Title: Le Festin de Chun-te
Artist: Hsieh Chun-te
Curator: Museum of Contemporary Art of Taipei, Collateral Event
Venue: Scoletta dei Battioro e Tiraoro, Campo San Stae
Emily Burke interviews Hsieh Chun-te
Emily Burke: As the largest Biennale, and one of the world’s most important platforms for the dissemination of contemporary international artwork, do you think that the Biennale participants have a social obligation to represent their various countries in a certain way?
Hsieh Chun-te: From the aspect of astronomy, we all know how to calculate the age and the distance of the universe. The farthest planet is 15 billion light years away from the earth. However, the universe without light doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist because its light doesn’t reach the earth yet. This implies to the limitation of human beings. When we stand on the ground, we are unable to the see the world beyond horizon. In brief, what we can not see doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
Through the eyes of artists and their representations, we have multiple aspects to understand that the lives of the people from different areas. Therefore, the Venice Biennale of Art becomes the platform that we could realise what those artists from different countries have observed, and tried to say. With no doubt, I am one of them because I also expect that we could be seen and have the chance to communicate with the people around the world.
EB: How important do you feel it is to present the work of Taiwanese artists on an international stage?
HC: In order to answer this question, I would like to provide one example from the novel “The General in his Labyrinth “ by Gabriel García Márquez. When the general met the British officer who helped him constantly, he said, “Sir, although we walk side by side now, you have to know the cultural difference between us at least for two or three hundred years. In this moment, we are forced to walk together, but the cultural difference still exists.”
EB: Are there particular aspects of Taiwan culture that you feel need to be expressed through art?
HC: For many years, there was only one major political party in Taiwan, the Kuomintang (KMT). Until the day that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the election in 2000, President Chen Shui-bian invited one famous American economist to visit Taiwan for one week. When he finished his journey, he gave ten suggestions to Taiwan government and I want to underline two of them.
Firstly, Taiwanese society should regard the creativity as the social property. Secondly, we should encourage the young generation to bravely try and fail. The value system in Taiwan has changed a lot in recently years. All the medias, educational institutions, everything is talking about how to be successful, including how to succeed in love relationships, how to have successful business, how to succeed in the stock market. Nobody teaches the young generation how to face the failures. People forget that most of the successes are based on the accumulation of frustrations and failures. This is the problem in Taiwan because our value system has been changed. That is the reason why our former president is in the prison because of the corruption sentences.
We have to solve this essential question: what is the value of human existence? In the recent twenty or thirty years, Taiwan is so called “the island of economy miracle”, or “the island of technology OEM”. I try to express what I have observed in order to provide a caution and a reflection.
EB: Do you think that artists in general have a certain social responsibility to represent their country, or in the modern culture that we live in do individual art practices take precedent over ties to our culture?
HC: My personality is to seek for those unseen, or to speak out for those unspoken. During those years when there was only one major political party (the Kuomintang, KMT) in Taiwan, I have participated in the opposition party and join the demonstrations in the street. At that time, we aimed to voice for the civilians in these activities. I hope to change the society. For an artist, I believe that he/she should express the dissatisfactions and precede the improvements for this world. Consequently, I make use of the tools that I am good at to express my opinions.
EB: How do you expect the audience at the Venice Biennale, being such a wide and diverse range of people from all areas of the world, to react to your work?
HC: The series of photos “Raw” is a project that commenced in 1987 and finished in 2011.
In the summer of 1987, I closed the workshop in Taipei city and moved to Sanchong city, which is located on the other side of Tamsui River. Most of the residents of Sanchong city are from the central or the southern part of Taiwan. Before they stepped into Taipei city, they stopped by the suburban city and waited for chances. Therefore, they had a processing factory of hardware on the first floor of their apartment. You might ask them, “Where do you come from?” Although they have lived here for around 20 years, they would still answer that they are from Changhua, Chiayi or Kaohsiung. (Note: Those are the name of the cities in central and southern Taiwan.)
I asked him, “Why don’t you say that you are the people coming from Sanchong?” They said, “Here is dirty and messy. I don’t want to be someone coming from here.”
Yes, each residence here was locked up. If you go to the streets and alleys, you would see trash everywhere.
