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A Hometown Seen as an Adopted Country, a Homecoming Akin to Taking up Residence. Does Your Mother Know You’re Messing about?

For God Film Festival: Do Man’s Part and Leave the Rest to the Will of Gods event. Photo courtesy of Walking Grass Agriculture
art practiceart festivalWalking Grass Agriculture
Here’s a gift of love to you, I wish you happiness
No matter when or where you are,
Never forget my blessing.
Life’s a journey sweet and bitter, determination you must show,
Follow your wisdom, lay down your beads of sweat,
And find your own happiness
I Wish You Happiness, lyrics by LIN Huang-Kuen, composed by LIN Chia-Ching

As discourses on new genre public art, conversational art, participatory art, and relational aesthetics have brought forth new possibilities, there is a current attempt to separate art from the white cube and let it take on relationships and encourage interaction with society. I have taken a creative methodology and mindset that is almost religious and is based upon my personality and constitution in initiating several interactive communal art projects. Thanks to proceeds from these interactions, I was able to make my way in Taipei metropolis, though perhaps coming to the conclusion early on that ultimately, art can’t really solve real-world problems. In the past, whether on the topics of urban renewal, government expropriation of land on Shezi Island, the decline of main street businesses, or public housing, the hope that the work would reverberate and generate expectations and opportunities for changes remained a pipe dream. The companionship and understanding which comes as a part of the creative process would be consolation enough. In the exhibition Adventure Time in Shezi: One Step at a Time is the Best Way to Remember Happiness at the 2018 Guandu International Nature Art Festival, we worked from the food, using culinary stories as creative origins, interviewing Grandma LI WU Man on the art of making pickled wax gourd. She repeatedly reminded us of how one should select, dice, sun-dry, can the jars, add rice wine, and mix wax gourds with the fermented soybeans. In divulging her insider’s tips, she betrayed a wish that her “granddaughter in America can come back and learn the ways.” This touched a nerve with us, thinking back towards our own sī-tuā, our parents and grandparents. Would such an act still be valid if it happened back in our hometown, rather than the cultural venues of Taipei?

Bravery that Takes to the Graveyards

Grandpa, cross the bridge… Grandpa, cross the tunnel…

The day my grandfather was to be cremated, the Master sounded the inkin and copper ritual hand bells as a constant guide on the funeral procession from Dishueikan in Jiaxian District to the crematorium in Renwu District. I was afraid that when we crossed a bridge or entered a tunnel I would forget to recite these words of encouragement. This was our last physical journey together, so as the eldest grandson, I must utter every word without fail as a last token of grandfilial reverence. The custom is to guide one’s relatives with one’s voice, so that they won’t fear the bridge’s guardian spirits and lose their way. On the 90-minute procession, an endless barrage of “cross the bridge” being chanted makes one question life. I dozed off inadvertently at some points and was awakened by the Master. . The musings such as “see how many bridges there are!”, “are we there yet?”, and “how many bridges can there be?” on the way to the funeral gave birth to Walking Grass Agriculture’s work The Last Farm Boy. These bridges constitute the first thread of the work. Although adopting a method approximate to modernology, the connection with Huditian (literally “lake bottom farmland”) ties in with a second thread to bring the sense of archeological documentary.

Walking Grass Agriculture’s 2018 work The Last Farm Boy. Photo courtesy of Walking Grass Agriculture

Hudi (literally “lake bottom”), a customary name among the locals of Dashe, is a place located within the same district as Jianshanjiao. Neither Hudi nor Jianshanjiao are administrative place names, never printed on any map nor having a definitive border—it is just an approximate bearing and location with a privately owned lake. These days, excessive rains inundate the lake area and the waters do not readily recede. Huditian is the nickname Walking Grass Agriculture member CHEN Han-Sheng and his family made for the arable land left behind by his grandfather, which along with adjoining Dashe District Third Public Cemetery forms the second thread of the series of works. After collecting our grandparent’s bones in a daze, we placed the likenesses of the Tudigong (Lord of the Soil and the Ground) at the original tombs and a stone lion in the farmland, as if to keep the spirits around to keep guard on their new job and mission. With newly manifested bodies and appearances of the sculpture, they seem to have evolved along with their own histories.

The Last Farm Boy isn’t a singular work, but an “exhibition” created from various juxtaposed objects. We took our scooters from Huditian in Dashe to Dishuikan in Jiaxian on a day trip, setting out early morning and returning by night, noting the numbers of bridges crossed,   large and small, named and nameless ones, and, for those with the same names, by their numerical markers. The tally came to over a hundred bridges. This made us realize that “flipping mountains” or “crossing mountains and streams” are literal acts that we just “don’t see.” In the room titled with the exhibit’s name, the bridge names, plaques commemorating the achievements of CHEN’s grandfather in his life, and the Tudigong statuettes taken from the public cemetery have been laid out. Video footage from cameras set up to thwart tomb raiders has also become part of the installation, played back throughout the exhibition space.

