work comprising footage of a protest that was recorded by chance, strikes a different tone from the solemn mood of the protest scene. The artist intentionally creates a humorous effect with post-production sound effects, and he also layers a musical score over the protest footage. From the perspective of the audience, the significance of the event in the film is completely changed. The woman in the film is engaging in an earnest act of protest, but the laugh track added by the artist transforms her serious and perhaps excessively ardent behavior into a comic performance. The footage is converted from a vocal protest to a raucous joke. This use of post-production techniques to reverse the original cognitive framework of an event reminds us of Ventriloquists: Introduction, another of the artist’s works from the same year. This work closely resembles JAO Chia-En’s Father’s Tongue in that both feature a Chinese-speaker in black clothing directing someone else—the ventriloquist’s “dummy” —to imitate their speech. The difference is that in Father’s Tongue the instructions of the person in black clothing are inaudible, but in Ventriloquists: Introduction, we can hear the original instructions, and moreover, they are presented in English subtitles at the top of the screen. The bottom of the screen shows subtitles of the “dummy’s” speech: not entirely correct Chinese accompanied by pinyin Romanization. This apparently minor difference in fact serves to highlight YU Cheng-Ta’s strategic attempt to use “comparison” to reveal a “framework.” YU’s 2009 work Ventriloquists: LIANG Mei-Lan and Emily SU features a foreign woman who has lived in Taiwan for a relatively long time. This film highlights the uncanny ability of an outsider to communicate in Chinese despite her flawed grammar, thus demonstrating how communication does not necessarily require both parties to share a completely identical understanding of language or a unified collective memory based in the foundation of language.8

YU Cheng-Ta, Ventriloquists: Introduction, 2008. Image courtesy of YU Cheng-Ta

In addition to the abovementioned layers of language and voice, YU Cheng-Ta also addressesd questions of communication on visual levels as well as spoken language around the same time that JAO Chia-En did. In his 2010 work, adj. Dance, he asks various dance instructors to express adjectives in physical postures and movements. In this way, he expands verbal communication to the unspoken expressions of the body, attempting to create new “movements” and “postures” as expressive forms.One particularly interesting aspect of this work is that adjectives are forms of social communication that have not been subjectified or objectified. In language, adjectives always rely on nouns (which could also be described as collectively established linguistic entities that can be designated as objects of memory) to determine their form: adjectives cannot take on meaning by themselves. The artist chooses to create actions from adjectives in order to stay a step ahead of society and catalyze the process of subjectification and objectification of certain yet-to-be-stabilized memories.

Dust and Mumbling Asides

In the above discussion we have shown through the 2007-2011 artworks of HSU Chia-Wei, JAO Chia-En and YU Cheng-Ta that the generation of artists who are presently in their late thirties spent those years exploring the foundations of culture on the levels of language and memory. Their experiments were based in a relatively stable and communal value system. These explorations have lost momentum in recent years, with fewer artists joining forces and pitching in, but there are still some new developments worthy of our attention.

If we view the artwork of WANG Ding-Yeh, a contemporary of HSU Chia-Wei, JAO Chia-En, and YU Cheng-Ta, from the perspective of investigations into the common constructions of memory and language, then his works Wakabashi Junko (2016) and Confronting Memories (2017), seem a bit tardy. These two artworks, which take family history as their starting point, position the encounters of the individual and the family within the context of East and Southeast Asian history.The way this generation has handled politics, history, and memory is perfectly described by Assmann’s apt phrase, “the private tunnels of world history,” differentiated from the way of the aforementioned three artists, who have greater interest in pursuing universality. In Wakabashi Junko, an obscured voice speaks in asides. According to the artist himself, the voice mumbles words, muddling them together such that they are barely intelligible. When this voice accompanies vague scenes of memory, world history is no longer an aside to individual life; rather, it becomes a force pressing reality toward dreams. As a result, the individual’s search for identity is transformed into a search for gaps within the vicissitudes of world history. Consequently, the continuity in identity on the individual level becomes impossible.

WANG Ding-Yeh, Wakabashi Junko, 2016. Image courtesy of WANG Ding-Yeh

In contrast, for the exhibition Confronting Memories, the artist gathers dust while cleaning his house and arranged it on a stone, forming pinyin Romanizations of six Taiwanese phrases: “Double Death,” “Peaceful Silence,” “Secret,” “Two Longings,” “Return,” and “Lay to Rest.” Dust, ghostly and easily scattered, is forcefully assembled into words in Taiwanese—the language of the artist’s family. Taiwanese does not have its own alphabet, just as individual family trees are not recorded in history. Both can only be cobbled together into a roughly usable but somewhat blurry form in the memories of later generations. This form is not monumental. Like a language with no alphabet, it cannot be irrevocably inscribed into stone. In contrast, through the process of being handed down through generations, it can easily be dispersed and scattered by outside forces or family members themselves. The late arrival of Wakabashi Junko and Confronting Memory, following other artists’ cultural experiments on the level of language, can perhaps be viewed as a further step in “memory politics” which demonstrates that memories must be constructed in a rather permanent and concrete way.

Text WANG Po-Wei
cultural experimentPerformativityidentification
For a discussion of this generation from the perspective of changing mediums, see WANG Po-Wei, “On the Cartoon and Animation Generation”, consulted on 2018/09/25. For an alternative view to the changing mediums perspective, see WANG Sheng-Hung’s consideration of “mumbling to themselves” as a generational strategy of opposing societal intervention in “Reconsidering ‘mumbling to themselves’: the problem of interpreting the younger generation in ‘Art of Frustration in Taiwan’ ” consulted on 2018.09.25.
Aleida ASSMANN, translated by Yuan Siqiao, Jiyi zhong de lishi (Geschichte im Gedächtnis), Nanjing University Press, Nanjing (2017), p. 16-50.
Artist statement, Une Terrible Poétique exhibition catalog, p. 52.
Aleida ASSMANN posits that, during Shakespeare’s time, his historical plays served this exact function, rather than our present understanding of “historical” origin analysis. See Aleida ASSMANN, Pan LU trans., Huiyi kongjian: wenhua jiyi de xingshi he bianqian (Erinnerungsräume: Formen und Wandlungen des kulturellen Gedächtnisses), Peking University Press, Beijing (2016), p. 61-92.
This aspect highlights that postwar Taiwan had a unified written language (Chinese) but several mutually unintelligible spoken languages (not merely dialects). This particular situation clearly impeded the formation of common memories among different linguistic groups.
Scenes of memory in different languages, such as the Japanese language narration in The Story of Hoping Island or the language spoken by the Amis people in Huatung Village, produce different images based on the grammatical logic of the language being used.
Here, “performativity” indicates continuous considerations of similarity and difference within the processes of bringing about the meanings and realizing the possibilities.
For a more detailed discussion of YU Cheng-Ta’s explorations of language and performativity, see WANG Po-Wei, “Between Voice and Communication: Questions of Language and Performativity in ‘On Set in the City: an Exhibition of the Art of YU Cheng-Ta’ ” consulted on 2018.09.26.
WANG Po-WeiWANG Po-Wei is an art critic specializing in media theory, contemporary art history, sociology of culture and art, as well as art/science/technology (AST). He translated Niklas LLUHMANN’s book Liebe als Passion: Zur Codierung von Intimität in collaboration with ZHANG Jin-Hui. He was an assistant researcher at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum before he works as the artistic director of the Digital Art Foundation.
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