Interviews

At the Venice Biennale, Shu Lea Cheang Surveils the Surveillance System

In the first solo exhibition by a woman artist representing Taiwan at the Venice Biennale, Cheang questions the legal and visual regimes that have shaped sexual and gender norms over time.

Taiwan artist Shu Lea Cheang (all photos by Hendrik Ernst)

VENICE, Italy — “Life is political,” says Shu Lea Cheang, the first female artist to represent Taiwan in a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale. At our interview, the artist — clad in a bold, pink shirt with the Chinese character “Prisoner” printed on her shirt pocket — reiterated that all her work is political, though she adds, “I would separate politics from being political.” The latter, for her, is more about making a statement.

That statement is an impactful one in her 3x3x6 installation at Palazzo delle Prigioni. With curator Paul B. Preciado, she constructed her exhibition — one of 21 collateral event presentations organized by national and international non-profit bodies in addition to the main exhibition at the Arsenale and Giardini venues — around a rotating and inverted surveillance tower. This installation throws the unsuspecting viewer first into a sea of inky darkness, which is then illuminated at regular intervals by the portraits of her 10 case studies in the central gallery. Just as you are wondering where to focus your attention in the panopticon (based on Jeremy Bentham’s 18th-century design of a penitentiary) of character projections swirling before you, you are beckoned to enter adjoining exhibition rooms to pry further into their stories featured in a series of trans-punk fiction films.

Trans punk films at 3x3x6

As you gasp and squint watching both historical and modern sexual outlaws such as Giacomo Casanova, Marquis de Sade, and the so-called “female sperm bandits” in Africa (played by actors) unfold before you, digital surveillance cameras are also watching you from that tall tower, collecting your visual data.

3x3x6 questions the legal and visual regimes that have formed sexual and gender norms over time. According to Cheang, it “deals with the larger society, prisons and surveillance mechanisms, with a focus on non-binary people.”

“Each of the 10 cases is a study of what’s forbidden,” explains the artist. “We took Casanova as a case study as he was a condom promoter during his time. It’s the same today, as the Catholic Church still disapproves the use of condoms.”

She wants to revisit the idea of imprisonment presented by Bentham’s 18th-century prison complex and delve into present-day prison cells which have no fixed structure.

Character Portraits at the 3x3x6 exhibition.

“When we think about China’s Skynet with 20 surveillance cameras over the land, then it’s really a bigger non-confined prison that we live in”, she says.

Cheang was born in Taiwan in 1954, a time when the island was still under martial law. Although she recalled being forbidden to stay out after midnight, she did not really care as a college student. She admitted to feeling liberated after moving to New York in the 1980s, calling it a process of “self-acknowledgment and affirmation.”

Her art career seeded and bloomed in New York. One of her earliest artworks  “Color Schemes” (1990) — a three-channel video installation that features people of different ethnicities and reveals the complex attitudes surrounding ethnic stereotyping embedded in American culture — was accepted readily and installed at the Whitney Museum in 1990 for her own solo show, which became a turning point in her career.

“When I first got to New York, I was more concerned about certain kinds of racial discrimination or stereotypes of being an Asian woman — there were many different kinds of fantasies about Asian women,” she says.

In 1989, she switched her focus to transgender issues, and made “Brandon” (1989–99), a web project that explores the rape and murder of a transgender man and the first internet art piece commissioned and acquired by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

From video installations to pioneering net art, Cheang never stopped pushing boundaries. After 20 years in New York developing a long list of accolades, she went on a decade of a self-imposed lifestyle as a digital nomad which she says “liberated me from monthly fixed payments of rent, electricity and phone bills” and finally relocated to Paris in 2007.

Viewer watching one of the films at 3x3x6

In Paris, while working on projects such as “Unborn 0x9” and “Uki Cinema Interrupted,” exploring biotechnology and hacking, she was selected to represent Taiwan at the 58th Venice Biennale, coming full circle to her Taiwanese origins. The representation she says, “is a great honor”, given that she has mostly practiced her art outside of her birthplace. Still, she hopes to produce new work in Taiwan in the near future based on its current social conditions, and admits that she is encouraged by its vibrant art scene.

At the present moment, Cheang has started work on a “lifetime series” as she calls it, through which she intends to release a 10-minute episode annually. The first episode premiered in London in May, gathering an array of well-known sex performers, including Jiz Lee and Sadie Lune, to celebrate the rules of Fisting Club — the name of her short film series screened at the Uncensored Festival in London.

Looking back on her oeuvre from her time in New York to the present, she gave a slight smile and says: “I’m still very stubborn and feisty, and very persistent in my beliefs. I don’t think of compromising too much.”

3x3x6: Taiwan in Venice continues its run at the Palazzo delle Prigioni (Castello 4209, San Marco, Venice, Italy) through November 24. It was curated by Paul B. Preciado and Shu Lea Cheang.

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