Art

Visions of Taiwan and the Powers that Shaped It

As Shake shows us, the island state’s geography and political history have a lot in common.

Shake, still from “Our Suite de Danses,” 2016. From The Subduction Zones series (image courtesy the Taipei Cultural Center in New York)

As much of the world was reminded last week when an earthquake toppled several buildings in Taiwan, the island sits on the boundary of two tectonic plates. Using the geography of the island as a metaphor for its colonial past and its contemporary identity, Taiwanese artist Shake presents four works in a solo exhibition up through the end of this week at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP).

Curated by ISCP alum Hsiang-Ning Huang, Re-Re-positioning the Present comprises two projectors playing three video works and one wall installation. Although small and contained entirely in the space behind the organization’s front desk, the show is not only mesmerizing, but also extremely enlightening, with each work combining Taiwan’s geography, history, politics, and literature into a single narrative of identity.

The three videos on view make up a series called The Subduction Zone, drawing attention to Taiwan’s precarious location at the convergence of the Philippine Sea and the Eurasian tectonic plates. Each video juxtaposes the physical landscape with the historical tug-of-war between European and Asian colonial powers in the ownership of the island and its people.

Shake, still from “Our Status Quo,” 2016. From The Subduction Zones series (image courtesy the Taipei Cultural Center in New York)

One video in the series shows high school students in uniform, dancing and singing songs on a pebble beach with a beautiful badlands rock face in the background. The first song they sing, about a “lovely and happy family,” comes from a Japanese anime movie and takes its melody from Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.” An instructor interrupts the students mid-song, and instead has them march and sing a patriotic military hymn, followed by a somber and poetic folk tune. All the while, the students go through the complicated songs and choreographed motions, albeit without much emotion, feeling no real connection to this mishmash of cultures.

On the adjacent wall, “Our Status Quo” lays its focus on the cold reality of international politics. A bird’s-eye-view of the smoldering Tatun Volcano Group — the direct result of plate tectonics — spins slowly on screen as a robotic voice recites passages from international treaties, declarations, and acts. The passages start with the 1943 Cairo Conference, when FDR, Churchill, and Chiang Kai-shek called for Taiwan — then still known by its 16th-century Portuguese name, Formosa (short for Ilha Formosa, or “beautiful island”) — to be returned to China after years of Japanese occupation. The passages end with the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, when the US Congress defined its non-diplomatic relationship with Taiwan following the US’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China. All of the passages read in between these two are also examples of outside powers deciding the fate of Taiwan, matter-of-fact statements of political reality.

The most enthralling video in the series, “Our Story” shows a coastal landscape at dawn in Hualien, a fault line and the epicenter of last week’s deadly earthquake. As the sun slowly rises over the sea, the calming voice of Taiwanese actress Wu Wen-tsui talks about her own village childhood, before reciting 21 Taiwanese poems from the 17th to 20th centuries, interrupted intermittently by the sounds of waves and bird songs. The tranquility of the scenery and Wu’s voice, the poetry that so often refers to the symbolism of the sky, the video’s soft focus going in and out; these all create a profoundly meditative atmosphere. The result directly contrasts with the cold, hard facts of “Our Status Quo,” but it’s the lingering anticipation of disaster that hangs in the air of “Our Story” that makes this specific video so much more affecting than the others in the series.

Shake, “An Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier,” 2017 (photo by Martin Parsekian, courtesy ISCP)

On the last wall of the small gallery space, Shake combines all aspects of the video works into a single installation. Expanded accordion books of excerpts from Taiwanese literature sit directly below the international treaties and agreements negotiated at roughly the same time they were written. In the middle of this historical timeline, an animation shows the aftermath of the American-led air raid of Kaohsiung Harbor in 1944.

Shake’s exhibition reads like a geopolitical inquiry into the very core of the Taiwanese people. As she so poetically points out, like many other countries long handed off from one colonial power to the next, the true identity of the place is one that’s continually recreated, lost, and altered. Taiwan remains at the mercy of the unpredictable powers of the world, both natural and manmade.

Re-Re-positioning the Present continues at the International Studio & Curatorial Program (1040 Metropolitan Avenue, East Williamsburg, Brooklyn) through February 16.

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