Those residents in Sanchong city didn’t regard it as their hometown so they were not willing to devote themselves to this city. As for the place where they were born, it becomes the nostalgia in their minds. Therefore, I moved to Sanchong in order to hide the primitive desire in people’s dark inner minds so I started everything by myself.
Hopefully, I could make more people know our living circumstances in Taiwan since home is the most important thing in the world.
EB: Could you give us an insight into the work that is being presented?
HC: I would like to provide one particular point of view. About 20 years ago, there was TV news report that two policemen caught a stowaway from China. The policemen asked him the reason why to be a stowaway. He said to the camera, “I just arrived in this land later than you did!”
It is the universal problem for all the countries. The nationalism is to occupy the land first and announce their legal ownership. But, we all say that the civilians have the right to migrate. However, the fact is that you could move out, but nobody allows you to move in. So, how about the ownership of the earth? If we believe that land should not be regarded as private property, how could we tolerate the government to occupy the land from other people? How do we face this problem? At the same time, how to find an insight into my works?
If you take off the coloured glasses, I believe that you would see my works insightfully
EB: How integral is performance to your work?
HC: In the very beginning, I didn’t consider how to integrate the performance to my photography works. I believe that any art work should not be limited in any fixed space. It could be everywhere and anywhere. If so, space is supposed to be open to all kinds of art creations. Therefore, I attempted to put a performing artwork, such as my Cooking Theatre, in a still space. If you are willing to do so, the integration will come out naturally.
EB: Do you aim to bring artist and audience closer together through food?
HC: Enjoy the performance, by being part of it!
When food becomes part of the art, the dish is not the only performer, and the dining table is not the only stage. There is no differentiation between audience and performer. Everyone will join and be part of the performance, and in the end, finish the act by eating it!
All the sensations towards this performance will occur instantly, and no one can ever predict the ending of each performance. When the scene of a food banquet is concluded, it will be a calling, a touching, a journey of true art.
EB: Some of the images you are displaying are quite harrowing. What is the aim of these photographs?
HC: The aim of these photographs is certainly not to scare anyone. There are two purposes in my works. From my experiences in stage and theatre photography over the years, I have learned that when I take a picture, the photograph itself becomes dissociated from the original space and process, and transforms into a different stage of images, engaged with the stage in a dialogue.
So when I express my childhood dreamscapes and growing-up experiences as photographs, using Sanchong as the stage on which they are acted out, these photos in themselves are no longer manifestations, of either reality or imagination, but opinions on the environment in which I live.
EB: Is there a story throughout your images?
HC: It is a story about the homecoming of the prodigal son.
EB: What is the link between the images you are exhibiting in the Raw exhibition, and the live cooking performance?
HC: I plan to present one sacrifice ceremony through Cooking Theatre. I saw a documentary where Eskimos would grab some snow and melt it in their mouths and pray for when they are going to eat small seals. Also, I have even been to the boundary between Russia and China in order to interview Oronchon people who are also called the last hunters in the world. They led me to the hunt and they also repent after they shoot animals. In brief, for the natural lives which are sacrificed to become human food, the aboriginal people often treat them with the feelings of appreciation and apology.
Let’s think about your own situation. It is the same that rice, vegetable, chicken, duck, beef and lamb are scarified for human food. How about us? This is what we should think about carefully. Now we are facing the crisis of lacking water resource and food. Through Cooking Theatre, I want to express my point of view that we should return to the beginning of everything to do the serious introspection.
Through the link between the images in the Raw exhibition and the live cooking performance, I hope to “explore” these question.
The Playful Cruelty of Hsieh Chun-te
An essay by Dominique Pai ni
When I first saw Hsieh Chun‐Te’s photographs I was struck by the sense of the
imminent storm that permeated many of them. It was as if Hsieh was representing a postlapsarian world. Some of the compositions clearly indicate the performance of a violent action condemned by both propriety and the rules of human society. His works almost always contain a form of punishment; a body cast down on a symbolic field of thorns, hanged bodies, bodies abandoned by the indifference of our modern deafness, bodies drawn and quartered, sexually punished bodies, or bodies that seem to be held up to public disgrace. From Giorgione’s The Tempest to the prints of Gustave Doré, the storm is representative of divine wrath.
