Chia-Wei Hsu. Marshal Tie Jia. Taiwan at the 55th Venice Biennale.

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This year Taiwan presented “This is Not a Taiwan Pavilion”, a collateral event of the 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, organised by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, curated by Esther Lu and presenting the work of three artists: Chia-Wei Hsu (Taiwan), Kateřina Šedá + BATEŽO MIKILU collective (Czech Republic) and Bernd Behr (German-Taiwanese, London-based). Meanwhile, another Taiwanese artist, Vincent F. Huang, was selected to represent the first national pavilion of the South Pacific island of Tuvalu. But what happened to Taiwan’s National Pavilion?

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There has been much debate about the nature of Taiwan’s participation at the Venice Biennale. Although the nation has a permanent exhibition space for the biennial event since 1995 at the Prigioni, Palazzo Ducale (something usually reserved for national pavilions), Taiwan has been participating as a collateral event since 2001, the year that marks China’s first national pavilion. It was in fact China who demanded that, in order for them to present their national participation at the biennale, Taiwan should be demoted to the status of collateral event and stripped of its nation status. China is adamant about its policies involving Taiwan and international relations with countries that hold diplomatic ties with China.

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Political relations unfortunately are not a fair game. So much for “the spirit that transcends all national boundaries” mentioned by Bice Curiger, the curator of the 54th Venice Biennale. The country was though allowed to keep their permanent space at the Prigioni, the Prisons, which can be read into and interpreted as a continuing hint at China’s political pressure. This year’s “collateral pavilion”, as perhaps I should call this hybrid identity, highlights questions of collective vs subjective identity, the effects of isolation in the shaping of history, the entity of “we” as opposed to “I” and the entity of the “stranger” as a maker of history, and finally the boundary between reality and fiction.

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The curator wrote an essay published in Pipeline Magazine that explains in more detail what her vision for the exhibition was, where it stemmed from and why she felt the necessity to have multicultural perspectives in the context of Taiwan’s cultural hybridity, and how her project met with some local tension on the question of national participation. It is interesting in this respect as, because of its geopolitical identity, Taiwan has always striven to reassert its nationalism and patriotism internationally.

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As the curator says,

“Since the inception of the China Pavilion in 2001, Taiwan has only been able to exist as a collateral event to the Biennale. Meanwhile, the Taiwan Pavilion is regarded or imagined from the perspective of Taiwan as the pinnacle of diplomatic and international cultural events, a nostalgia that maintains its status on the island. Instead of dwelling on such institutional ambiguity, this project tries to actively move beyond the meaning of national representation and the constitution of borders in today’s art world. This project proposes a simple question: what can we employ in reality, society, culture, and history to understand ourselves and be understood by others when our identities and positions have been invented, fictionalized, and placed in misty perplexity?”

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Esther Lu’s curatorial effort fractures identity and history, transforming the “we” into “strangers” and Taiwan into “not Taiwan”, breaching national and identity borders, and the boundaries between reality and imagination.

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The press release states:

“By contouring the image of the stranger, the exhibition investigates how the division between “us” and “stranger” is drawn and appropriated in subjectification. It concerns how criticality produced estrangement might be used to perceive diverse potential forms of cultural identity. Narratives and actions are shared aesthetic vehicles in this exhibition; three works unfold the image of the stranger alienated by various political, economic, and cultural parameters, and engage with the problematics of identity and the possibility of exchanged perception.”

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The curator calls this process of representation “the politics of art”, which “challenges a fundamental human value and capacity, the most powerful force of art: to believe or not to believe.” Questions arise, such as: How do we come to believe a boundary can be shifted? How do we come to believe a story is another side of history? How do we come to believe that we can still transgress reality, imagination, culture, or our very existence, or to disbelieve in the limits of our visibility? How can we come to believe in wormholes connecting us to elsewhere? According to the curator, “The politics of art is the fuel that our imagination runs on.”

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Here I will give a presentation of the work by Taiwanese artist Chia-Wei Hsu, who skillfully melds imagination and reality together to create a parallel history. To believe or not to believe?

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Presented for the first time at the Taipei Biennale 2012, the multimedia installation titled Marshal Tie Jia (Ironclad Marshal) includes sculpture, painting, photography, video and an accompanying book. Conceived as a play, the work presents layers of history, tradition and modernisation of Taiwan. It captures, as the curatorial statement reads, “lingering cultural memories and manifesting structures of production and narratives of mythology and imagery.”

