Epilogue: On Allegories of Ocean
Text and photos by Lee Chia-Lin
When I finally sit down to pen this epilogue, a year has already passed since the completion of the exhibition Allegories of Ocean, which happened to be my curatorial debut after my graduation from an art school. And this past journey was a constant attempt of mine to understand this untypical artist—an old uncle who stands at an almost 40 years’ worth of distance from me in experience. While a postwar baby boomer like him has reached the retirement age, I wonder how such life experience has shaped that generation of baby boomers’ impression of Taiwan exactly. Hsu Ching-Yuan would prove himself an interesting example for a case study. Having started off as an amateur in art, Hsu adopts what he is familiar with—techniques used in the construction industry—to practice art. In this article, I will pull myself away from the mess of the ‘construction site’ for a moment and elaborate on my own interpretation of each art piece in this exhibited collection.
Among Hsu Ching-Yuan’s released works by far, The Statue of Liberty may be the most known to the public. A-Ren, almost naked, stands by the Port of Kaohsiung with a major landmark of the city, Kaohsiung 85 Building, in the background. There, he holds a torch up high with a crown on the head, both made by himself and A-Hsia with rebars, wires, and tubes. In 2021, the colored version of the main photograph from the series of The Statue of Liberty was exhibited as part of the Photo London photography fair in the UK. The Western audience was drawn mostly to the explicit symbols used in the work; some of them even burst into laughter right in front of the photograph. Yet, for those who have paused for the video version of The Statue of Liberty, I suppose there would surely be emotions other than amusement being triggered. And this is the exact reason why it would be such a pity to analyze Hsu’s photographic works merely from a semiotic perspective.
The Statue of Liberty is in fact a story of ‘a father to Americans.’ Before leaving Kaohsiung for university, Hsu helped with his family’s business of running snack bars in several theaters. During the 1950s and 1970s, the Port of Kaohsiung served as the logistics base of the US Seventh Fleet. There was an idiom, “the arrival of American ships,” used for describing the phenomenon that the American soldiers came ashore for a rest and in turn boosted local businesses, such as bars, theaters, and suit stores around the Port of Kaohsiung. As a child, Hsu might not understand why the Americans appeared, but receiving US dollars certainly brought him joy. Additionally, his childhood experience of obtaining food supply from the US Army in Penghu also did its part to feed this wealthy image of America and planted a seed of the American Dream in him.
However, the story did not go as to what he had wished for. After his graduation from university and completion of military service, Hsu returned to Kaohsiung and worked in the Kaohsiung Export Processing Zone, in charge of the production line of stereo systems and other consumer electronics. Later, he took a turn in his career path and started his own business, followed by a 30-year-long dedication in the construction industry. Sending his children to the United States for school and long-term residency, Hsu has ended up as ‘a father to Americans.’ In the film of The Statue of Liberty, the fossil taped to the bottom of the glass pedestal under A-Ren’s feet is actually a souvenir Hsu collected from the desert of Page in Arizona during a visit to his family in America. As the desert was once an inland sea having connected with the Pacific Ocean hundreds of millions of years ago, the film is tinted with a peculiar sense of ‘homesickness.’
But why would he have a laborer dress up like the Statue of Liberty by the Port of Kaohsiung? The Statue erected by the Port of New York was a souvenir France gifted America, marking the end of the Civil War, the abolishment of slavery, and a celebration for the United States becoming a free, independent nation. Yet, on the contrary, the Statue of Liberty A-Ren puts up turns out an unblessed character who can only declare some sort of seemingly sensible spirit to himself:
The Statue of Liberty was created in 2020 when a turbulence was stirred in Taiwan’s society just like every time else when a major election was to be held. That year, the then mayor of Kaohsiung, Han Kuo-yu, decided to join the presidential election as a candidate. His comical and ridiculous public persona was some sort of an extreme image of politicians who might have received offshore funds as a way to intervene in Taiwan’s politics. Whether the rumor was true or not, it would not cause much surprise either way. After all, for centuries, Taiwan has been through various regimes and never once possessed real autonomy. Thus, the declaration of A-Ren’s Statue of Liberty is a form of mere self-hypnosis, a spiritual victory that the islanders acquire after a long history of being deceived.
