The Venice Questionnaire 2015 #21: WU Tien-chang

Representing Taiwan at the 2015 Venice Biennale, WU Tien-chang answered our short questionnaire

Wu Tien-Chang, Our Hearts Beat as One, Laser print, 240 x 343.2 cm, Taipei, 2001-2015. © Wu Tien-Chang

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2015 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening.

WU Tien-chang is representing Taiwan as a collateral event. The pavilion is in the Palazzo delle Prigioni, Castello 4209, San Marco

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

This project is titled WU Tien-Chang: Never Say Goodbye. For a long time, my works have addressed an eternal ultimate concern – ‘goodbye’ or ‘farewell’, which is a kind of parting in the face of death.

People in Taiwan firmly believe that an integral life is made up of ‘soul’ and ‘physique’. ‘Soul’ is the spiritual part of human life, that is, thoughts and memories; and ‘physique’ is physical, referring to the human body and its organs. When life is near the end, people always have an undying ‘attachment’ to the realm of the living. For this project, we will minimize wall renovation to preserve the obscure atmosphere and historic features of Palazzo delle Prigioni (formerly a prison), recounting the memories and sentiments from the past that linger in everyone’s hearts, just like the lingering ghosts in the prison that are reluctant to leave as they are torn between love and hate for the mortal realm.

This time, I will exhibit three video installations that combine virtual and real elements of video and showcase diverse audio and visual effects. These works are Farewell, Spring and Autumn Pavilion, Unforgettable Lover, and Beloved. I will also exhibit laser print light box installations Blind Men Groping Down the Lane and Our Hearts Beat as One. The splendour and performativity of my creative images directly appeal to the viewer’s senses and intuition, using exaggerated tawdriness as a disguise of charm to confide the past pains that cannot be shouldered by the individual or the nation. On the one hand, I reveal Taiwan’s regime changes and historical memories over the past century; on the other, I project my romantic aspiration for the future. I use a familiar and unrefined method to joyously present the themes. The mannequins wear latex membrane masks and give magic-like performances, and popular old Taiwanese songs cast a nostalgic feeling on these works.

I hope to create a powerful visual impact with Taiwan’s highly recognisable unique visual aesthetics and universal humane spirit to break the barriers between ethnicities and countries

Maternal culture and the belief in life of Taiwanese people are the main inspirations of my creativity. I hope to create a powerful visual impact with Taiwan’s highly recognisable unique visual aesthetics and universal humane spirit to break the barriers between ethnicities and countries.

Are you approaching this show in a different way as to how you would a ‘normal’ exhibition?

Unlike modern exhibition spaces I’ve encountered before, namely galleries and museums, the site of this exhibition is Palazzo delle Prigioni, which was formerly a prison. This was where criminals walked towards the Bridge of Sighs, the most famous tourist attraction of Venice, to be sent to Prigioni Nuove in Palazzo Ducale via boat. In the Italian language, prigioni means prison. The frescoes on the ceilings and the tables and chairs in the rooms are all from the sixteenth century. To protect the historic landmark and maintain the authentic beauty of its primitive walls, we will not have any woodwork done (the conventional way of hanging paintings on the wall); thus, the works need to have rigid structures, which increased the difficulty of production. Simply put, we will develop video mechanic installations that combine virtual and real effects. After all, we are given the task to challenge the historical space of Palazzo delle Prigioni, and to achieve a balance between presenting powerful contemporary visual expressions and conserving this allusive historic site, creating what could be described as a dialogue between modern time-space and ancient spirits.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ your region? Do you find it an honour or problematic?

This is certainly a great honour for me. Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) has organized the Taiwan presentation at Venice Biennale for twenty years and has continued to reinvent and surpass itself. It is worth noting that TFAM has made an important decision to do things differently this time. In the past, the show in the Taiwan presentation was always a group exhibition with a curator. However, upon reviewing the presentation of past group exhibitions, TFAM realised that different works hampered the full strength of the exhibition or interrupted one another, and the collective presentation failed to leave global communities with a strong impression of Taiwanese contemporary art. So this time around, TFAM decided to choose one artist to present a solo exhibition with a clear context to show the world the contemporary visual aesthetics of Taiwan nurtured by the unique culture and lifestyle of this Asian country. This is the key message we want to convey at this year’s Venice Biennale.

The marginalised characters and ghostly tone of my works, when placed inside Palazzo delle Prigioni, will further highlight the obscure nature of the former prison

The ten jurors made their final decision in an open and fair manner, unanimously approving the splendour and performativity of my creative images that directly appeal to the viewer’s senses and intuition. According to them, my works not only echo the festive style of the Venice Biennale, but also have the quality to instantly capture viewers’ attention. The jury thinks that my use of mask-like latex membrane for exaggerated and peculiar images and magical visual expressions have given my works an overflowing atmosphere of familiarity that is at the same time artificial and unconventional. The jury also praises me for being able to focus on Taiwan’s substitutive cultural deposits, and how I use performances with outstanding audio and visual effects to summon the unique atmosphere of time displayed through the process of Taiwan’s Westernisation. The marginalised characters and ghostly tone of my works, when placed inside Palazzo delle Prigioni, will further highlight the obscure nature of the former prison.

