Artist Embroiled in Controversy for Depicting an Independent Taiwan in a Public Sculpture

While Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger called the decision to identify Taiwan as a state independent from China an “error,” it has engendered a global discussion.

Mark Wallinger, “The World Turned Upside Down” (courtesy of the London School of Economics)

The London School of Economics (LSE) is tangled up in a diplomatic row after unveiling a globe sculpture that portrays Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Mark Wallinger’s “The World Turned Upside Down” is a 14-foot-tall inverted globe located outside the LSE Saw Swee Hock Student Centre. On Wallinger’s globe, unveiled at the end of March, the island of Taiwan is colored in pink while China appears in yellow. In another controversial call, Wallinger marks the city of Lhasa as Tibet’s national capital, instead of Beijing.

The work drew the ire of scores of mainland Chinese students at LSE, according to reports in the British press. The United Nations, and the overwhelming majority of its members, do not recognize Taiwan as an independent state.

Wallinger, a Turner Prize winner who never shied away from politics, claims that his controversial demarcations of Taiwan’s and Tibet’s political statuses were an “error.” “The UN is the authority as to the names and borders. This is the world, as we know it from a different viewpoint. Familiar, strange, and subject to change,” he said.

Following students’s complaints, the school announced that it is considering altering the commissioned artwork, but said a final decision has not yet been made. Wallinger said that he keeps “an open mind” on possible changes to the sculpture.

A group of Taiwanese students countered with a demand to keep the sculpture unchanged. LSE director Minouche Shafik — who described the sculpture at the unveiling as a “bold work” that “encapsulates what LSE is all about” — called a meeting between students from both sides. Huang Li-an, one of the Taiwanese students who attended the meeting, wrote on her Facebook page that the school made the decision to conform to maps issued by the United Nations, in which Taiwan does not have membership. “This means that Taiwan will once again be recognized as part of China, which doesn’t represent reality,” she wrote.

The controversy caught the attention of the highest ranks in Taiwan’s government. The country’s president, Tsai Ing-wen — an alumna of LSE — criticized the school for considering to revise the work and clarified Taiwan’s demand for independence. “As China increases its pressure on Taiwan, our international support continues to grow,” she said.

In an open letter addressed to Shafik, Taiwan’s foreign affairs minister Joseph Wu wrote, “The truth is that Taiwan is a sovereign democratic country, not part of any other.” If the sculpture is changed, Wu wrote, “it will lead young men and women everywhere to believe that LSE bows to the pressure and bullying of Beijing.”

LSE’s globe controversy comes at the backdrop of ratcheting tensions between Beijing and Taiwan.  In January, President Xi Jinping of China announced that he will not rule out the use of force to achieve “reunification” with Taiwan.

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