In the same year, failing to win the presidential election, Han Kuo-yu was recalled by the people of Kaohsiung in June, and the situation of the Taiwanese people are more explicitly presented in the inspired series of June 6. As captured in the title documentary, the film crew went to the Temple to the Lords of the Three Mountains of Xianshu, Zuoying, where a polling station was set up. The police arrived in just a few minutes, talking the artist out of taking any action with the reasoning that “at this timing, things would get pretty sensitive,” and that “shoot[ing] videos . . . may . . . [interfere] with voting.” One of the police officers even warned in precise wording, “They may cover you in news coverage. It’s not you to decide.”
The film crew thus returned to the temple on the next day of the recall vote. A-Ren and A-Hsia respectively read the United States Declaration of Independence with broken English and the Constitution of the Republic of China with poor Taiwanese. As a Chinese saying goes, “those who conquer the three mountains will win over the world.” Just as how ‘the three mountains’ has had a long history as both a political term and a religious symbol, the square in front of a temple plays the role of an entrepot of Taiwan’s folk beliefs and politics. On the previous day, everyone was concerned, not willing to be captured on camera lest they be wrongly labeled; on the next day, the temple market was as busy as per usual, and the artist’s reading campaign did not cause any tiny bit of a commotion—people worshipped their gods and shopped for groceries as if nothing had really happened.
The 90-minute reading was almost like some sort of scripture chanting when such important documents that defined the status of a nation were deconstructed through some common people’s utterances. Yet, what A-Ren and A-Hsia presented was different from the kinds of homophonic slurs Wang Zhenhe adopted in his novel Rose, Rose, I Love You. Specifically, in the novel, the head of the licensed brothel plays with English and Chinese sounds, turning the slogan “Nation to Nation. People to People.” for “a diplomatic campaign” into a joke describing “a sexual affair” where people interact with “heart to heart, butt to butt.” The performers, in contrast, was at a loss and almost aphasic, having no choice but to read according to any bit of information they could draw from the Chinese characters or by abruptly dismantling the English vocabulary.
The version exhibited in the Debt Space was composed of two large three-meter-tall photographs and the audio recordings of the two performers supplemented with the transcripts of the Constitution of the Republic of China and the United States Declaration of Independence based on how they had read them. On the closing day of the exhibition, the artist invited all visitors to sign their names on both photographs, which—as he mentioned in an interview—was meant to be a test to see whether people would dare to state their positions. However, this artwork to me represents more of a process towards a loose identity where the deconstructed Constitution and Declaration have actually been reconstructed through the act of displaying. It would be a mere wishful thinking for the creator to distinguish the audience’s political stances by this means.
The climax of the closing day event should be The Liberal Ocean. In that performance, A-Ren and A-Hsia drove an excavator and dropped demolition waste including rebars and concrete blocks into the large pool in the Debt Space. Once used as a chiller in this former metal factory, the 3.5-meter-deep pool symbolizes the Black Ditch—or the Taiwan Strait—that the artist has crossed by ship when his family migrated from Penghu to Kaohsiung in his childhood. The Strait, on the other hand, is also the place where previous test bombs were dropped, but the artist’s own interpretation of the artwork sounds somewhat like an easy way out when he always only talks about relatively minor issues, such as the bombs killing marine life and human destroying the environment. Nevertheless, these themes are a continuation of his earlier concepts when he put his focus on large format photography. Examples include his photographic works of deadwoods wrapped in white cloth and laid on the beach, as well as dead trees covered with joss paper and placed upside down. Such are all Hsu’s reflections on how a land always has to undergo great destruction before any houses or buildings are to be constructed.