The artist who dares to portray such scenes of sacrifice is a visionary, haunted by the disquiet arising from the complicity between Eros and Thanatos. Never before had I come across a scene of capital execution culminating in the sexual act. In his work, Chun‐Te incorporates the sexual act into a depiction of this terrible ceremony that legally ends lives and one which is observed by a group of grim on‐lookers (The Romance on the Stele, Sanchong series). What audacity, what derision on behalf of the artist to fuse this legalised transgression that consists in coldly taking away human life with that most beautiful of all human actions! It is indeed a ceremony, here, and throughout all of Hsieh Chun‐Te’s work. I will elaborate more on this later.
In order to describe Hsieh Chun‐Te’s works more precisely one would have to view the other images that form an ensemble, like the caprichos that go beyond a single caricature to describe the disasters of the world. The allusion to Goya here is quite deliberate. These large photographic compositions make me think of the famous title that Goya gave to one of his works: The sleep of reason breeds monsters in which black and white, ugliness and beauty, purity and vice clash with each other. Hsieh offers a kind of photographic equivalent to these visions of the decline of a decadent and corrupt humanity, visions traversed by winds which threaten to sweep away the ruins of a post‐cataclysmal world.
Several aspects of Hsieh’s work also evoke the poetics of Georges Bataille. Pierre Klossowski describes the cataclysmal character of Bataille’s work that is troublingly echoed in Hsieh’s images: “[in Bataille] the ontological catastrophe of thought is merely the reverse of an apogee attained through what he calls sovereign moments: drunkenness, laughter, erotic and sacrificial outpouring, experiences that characterise expenditure without compensation, an unlimited extravagance, a meaningless, useless and purposeless waste”1 Klossowski was speaking here of “simulacra” in Bataille’s work.
A similar extravagance fascinates the viewer in Hsieh’s work. He creates a mise‐en‐scene of elements that are at once atrocious and delectable, marked by an erotic excess. Drunkenness, sacrifice and sometimes cruel humour are amongst the features that make these images so disconcerting. In Homecoming Day the pose and attitude of the three women depicted in the Shueigin street scene (Shueigin is located in the county of Kohu, in the southern part of Taiwan), obviously evoke lingshi, that mythical form of Chinese torture known as “death by a thousand cuts”. Bataille wrote about this in his Tears of Eros – “that ecstatic and intolerable pain, whose representation combines religiosity and eroticism.” Indeed, it is the photographic focus that selects and highlights what must be looked at in this derelict urban theatre. The viewer’s eye is drawn to the body parts of these three vestal virgins that block the access to the street and in particular to one of their breasts, as if this optical adjustment was itself an incision.
The iconography of Hsieh Chu‐Te reveals multiple borrowings and in turn borrows
from several periods of art. The first thing that strikes us is this anachronism.
If we nevertheless set out to contradict this loss of bearings that Hsieh very deliberately engages in, or in other words, if we go back in time, the family group (Family Portrait) taken in front of a house in the same town, Shueigin, a place that obsesses the artist, is inspired by a tradition in Chinese art, and can also be compared to certain images from the twentieth century. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Taipei there is a plaque by Huang Tu‐Shui which, in my opinion, belongs to a tradition of rural representation of Ancient China. This plaque is a kind of iconographic predecessor to Hsieh’s visions. The peaceful nature of the relationship between the children and the buffalo is expressed by Huang through the gentle relief of this gypsum plaque which can be compared the velvety black‐and‐white of Hsieh’s photographs. Hsieh has a very particular way of combining the zones of clarity and soft focus in his prints so that the contrast between the bright, sunny foreground and the shadow of the house creates a similar depth to that conveyed by the delicate low relief of Huang’s work.
However the strangeness of Hsieh’s work does not come from the unease provoked by a certain erotic cruelty. It comes rather from the great diversity of his references, his extensive visual culture.
It would be easy, and verging almost on intellectual laziness, to speak of the surreality of these images, if not their surrealism. The word is overworked and hackneyed. And yet there is a kind of obviousness in the way the entwined couple so irresistibly evoke certain Surrealist motifs such as René Magritte’s The Lovers. Still, this echo is no ordinary quotation. Is it deliberate on the part of the artist? I doubt it. The entwined lovers could also originate – that is, if we absolutely need to find the source of Hsieh’s inspiration and imagination – in Goya, as I have already suggested. Indeed, Georges Bataille used an engraving in The Tears of Eros, mentioned above, that could be considered the infernal version of this twisted fusion of bodies. Without a doubt, Hsieh Chun‐Te knew of the work of Bataille and Surrealist inspiration. I was reminded of Hans Bellmer’s photograph of a disjointed doll on a bed of straw when I saw the disturbing image of the young woman suffering with wounds and exposed to the harsh vegetation in Hsieh’s The Tears of Tamsui River. Here the vegetation is as unnatural as Bellmer’s straw bedding or Marcel Duchamp’s landscape in Etant donné (Given).