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Marshal Tie Jia is a divine character, identified in the frog deity worshipped in Matsu Island off the Fujian coast, on the frontline of Taiwan across the strait that divides it from mainland China. Matsu has a peculiar geopolitical background, as it was still under the Qing government during the Japanese occupation in the mainland, but was reclaimed by Chiang Kai-shek’s regime after his retreat to Taiwan. Matsu was then made a Taiwanese strategic outpost and Turtle Island, just off the coast of Beigan Township on Matsu and home to the Frog God’s temple, became the site of strategic fortification and bunkers.

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According to local legend, Marshal Tie Jia was born in a mountain stream pool in Jingsi Village, Jiangxi Province, during the Tang Dynasty. With the beginning of the Qing Dynasty, the god is said to have left his home in the mainland and settled on the tiny Turtle Island, off the coast of Matsu’s Beigan Township, opposite Qinbi (Chinbe) Village. When Chiang Kai-Shek fled to Taiwan, the tiny island’s temple was destroyed and relocated to Qinbi Village, where he has been ruling all matters ever since. The bunker has now fallen into disuse and the proprietor of the temple has regained control of the islet long ago.

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During a trip on Matsu in 2011, the artist saw Turtle Island across Qinbi Village for the first time and he knew he had to make an artwork about it. Setting off to apply for a license from the county government, he learned from the local council and village elders that Turtle Island was the only privately owned island in Matsu and its jurisdiction fell under its inhabitant and owner, the Frog God. Therefore, permission should be asked from Marshal Tie Jia.

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The artist, who originally intended to make a work about the years of war with Japan, had to change his plans, now attracted to the history of the Frog God. Of course, this meant that he had to apply for a license to the god himself and that the deity would be ruling over and controlling his project and production process. The artist decided to document the life of the Marshal in both his new home and his old one in Jiangxi province, all the while asking for permission from the Marshal and corresponding with him.

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The artist has developed his work according to the will of the Frog God, thus crossing and bridging the boundaries between reality and imagination. His work researched all sorts of materials from his magical divine encounter, including the rituals, oracles, ancient Chinese horoscopes and mythologies of the divine world, in addition to the memories, performances, politics and histories of the human world.

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With the aid of the green screen, he was able to capture reality in a space and time vacuum, juxtaposing multiple narratives. The curator says that this allowed the artist to “establish a new mythology of representation in which the production of narrative becomes the subject that produces reality.”

“The ambiguous, alien spacetime generated through this installation traverses questions about unresolved history, the potential of humanity, and surreal divinity, ultimately reflecting the formation and the disappearance of a cultural identity.”

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In the artist statement about the work, Chia-wei Hsu says:

“By drawing out unusual conversations between the frog god Marshal Tie Jia and the artist, this work is an attempt to map the creation and disappearance of myth, image, culture, and history from both the contemporary modernist context and a more ancient and mysterious perspective.”

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In the video works, the artist unfolds the conjunction of reality and myth, by depicting the pond in which the deity was born during nighttime and the island where he currently resides in daylight. The films shot in these two sites, pivotal to the understanding of the legendary frog deity, are accompanied respectively by Nuo dance, an exorcism ritual that shares the same roots as the frog beliefs, and Min opera, which is currently the favourite pastime and entertainment of the Frog God.

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The video on the smaller screen shows the reconstruction of the Marshal’s temple on the islet, with the aid of a green screen, and a Min opera singer playing pai gow, a game that has been banned in mainland China and which is used to write the lyrics for the opera.

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The Marshal has given instructions and comments on the production of the project to the artist, and some of the correspondence has been recorded and shown at the exhibition, including a poem written by the god to the artist on the altar and a letter written by the artist to the Frog God.

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Through the documentation and reconstruction of the life of the Frog God, the fine line between reality and fiction, truth and myth disappear and “the modern nation state’s appropriation of history and memory is revealed through the discovery of a living myth.” The artist creates narratives that derive from myth and historical reality, juxtaposing the two and melding them into one, creating a new cultural identity and an imagination of life.

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The artist weaves history and present, reality and illusion into stories of a recorded new history, creating a parallel universe that embraces our own world’s reality and fiction.

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Click here to watch Marshal Tie Jia at Jingsi Village, Jiangxi, on vimeo.com

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All Photographs: “This is not a Taiwan Pavilion”, Taiwan collateral event at the 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Location: Palazzo delle Prigioni. Photos: Prof Danilo Ardia.

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