Again, The Liberal Ocean is in fact a piece carrying political implications, only not as straightforward as The Statue of Liberty or June 6. Yet, when situated in Hsu’s solo exhibition Allegories of Ocean, this piece has another aspect worth more discussion, namely, the fact that it was the first time ever the audience had an opportunity to watch Hsu create on-site instead of through edited documentaries or selected photographs. Among all, the audience could especially experience how the materials and machine tools were actually those found in the construction industry—they were used for building houses previously and for creating art now. When the excavator chugged into the exhibition hall, a strong rancid odor came to assail people’s nostrils while its growling continuous tracks raised clouds of dust; when the concrete blocks taller than a man was dropped into the water, the splashes were so great that everyone instinctively backed off. All these sounds, smells, and lighting conditions are just typical for a construction scene and, at the same time, what shape ‘the normal’ of Hsu’s artmaking.
Lengthiness was another essence of the performance. Just as the audience was still applauding for the splashes caused by the concrete blocks, upon the artist’s order, A-Ren and A-Hsia drove the excavator out of the exhibition hall to refill and to start anew. While this action was repeated many times, the reflection of the glittering water also danced on the metal sheet roof for a long time. Lengthy thus realistic, almost all his artworks presenting such Sisyphusian repetitive labor have left traces, which—perhaps not his intention—also reproduces those constantly worn lives he has witnessed on production lines when working in the Export Processing Zone. And these bodies in motion are exactly what have been captured in the two black-and-white photographs entitled Volume of Time and Space as part of the Taipei Art Awards exhibition, in the time-lapse video piece Space-Time Fault exhibited in the Debt Space, and by the cameras covering A-Ren’s groin and A-Hsia’s breasts.
Eventually, I would also like to talk about Hsu Ching-Yuan and his workers. After watching Labor, many people told me that they found A-Ren in an excessively cruel condition in the film and that they could not bear watching many of the scenes. Similar comments could also be heard regarding the performance on the opening day of Hsu’s solo exhibition The Debt Space in 2019. There, A-Hsia was lying on a piece of glass placed above the pool in the exhibition hall, covered with white cloth, while A-Ren was lying smoking in a glass-made coffin. While the performers are oftentimes required to perform naked or set up in some hardly achievable scenarios—for example, wrapped by intertwined cords in Labor, A-Ren crawls out of a lump of bubble wrap at an extremely slow pace—such approach does not necessarily mean that the artist is aware of how his artwork is going to roll out. Even so, Hsu is very much familiar with the techniques to negotiate with the workers and, just as what Yang Chen-Han has commented, used to anticipating the “knowingly obedience” the workers would have for their boss.
In the 2021 Taiwan International Documentary Festival, after the film Gubuk (Hut) was screened, the director Su Yu-Hsien bluntly admitted in the Q&A session that his relationship with the migrant worker-actors was nothing but an employment relationship. For this film, he went to Tainan Park to recruit Indonesian migrant workers by asking if they were interested in “acting in a movie.” And on the pay day, these actors would say to him, “Thank you, boss.” Similarly, Hsu Ching-Yuan and A-Ren, A-Hsia, and the entire film crew also share an employment relationship. At the end of each working day, the boss Hsu Ching-Yuan would give employees their wages wrapped in red envelops; even an excavator could receive one. Although such scenes are not included in Labor or The Statue of Liberty, we can still see some of those moments when the workers teach the boss how to set up tripods on scaffolds or what to be captured in a scene, as well as those spontaneous—quoted from A-Ren—“bonus” performances. I cannot be sure whether they share a bond beyond an employment relationship, nor can I confirm what contemporary art means to these people employed to assist with artistic creation. Yet, what is truly cruel may not be the scenes in the artworks, but the motivation of constantly being involved despite all the suffering.
(Translated from Chinese by Tammy Yu-Ting Chiang)
In memory of the artist, who had taught me a lot of things.