The world is that what you fight for.
As an island, the history of Taiwan is complex and multifaceted, shaped by centuries of migration, colonization, and political upheaval. Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, who are thought to have inhabited the island for thousands of years, were gradually displaced by waves of immigrants from China and other parts of Asia. The island was colonized by the Dutch in the 17th century, and later came under the control of the Qing dynasty in the 19th century.
After World War II, Taiwan was returned to Chinese control, but the country soon found itself embroiled in a civil war between the nationalist forces of the Kuomintang (KMT) and the communist forces of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In 1949, the KMT were defeated by the CCP and retreated to Taiwan, which they declared to be the seat of the Republic of China (ROC).
As mentioned above, for several decades, Taiwan was ruled by a one-party dictatorship under the KMT, which imposed martial law and cracked down on dissent. However, in the 1980s, growing pressure from civil society and the international community led to a period of democratization and liberalization, culminating in Taiwan’s first democratic presidential election in 1996.
Despite these political changes, Taiwan’s status as a sovereign nation remains a matter of dispute and a focal point in geopolitics. The government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claims Taiwan as part of its territory, and has not ruled out the use of military force to bring Taiwan under its control. This ongoing tension has had significant implications for Taiwan’s international standing and its relationship with other countries.
One of the key factors that has contributed to Taiwan’s economic success is its dominance in the global semiconductor industry, which is often referred to as the „Silicon Shield.” Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corporation (TSMC), which is based in Taiwan, produces over 60% of the world’s semiconductors and over 90% of the most advanced ones.While the „Silicon Shield” has helped to fuel Taiwan’s economic growth and strengthen its autonomy, it has also contributed to growing inequalities and social pressures, leaving some people struggling to keep up with the pace of change and to adapt to the demands of a rapidly evolving global economy.
Chang Li-Ren gave a talk in the gallery that was announced under the title Your Dreams Don’t Deserve to be Remembered. I did not attend it because I knew I would not be able to understand much, but I talked to him about why he chose this title for talking in front of an audience. He wants to correct some parts of the first film of Battle City, but he cannot longer afford to spend so much time and personal resources to recreate it. He added: “With the completion of another great “Taiwan light”, TSMC, in Tainan’s Sanae factory, the rent in the village has skyrocketed, and I can no longer afford to pay the rent for the studio and have to pay for a rubbish truck to empty the items. It was a dream for thirteen years, and the project was eventually erased before it was fully exhibited, a dream that is clearly not worth remembering compared to the economic development and artistic environment of the region.”
The artist’s life, his complex storyline, distinctive animation style and intricate cultural and historical references are not only a lesson on how sensitive and explosive social systems are, but create a great story that appeals for a greater sensibility for the social issues of today. In his own words: “Battle City is not just about war, but about survival in the wider sense. Survival in this context is not survival in the traditional sense of the law of the jungle, but survival in the context of humanly constructed civilisations, legal rules, media networks and economic environments. In other words, survival in a state of economic activity that we know as everyday life.”
He draws inspiration not only from his own experience and the public presence of geopolitics and social issues, but also from the experiences that other have made in these fields. Zhi-Qiang, the main character of the Trilogy was inspired by a squat leader of him when he was a solider stationed at the Kinmen frontline. In our interview, Chang told me how one night, his squat leader, a cheerful and lively teenager who had just graduated from cadet school and who carried a cartoon-printed wallet with a picture of a young girl inside broke down in tears while they were on sentry duty carrying loaded assault-rifles, he told me how he thought his breakdown had something to do with the girl he carried in his back pocket.
“The military is a relatively exploitative place, and many people, other than those who serve on a voluntary basis, choose to serve because of their families’ finances, sacrificing their lives for their families’ livelihoods and living in a different world”—he continued.
Much like Battle City follows various characters that navigate a bureaucratic dystopia. Yesterday’s dream follows the artist through the hardships of bureaucracy and precariousness of art production. A field where people like Chi-Wen play an important role. Who described the artist work as being “much like Taiwan; walking an own path, fearless and decided but tragic in its past and future outlooks.”
When I asked her about her curatorial approach, she replied that she likes artistic practices that critically engage with hegemonies by building own systems and structures that support the stories that build up real alternatives. She understands her gallery and production house as such a structure itself. It is a vessel that helps artist to navigate the Maze that is the cultural sector. Her curatorial practice is a sort of fold of the interpersonal relationships that we commonly associate with the social. Besides Chang Li-Ren she has also shown other artists known for their political works, most notably Chen Chieh-Jen and Hsu Chia-Wei amongst others.
For Chi-Wen the process of becoming a cultural worker is a process of meta-socialisation where one discovers what society can bring to them and where their limits can extend to. By making these processes visible and focusing on the strategies they produce she wants to disrupt the current merit-oriented art field. In her eyes as in the eyes of many of us, this social paradigm of merit pushes the imaginative mind in a box, a white cube to exclude it from the social sphere. What happens then? The remedy of Chi-Wen is to not cancel this box, but to restructure it from the inside with art-forms that escape its static form.
Her approach arises from her experience growing up in an ambiguous time when liberalisation through open market strategies went hand in hand with political censorship. The programs she prepares for the gallery reflect not only this experience, but gives forum to forms of art that rose from similarly lived experiences.
With Chi-Wen gallery, geopolitical and local issues, such as the segregation of subaltern communities, the exuberant urbanisation under authoritarian regimes or the thug of war for the independent state of Taiwan have a stage in the east and South-East Asian art and gallery scene.
Much in line with the cultural policies of this country, which employs artistic collaborations as a form of diplomatic tool, Chi-Wen employs the exhibition of art and the production of artistic works (via her production house) as soft power, or better said: as a force to soften power. A force of true heart that can promote and distribute sincere versions of autonomy, mutual understanding and a better future.
Her engagement with the production of art came from the motivation of rethinking the role her gallery has taken in the local art scene since it began operating in 2004. Since then her gallery became established and known for their focus on video art, so Chi-Wen Huang took the responsibility of more thoroughly fomenting this medium, vouching for a more cinematic approach and the promotion of subaltern visions behind and in front of the camera that portray hidden histories, sensibilities, threads, localised struggles and the stories that weave the complex pattern of Taiwanese identity. “Taiwan has so much, a lot. And it is becoming very bright right now. It is living through an interesting moment. And It’s time for us to use the »weapon of light«”—she added.
The idea of promoting diverse art production practices aligns with the importance of an embracing and uniting periphery. The role of the periphery is to challenge the status quo, question dominant narratives and power structures, and offer alternative visions of the world. It is an archipielago of para-spaces where voices and visions can be heard and seen, and where diversity and pluralism are upheld as a bulwark against homogenization and standardization. Taiwan’s socio-cultural history is a prime example of such a space and as such, it can play a vital role in supporting and creating diverse and urgent art practices needed today.
Through her gallery and her engagement, Chi-Wen Huang is contributing to this process of resource concentration and creating a platform for voices and visions to be heard and seen. While Chang Li-Ren has managed to set an awkward mirror for us to ask ourselves: what will I do if it gets this far?
In this image and space we can learn to understand that art production is a field of collaboration, a field for experimentation and place for the development of characters and strategies needed to overcome the current system driven by meritocracy. Instead of being considered as mere indicators and tokens of achievements, cultural workers should be considered as key agents who create their own discourse and movements, and who possess a powerful inner strength and social resilience.
We are the black hole that makes the sun glow.
The first part of the article can be accessed here. Cover image: Dutch Map of Formosa (Taiwan) by Johannes Vingboons, 1640. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)