TAIPEI — Climbing up the steps to TheCube Project Space in Taipei as the city prepared for Typhoon Soudelor, the last thing I expected to see was a reference to Eric Garner. A single Marlboro cigarette on the wall emblazoned with “I CAN’T BREATHE” — Garner’s gasping words as a policeman strangled him in a chokehold, a move long banned by the New York Police Department (NYPD) — brought my concerns back to the United States. It was a disorienting start to an exhibition interested in drugs and the way they can alter consciousness or, conversely, are wielded as substance and symbol by governing bodies as a means to power. The mind is never allowed to settle in The Starry Heavens Above and the Moral Law Within, a joint show by artists James T. Hong and Yin-Ju Chen, which tackles society’s relationship to substances in ways both critical and ambiguous.
The Starry Heavens… features several collaborative works, as well as individual installations by each artist. The works range in tone from open-ended curiosity, in Chen’s portion, to critical and at times combative in Hong’s section. The collaborative works feel less personal and, surprisingly, looser, allowing for more interpretation on the part of the viewer. The wall text for the Eric Garner piece, which is a collaborative work by both artists, “I Can’t Breathe…” (2015) is an article by CNN describing the event and subsequent reactions from Garner’s family, the NYPD, journalists, and Mayor de Blasio. The weight of that event is funneled into the single cigarette, serving as a reminder that the supposed catalyst for the events leading to Garner’s death was that he was selling cigarettes illegally. The intense focus of “I Can’t Breathe…” is crushing and expands rapidly as the exhibition progresses and the works jump wildly across issues.
From “I Can’t Breathe,” which is affixed to a wall that bridges two rooms, the exhibition splits: on the left, an installation by Hong called “Three Arguments about the Opium War”; on the right, Chen’s installation “Notes on Psychedelics.” Each artist takes the theme of drugs in a starkly different direction. Hong’s “Three Arguments” is dominated by a dual-channel video installation that tackles the history of the Opium Wars. One channel scrolls through scenes of China, ranging from bridge and water views to shots that pan the skyline, as a narrator intones historical notes on colonialism and the Opium Wars; the other dictates arguments for European colonization. Both mention the ways opium was used as agent of and argument for control. A collection of materials — toy soldiers representing Chinese and British soldiers stand poised to battle in the room’s center, and reproductions of sketches and paintings from the Opium Wars, organized by nation of origin, line the walls — add visual interest to the installation, but seem peripheral to the videos. The videos’ narrator comes across as critical of both China and Great Britain; aligning with neither, the narrator resides in a third point of view, acting as judge rather than participant. It’s worth mentioning that Taiwan is a young island nation whose independence from China is inconsistent in global recognition (the United States, for example, has abided by an ambiguous one-China policy since Nixon’s presidency, which acknowledges that China sees Taiwan as part of China, but does not necessarily state that the US agrees with this) and is flatly viewed as illegitimate by China. While this issue dominates Taiwanese politics, Hong’s critique of China stands apart for its fixation on a historical episode. This is refreshing in a country where the news is dominated by reactionary, polarized opinions; however, the work is also strikingly anachronistic and individuated.
Chen’s “Notes on Psychedelics” takes a biological and cultural approach to drugs, as opposed to Hong’s historical one. Objects and images too numerous to list — including visualizations of the brain, a bottle of melatonin, photographs of the Earth and other celestial bodies from outer space, a plastic lizard, an Eye of Horus, and the head of a small Buddha statue — fill the room. Some have obvious connections to drugs, particularly the idea of them as “mind-opening,” but the presence of other objects feels more associative than necessary. There’s more intrigue in the installation’s video and text component, which features writers, artists, philosophers, and public speakers openly discussing their experiences with drugs — many in a positive manner. One video in particular stands out. It features the TED talk of Graham Hancock, titled “The War on Consciousness,” in which Hancock argues in favor of the use of hallucinogenic drugs, not for recreation, but as an aid in spiritual growth and self-improvement. TED organizers removed the lecture from their main site, though it is available, for those who have the correct Vimeo password, on another portion of TED’s site, along with details of its decision to remove the talk (for those who’d rather bypass the hoops of the TED site, the video is available on YouTube). While this backstory isn’t necessarily clear in the exhibition, most viewers would likely recognize the controversial aspects of Hancock’s talk and the other texts and video in “Notes.”
As is likely already apparent to the reader, I found little cohesion in this exhibition, which grasps at several topics at once. But if The Starry Heavens Above meanders, perhaps it’s appropriately so, given the subject matter. In its very form, The Starry Heavens represents the difficult status drugs — hallucinogenic, high-inducing, or prescribed — have had both historically and in contemporary culture, as well as their connection to countercultures and power structures. Yet the lack of focus inherent in the unwieldy sprawl felt appropriate that day, and ever since, my mind has returned often to “I Can’t Breathe,” and that single cigarette, so small, so innocuous, yet an apt precursor of the storm to come.
The Starry Heavens Above and the Moral Law Within continues at TheCube Project Space (2F, No 13, Aly 1, Ln 136, Sec 4, Roosevelt Rd, Taipei, Taiwan) through October 4.