Goya’s influence reaches deep into Hsieh Chun‐Te’s visual culture. At the start of this essay I spoke of the Caprichos and the Disasters. In Goya’s latter series, the Great deeds against the dead engraving offers a model for Hsieh’s Sanchong (Bitches) series with its recurring images of tortured bodies left hanging by the feet and the head fated to be buried forever. In Hsieh Chun‐Te’s apocalyptic vision bodies are hanged. Nevertheless his images combine terror with a macabre irony.
Another element that characterises Hsieh Chun‐Te’s photographic theatre is the
scope of their mise‐en‐scene. As with Joel‐Peter Witkin, who is a few years younger than Hsieh, each photograph is the culmination of a lengthy period of preparation. The choice of location, a sizeable team of assistants, the sets, objects and furniture, complex lighting, the costumes, the attention to the poses (or the performance), liken Hsieh’s artistic procedure to the cinematic mise‐en‐scene . If I had to place this Taiwanese artist within a tradition and a culture in order to greater understand his work, I would situate him in terms of cinema, and in particular Japanese New Wave Cinema from the 1960s. This movement had an important influence on artists in the “region,” including Taiwanese artists, due to the imprint of Japanese culture on the country.
Beyond the simple yet significant title of the works presented here: Ceremony – I was greatly impressed by the distant echoes between the films of the master of modern Japanese cinema, Nagisa Oshima, and Hsieh’s mises‐en‐scene. I was reminded of the slow, tragic conclusion of Oshima’s The Ceremony (1971) when I first saw the work of this Taiwanese artist who places such an emphasis on social ritual and cruelty.
Erotic Japanese cinema was also very fashionable in the 1970s and was produced by the Nikkatsu company, responsible for the Perverse Housewives (Danchi Zuma) series. These films offered the viewer some very intense images of female submission. In a scene from one of the most famous films in the series, The Woman with Pierced Nipples by Shogoro Nishimura, the lead actress rolls around on a carpet of roses, wounding her back on their thorns.
At this time, Koji Wakamatsu was the master of pinku eiga, this specifically Japanese cinematic genre that was considered erotic but shared the aesthetic of New Japanese Cinema. Wakamatsu’s work is disconcertingly similar to Hsieh’s. I am thinking here of his remarkable film The Embryo Hunts in Secret, which despite its inoffensive title, was still given an X rating on its release in Europe in 2007. In one sequence, where a woman stands in a doorway and offers herself to a man, the light projected around her suggests a second image, an image within the image or a subliminal image of another body inscribed within this image. A parallel can be drawn with Hsieh’s photograph Flight in the Night. Furthermore, Wakamatsu’s work exhibits the body in a way that brings to mind Hsieh’s Mirror.
In other words, Hsieh’s originality resides in his varied use of several cultural
references: classical Western painting, Surrealist ecstasy and modern Japanese cinema. This assemblage may seem extravagant and incoherent to those who know nothing about Taiwan, its debate on identity and the collage of cultural components that forms the island as it is today. All of these aspects have given birth to a work whose main concern is to construct a coherent assemblage which does not exclude humour in its juxtapositions. One of the most impressive photographs is the astounding image of the hanging bodies of young women (Bitches, Sanchong series). The shocking eroticism aside, what also comes across here, in an untimely and provocative way, is Hsieh’s second passion: gastronomy. This installation inevitably brings to mind window displays of glossy Peking duck and glazed pigs, hanging by their legs in the windows of traditional Chinese restaurants, ready to be eaten. Once again, this extraordinary image refers to cinema, but this time to the Chinese cinema of Hong Kong. I have a vivid memory of a film by Fruit Chan from 2001, Hollywood Hong Kong, set in the professional world of food markets. It includes a sequence which confirms my feeling that the various effects in each of Hsieh Chu‐Te’s works offer a synthesis of cruelty and beauty, humour and tragedy: a playful cruelty.