Larry Shao talks to Wu Mali about her work, her collaborations with communities, and the art scene in Taiwan.
Larry Shao (LS): Since you returned to Taiwan in 1986, you have dealt with a wide range of subjects in your work: critiquing the media, the condition of Asia, political criticism, feminism, art institutional critique, and your latest focus on environmental issues. What informs your work and how do you decide to move from one subject to another?
Wu Mali (WML): Despite the various subjects, I am really dealing with only one core issue in my works: how does a person exist comfortably in an environment? Although a straight-forward question, this has never been a simple affair. For example, coming from a gender perspective one faces gender issues, in urban development one encounters class issues and the relationships between a nation’s power and its citizens. These matters are entangled with many complicated issues, but all derive from the question of how does one go about settling in his or her environment? How does a person live happily in despite of one’s identity, gender, background, or social class? If you look at things from these perspectives you’ll find many problems; when a person faces their surrounding, it is a land issue as well as an institutional issue.
When I returned [to Taiwan] from Germany, I encountered a society robustly pursuing changes. Taiwan had backed out of the United Nations in 1971, the United States severed their diplomatic relations with us in 1978, and ‘87 was the lift of martial law. Seeing these historic moments became vital to my growing experience. As a person studying art, these events motivated my thoughts; if art is a linguistic medium, I wondered, how could I articulate my concerns with it? Like most art students, we were dealing with subjects such as the medium or style in school, and the presentation of our works were too limited to art settings. This was a self-contained system, from education, to presentation, and circulation. With a desire to go beyond the limits of this structure, to break free from the art bubble, I experimented with the limits of the concept of art. I integrated my interest in political movements pre and post-martial law and expressed my thoughts artistically. My 1998 solo show ‘Treasure Island’ was a summary of these various observations. During that period, looking at man, woman, nation, and city from a gendered perspective was my central concentration.
After that, I was serendipitously approached by the Taipei Awakening Association – a women's rights organization. The Textile Playing Workshop (玩布工作坊) was a problematic class for housewives, the class taught the art of textiles and made things out of fabric. This was not the direction a women's rights organization wanted to go. They did not intend on teaching artistry, but hoped to use this opportunity to get the participants interested in and participating in social affairs. By social affairs I don’t necessarily mean national headline news, but being a woman: her experience, her home life, the state of existence in a city, and how the government treats her. There are various possible ways for self-reflection, but most of these housewives were traditional homemakers, limited in their education and training, limited in their experience and exposure to the world. The association wanted a transformation for these women, so they approached me. In this particular opportunity, I used art as a medium to encourage discussion and dialogue with one another and reflect on individual life experiences. We ended up making some awesome things; this project was titled Awake in Your Skin (從你的皮膚裡甦醒). They found me mainly because they knew my long time interest in gender issues and I was also familiar with members from the association. But there was also the exhibition ‘Treasure Island’ which included stories of Women from Hsin-Chuang ‘97 (新莊女人的故事), another project from ‘97 was Epitaph (墓誌銘). In 1998 I made Birds Slide over in the Sky (天空無事有鳥飛過) which was about the life experiences of men of my father’s generation.
LS: And Formosa Club?
WML: Yes, that also was in ‘98. Then Secret Garden in ‘99, which led up to my collaboration with Textile Playing Workshop. From that point on, I stopped making works with too much of a personal emphasis, and instead started working collaboratively with community movement groups. I worked with Textile Playing Workshop until 2004. In 2005, Chiayi County asked me to assist in organizing their art festival, which I organized into an art residency, the Art as Environment—A Cultural Action on the Tropic of CancerOperation (北回歸線環境藝術行動). In Textile Playing Workshop I was practically a residency artist and interacted with housewives. I thought it was possible to proceed with the same method in Chiayi; this place was mainly a farmer’s town, a region lacking cultural resources. We invited many artists to move into local villages, but with different artists, personalities, communities, we didn’t have a specific expectation from them, we just wanted the artists to experiment and see what possibilities they could develop from there. The most important thing was to expose these communities to different ideas; different approaches to the way we work, different attitudes towards living.
I believe through these encounters, not only were villagers affected, but they also made impacts on the residency artists, and this was the essence of the project. But within this project there were numerous topics. In a declining farming town, one would find only elderly and children. There are problems with education too; very often there is only one primary school available in a village. When kids get to junior high school, they have to leave home – more populated towns might have their own junior high school – but by high school everyone have to leave. This is a story where people are continuously uprooted from the land. These situations stimulated me to face the actual effects of globalization on local farming villages in Taiwan. Whether one works with social interventions or whose works are more personally driven, these experiences are very important nutrients for an artist.