The work originally dwelled on questions such as “do children of farmers have their own history?” and “are the seemingly ‘uncultured’ descendants of farmers qualified to create art?” emphasizing the relationship between the self and the birth family, while also touching on the realities of artistic endeavors. In retrospect, there is a greater desire to relate to gender politics and the communication and acceptance in the family. Nevertheless, the creative states and methodologies mentioned here seem to have gradually developed.

Walking Grass Agriculture is part of C-LAB’s 2021 CREATORS Creation/Research Support Program with a series of works starting with the Murmur Time Project. Pictured above, LIU Hsing-Yu’s mother performs in the marketplace. Photo courtesy of Walking Grass Agriculture

How Long Must We Travel to Exchange a Gaze?

Taking residence doesn’t necessarily equate to traveling abroad, but nowadays when being eligible for residence almost certainly means traveling abroad and is well admired, let’s contemplate the notion of “residence without traveling abroad,” or the possibility of “taking residence by returning to the home of one’s grandparents.” As trading goods makes for business, works produced in residence could never conceal the fact that as an island nation, we yearn for the exotic ones. Thus people always say, “whatever we do abroad can’t be wrong.” But is it possible that a “hometown is seen as an adopted country”?

In the history of Taiwanese art, even up to the modern times, there have been many artists who come across questions of the subjectivity of Taiwanese art in the flux of western ideas. This state of self-recognition continues unabatedly nowadays: whether it’s an art residence or art residency, there will always be gazes exchanged and experiences shared, leading on to self-discovery and self-acceptance. At this point, what are the possibilities of imagination towards art residences? From the concept of art residence follows all manners of arts and culture policies such as community building, regional revitalization, and art festivals. If the artist discovers something within, what opportunities will lie in wait for its actualization?

When the creator under varying circumstances starts to think about their own subjectivity, “homecoming as art residence” may be another possible avenue. Pictured is LIU Hsing-Yu’s father driving a tractor on the route to collect bamboo shoots. Photo courtesy of Walking Grass Agriculture

At this point, what are the possibilities of imagination towards art residences?

Murmur Time Project

How long does it take to pack boiled bamboo shoots in plastic bags, and tie a knot? Due to his failure to complete the task on his own within 20 minutes, my father mocks that “he is less useful than an artist.” This prompted me for the first time in my life to embrace him in consolation, surfacing feelings that I must “return home and lend a helping hand.” On matters of defining contemporary art and its possibilities, all I wanted to say at the time was “I don’t fucking care!” Another thought that arises is “after so many years, the notion of art in my parents’ mind is quite a useless but tolerable affair, a stubborn attempt on my part.” For regional revitalization, starting a hometown business, or even taking a hometown residence, one does not have to give up a high-paying career, but can rather take a more positive view and face the aging and declining health of one’s own parents. This will be a direct form of encouragement for all to “return home” and “take up residence,” and it is also the reason I had the opportunity at the end of 2020 to be considered a “filial child,” who spends plenty of one-on-one time with my father, working together on every step of the bamboo shoot harvest.

The bamboo shoot harvest season falls during the summer months. After the Dragon Boat Festival, for easier access to the mountains, we must wear a full complement of gear and tools to phut sún kha, namely to weed and cut branches, as well as remove chunks of mud and rocks on the paths which pose a risk to machinery. The process is not merely arduous, but frightening! “Taking a tractor down these paths is too dangerous! It’s as narrow as it gets!”, “It’s too difficult to work a hoe! I can never strike the same place twice!”, and “Have you seen so many mosquitos! The incense repellent won’t work until it spontaneously combusts just like ‘huat-lôo’ in the incense burners in temples!” are some complaints. Yet what makes my eyes water is realizing “for so many years, my father had to deal with all this without others’ help!”

What seems like a straightforward task of harvesting bamboo shoots consists of complex procedures, relying on years of practice and know-how to pull off. Pictured is LIU Hsing-Yu’s father cutting a bamboo shoot. Photo courtesy of Walking Grass Agriculture

After the shoots are collected, they are taken to be processed at the work area. Just hacking to remove the tips is quite a skill that takes a whole summer to learn, along with a hundred bamboo shoots laid waste. Slicing into chips, soaking, re-soaking, boiling, and packing all have their respective processes. The sprouting season slows after the Bailu (literally “white dew”) term on the traditional lunar calendar, at the latest drawing to a close near Mid-Autumn Festival. Afterwards, processing begins. From sun-drying to pickling, the varieties of dried bamboo shoots, dried cabbage, dried cauliflower, and dried radish fascinated me with their own sets of know-how. Besides exacting sun-drying procedures and daily observation of wind and weather conditions, there is also the introduction of starch film, a sticky substance that forms on top of rice porridge as it is cooked or rice in excess water boiled to gruel. This step creates an airtight seal, a trick that prevents the pickled bamboo shoots from oxidizing and turning black, preserving its visual appeal. Walking Grass Agriculture member CHEN Han-Sheng also took part in the harvesting and production processes, prompting us to ask, what can be revealed through the eyes of art?