Of course, this is a monumental task. At a world-class art festival like this, in addition to being able to stand out visually, we also want Taiwan’s unique aesthetic characteristics to be recognised with precision. Therefore, my team’s gravest challenge is to present powerful visuals and contents, and we will nonetheless do our best to achieve this mission for our country.

How are you approaching the different audiences who come to Venice – the masses of artist peers, gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening and the general public who come through over the following months?

That’s right! During this international art festival, art professionals and tourists from all over the world will swarm into Venice. I was born in Keelung (a port city) in northeastern Taiwan, an Asian island, in 1956, and I have always lived here without studying overseas. My creative career spans over three decades, and my style has experienced many transitions. Early on, I was known in Taiwan’s art circle for my oil paintings and their historical criticism; I witnessed Taiwan’s journey transforming from authoritarianism to democracy, and was recognized as the first pioneer “after the lifting of martial law.”

In the 1990s, I switched to mixed media and photography, and was awarded the Grand Prize by Taipei Fine Arts Museum for my work Until We Meet Again! Spring and Autumn Pavilions After 2000, I ventured into digital art, and right now I am developing mechanical installations that integrate videos. For a long time, I have taken an anti-elite stance and successfully transcribed symbols of Taiwan’s ‘vulgar and tawdry’ folk culture and religious beliefs into contemporary symbols, so that the images and videos in my works are more reflective of Taiwan’s unique history and land ethic. Other than disclosing my historical point of view as a baby boomer (those born between 1946 and 1964 after WWII), I have further developed it into a massive collection of historical text. I try to use black humour to gruesomely reflect the pseudo-authenticity of history and broken subjective identity. In Taiwanese art community, I am regarded as a representative of “stereotypical Taiwanese aesthetics.”

In addition to having a disciplined academic dialogue and interaction with art professionals from around the world, the perceptive intuition, rich Taiwanese cultural symbols, and magnificent performativity displayed by my works present an interesting viewing experience to ordinary audience. I sincerely hope that Taiwan’s unique visual aesthetics can be seen and understood by the world through this year’s Venice Biennale.

What are your earliest or best memories of the biennale?

I already represented Taiwan at the 1987 Venice Biennale. Back then, I was one of the artists in the group exhibition and it was the second time Taiwan participated in Venice Biennale. Everybody worked together to present the show in the Taiwan presentation that we jointly created. Through personal participation and observation, I gained a lot of valuable experience, and saw wonderful artworks from other countries. I sensed the cultural differences between various countries and learned a lot from their different curatorial concepts and strategies. I was also dazzled by the beauty of Venice, and its breathtaking sense of history.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

The works in this exhibition are quite complicated, so we plan to use two weeks’ time to set up the exhibition and fine-tuning, presenting visitors the best visual effects and spirit of Taiwan presentation. This grand event serves as a perfect platform for exchange, where we can see the best artworks from other countries in the world, and try to understand and explore curatorial concepts and mechanisms of other nations. This will be a great learning experience for Taiwan to organise international biennials in the future, and at the same time, a great opportunity for myself to expand my creative horizon.

How does a having a presentation in Venice affect the art scene you belong to (i.e. Taiwan)?

As a peripheral Asian country, Taiwan’s involvement in international affairs often generates domestic (within the island) debates on her identity. Especially now when we face the contemporary Western world and the rise of China, the unique colonial experience in Taiwan’s modern history has given rise to a widespread cultural anxiety regarding waves of globalisation. As an artist who commenced on the foundation of historical and cultural criticism, I firmly believe that the awareness of cultural subjectivity is necessary and real; also, I believe that the nature of globalisation is not in conflict with the nature of localisation. On one hand, my works very much appeal to the purely visual and intuitive perceptions, but on the other, I communicate with the world through a precise artistic language; what links the two are themes related to universal values, which are embraced by the world. Looking at my creative journey over the past three decades, I have always strived to promote Taiwan’s unique culture. Clear and recognisable cultural characteristics indeed exist, and I believe that, among the many exhibition sites at Venice, my works will definitely enrapture the Western art communities like never before. To me, being chosen to have my solo exhibition at Venice Biennale sends a message to the art community in Taiwan. Even in today’s world with ubiquitous footprints of globalisation, cultural differences still exist in the form of religious beliefs, lifestyles, and political systems of different nations. When localism meets globalisation, it does not necessarily have to lead to confrontations; the seamless divide can be overcome and mended by outstanding artists. A great artwork will ultimately break ethnical and national barriers, inspire creativity and impose visual influences.

Read all responses to the Venice Questionnaire 2015 edition published so far

Read all 30 responses to the Venice Questionnaire 2013 edition

Online exclusive published on 30 April 205.