In 2006, I started a project called By the River, On the River, Of the River (淡水河溯河行動). If you live in Taipei, you certainly will have heard of the Danshui River, but that knowledge is very conceptual because not many people actually have any idea of the actual state of the river – of what’s around or in the river. The Danshui River is the part that goes into the South China Sea but it is formed by four smaller rivers. The project went on for four days, one day per river. I utilized the act of river tracing to understand Taipei. Mr. Chen Chien-Yi (陳健一) from the Taiwan Land Ethics Association (台灣土地倫理發展協會) who had for a long time cared for the Dahan River (one of the smaller rivers that connect into Danshui River) led the tracing on the first day. He stated that this was an important project because it symbolizes the changing relationship between people and the river. Besides the work of environmentalists, people usually talk about pollution on a theoretical level, not very practical, the general public is apathetic about this topic. Chen said that many Taiwanese are fascinated and will tour abroad to see the origin of ancient civilizations, but the Danshui River is the origin of northern Taiwan, all of our civilization entered via this gateway; whether from China or the west, Danshui River is very important. However, we are willing to travel afar to see other people’s lands, yet we haven’t taken the time to understand our own. The project, with a symbolic significance, was in collaboration with the city of Taipei and the county’s community colleges; participants came from each college, and later they each formed different river preservation alliances. In the project, I was dealing with not only the environment but also culture – how a person treats a river and the environment – that is really a cultural issue. I felt that this was a good catalyst, a starting point.
Trekking the Plum-Tree-Stream Project (樹梅坑溪溯溪行動) is what I am currently working on, It is different from my previous projects. I felt that work like this needed to be long-term, I wanted to make actual changes. An artist should not entertain an idea for a moment and be done; whatever effect a project has in that case will be over when the project is over. For a project to be sustainable and long-term I realized it meant working with the local community. Since I have lived in the Danshui area more than 15 years, I have a long collaborative relationship with the Bamboo Curtain Studio, an alternative space in the same neighbourhood, and after talking we felt that perhaps we could revitalize this polluted Plum-Tree-Stream together.
LS: These recent works of yours deal with environmental issues, how do you see the role of art in this area?
WML: I think art stimulates the mind, but I wouldn’t compare an artist to an environmentalist. They have different focuses in their roles, but one can simultaneously be an artist and an environmentalist. Environmentalists are focused in making changes; artists, on the other hand, tell the same story with a different medium, they also give the mind an alternative suggestion – this, I think, is the only difference between the two. I think that environmentalists are more proactive than myself, they invest a lot. I, on the other hand, provide an alternative pathway, platform, as I work towards the same goal.
LS: You often collaborate with local communities in your projects. Can you talk a bit about these experiences?
WML: A community historian Wu Chun-Ho (吳春和) had done a lot of research on the area of the Plum-Tree-Stream; appalled by his findings, we initiated a river tracing project. I was glad that someone took an interest in this kind of work, so we collaborated. In Trekking the Plum-Tree-Stream Project, I actually live in that neighborhood, so I am part of that community as well as an artist who cares about her environment. It is just about doing my part where I live. The idea of “community” is like being a “neighbor” to me. I needed to have some methods and constant communication with them.
LS: You once expressed your scepticism of the sincerity of artists who use social commentary or critique in their works.
WML: My concerns are driven by self-reflexivity. I was deeply moved by the process of interviewing female workers during the making of Stories of Women from Hsin-Chuang (1997); I made art with the numerous life stories that I received. The work was well received and it entered into the collection of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. I gained money and fame, but I pondered one question – I have transformed other people’s sad stories into my work, what can I do in return? Driven by this, I accepted working with Textile Playing Workshop when Taipei Awakening Association approached me. It was in that setting when I realized that change cannot happen by ME coming to change YOU, but through opportunities of interactivity and communication, presenting my perspective in a language they are familiar with in order to gain understanding; change will then be self-initiated. This is the reason for my increasing involvement with community movements.
LS: You had concerns with the much-disputed 2010 Taipei International Flora Exposition even before controversies started, for example with the overwhelming use of pesticides to supply the large demands of the expo. Can you talk about this?
WML: My concern with the Flora Expo comes back to environmental issues. The piece I did in the 2008 Taipei Biennial is titled Taipei Tomorrow As A Lake Again and it deals with global climate change; as the sea level rises, many parts of Taiwan could become underwater. In 1670, Taipei was a lake and not the city that we know. I chose the title because Taipei could return to that state again. As operators, managers, and planners of this city, how should we deal with this issue? It is heart breaking to see what the Flora Expo is doing. The city government spends a lot of money, which isn’t an issue if it is towards something good, but the problem with this event is direction – where are we going as a city? What is the vision we are giving to our citizens? Many artists and architects plunged into this expo developed for the sake of visual consumption, but is that all there is? On the one hand I criticize the government, on the other hand I wish to stimulate artists and architects to reflect on what they are doing. When artists take government cases, are they aware what they are involved in? Artists might think that they make wonderful art, earn money, have a good life, but they don’t see that we are all accomplices in the same crime, which is taking this city to the future down an obscure path.
LS: The new generation of artists that emerged after the turn of the millennium has distinctively different values, concerns and methodologies than the previous generation. As an artist who has being active throughout the development of Taiwan’s contemporary art movement, do you have any words for them?
WML: Not really, as a matter of fact I believe one can only work within his or her situation. The younger generation thrives on what we have built and developed, but eventually they will be in our shoes and will be looking at another generation. I say just keep a critical mind, that is essential to being an artist.
This interview was translated from Mandarin into English.