Living in the same circles of people over time leads to exhaustion, and new environments bring a new pace of living and excitement of the senses. But in the fast-paced urbanization of today, the gradual shift of hometown into a foreign place is an inevitable thing for one who leaves their hometown for work or education. “This is so unfamiliar” is a state of feeling we come across ever so often. The reason why it occurs is that so much of our experience is “common sense” rather than knowledge, and they escape our consciousness.

To our parents, the 24 solar terms of tradition only serve as a crop calendar guide for buying produce cheaply in season, a time-abiding way of living, not the overly erudite or aestheticized system we know. Murmur Time Project was originally a project in which I, as an artist working in Taipei, wanted to interact with the locals near my place of residency. Due to a tumultuous 2020, being unable to invite my parents to serve the role of “the artist” meant I cannot claim this is the work I want to achieve.

When We Became Thankful for the Abundance of Art Festivals

The origins and development of Homesick box travel have been introduced in detail in the article “Once upon a Cardboard Box.” The road from a cardboard box to a full-blown art festival began with Walking Grass’ dissatisfaction with the production process of artwork, or rather a desire to remove it from the restrictions placed on tender contracts of public art and get rid of the government agency’s goals of fulfilling their constituents’ expectations. It means creating art festivals that occur “naturally” and centers on the artists themselves, leading to the concept of “using a guided introduction of the art itself to generate content for the art festival.” Through the introduction of the series The Last Farm Boy, After the Explosion – CHEN Han-Sheng Solo Exhibition, and Homesick box travel, we have the chance to outwardly observe ourselves and proceed to plan the contents of the art festival. At this point, we were grateful for a general proliferation of art festivals nationwide, which while making art festivals a more popular or even stereotyped catchphrase, also made it easier to communicate and coordinate with other parties. Throughout our discussions, whenever we hear project partners blurt out “wow, Dashe is also having our own art festival!” or “would people really be able to see art here in our town?”, us Walking Grass is ever more confident that this would work out for the best.

In places such as Huditian and the district public cemetery, where even locals rarely tread, visitors can now experience local topics through the artwork, as well as see how the artists themselves view the place. Next to the industrial area, motorists zip past without noticing the Renda Industrial Park Monument. Through rubbing and reading of the monument’s inscriptions, the scheduled reclassification of Dashe Industrial Zone from Special Industrial District to Type-B Industrial District in 2018 is naturally incorporated in the work. More importantly, the visitor could smell the plastic fumes from the petrochemical factories which stand before their eyes.

In 2019, Walking Grass Agriculture held their first art festival Farming & Arts Festival – Do U have Free Time? in Dashe District. Photo courtesy of Walking Grass Agriculture

Does Your Mother Know You’re Messing about?

The hometown is probably not different in space from a foreign land, rather only changing with one’s own disposition, varying with their stances and the point of view in scale. Only in this way can we view new matters and circumstances from existing experiences, uncovering new methodologies. In The Last Farm Boy, CHEN Han-Sheng and I became the mutual subjects of our observations in residence, piecing together a range of works in the Farming & Arts Festival we initiated. Whether in treating the project as the artwork itself, or the artwork as the project, the artists’ attitudes remain the same, while their roles in actual society are no longer bound, but fluid: whether it be the art administrator in the project, a curator, or a visitor. In Murmur Time Project, homecoming has incidentally become taking up residence, and provides residence for their parents in Taipei: becoming a culinary instructor who demonstrates how to marinate and cook foodstuffs, becoming a disk jockey who shares their collection of vinyl records bought at the Bade market in junior high or high school, slipping straight into the role of a “useful” artist, or stepping back into the role of the parent who listens to their own children, as well as an arts and culture worker who swaps tales of hardships and pleasure.

“Does your mother know you’re messing about?” is a saying from art school days, when classmates would jest around as we were devoted to making artworks. Today when art has become more intellectual, the fact it’s been better understood doesn’t necessarily mean it’s accepted as anything more than “messing about.” But what’s more important than being understood is to invite others to join in, to let others become the creators and producers. Only then does “messing about” become an organic activity, just like gathering bamboo shoots in the mountains, which serves up its own occasional rewards in the form of tree ears, bamboo mushrooms, fah-tsai, and termite mushrooms.

art practiceart festivalWalking Grass Agriculture
Walking Grass Agriculture is an artist collective started by LIU Hsing-Yu and CHEN Han-Sheng, who with their respective farmer family backgrounds and love of art advocates artistic practice through curation, creative production, and arts and culture promotion to “flourish a state through agriculture, intervene art through agriculture.”
LIU Hsing-YuLIU graduated from the Department of Art History, Tainan National University of the Arts, and earned his master’s degree in art theory from the National Kaohsiung Normal University. He founded the “Walking Grass Agriculture” and an artistic platform named “Coexist Exhibition.” He is a freelance curator, artist, and writer with a special focus on image aesthetics, popular culture, and gender issues.
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