'Stories & places: from fish to textile, through river and gardens', Wu Mali in conversation with Gabriel Gee, Singapore, August 2018
Wu Mali: I have had a space In Qijin <Qijin island is at the tip of the port city of Kaohsiung, in south Taiwan>, a kitchen, in a former military dormitory previously used by single soldiers, and now I try to use this space as a social space, as a social laboratory; we try to understand how this fishermen’s village has become part of the Kaohsiung port. You don’t find many fishermen nowadays, as they all became workers in factories. There are some important industries in the area, and the port also needs labour force. Qijin was isolated, but now there is a tunnel that connects the village to the city, mainly for the exportation of goods from the factories. If you go there, you see all the container landscape, if you come from the city by car, you can see all the tracks leading from the factories to the container port. I find it interesting as an outsider, as I’m not from Kaohsiung myself, and when I first came to the place I was kind of shocked! For me, this is the real landscape of Taiwan, as Taiwan’s economy is based on exports. Kaohsiung is the major port for exports, shaped by factories, with an important working class population, with also significant pollution issues… So nowadays, although there are still some fishermen, the fishing boats go far away. The fishing doesn’t really take place around Taiwan. Boats go to Japan and South America… Furthermore, most people do not like to work in the fisheries or in the port, which is why in Qijin, there are many foreigners, workers from South East Asia… This led me to become interested in the whole social story. I was like most of the people from Kaoshiung, who would say, ‘oh Cijin is a tourist spot’, because there is the sea and a place where you can go swimming, and seafood to eat, and people have that stereotypical impression from the area, and do not really know about the place. They think this is the place where you can find the fishermen, the original Kaohsiung inhabitants, when the most part of the population are migrants, maybe partially from Taiwan, and partially from other countries. This is how I started my project with food. My interest is not in the recipes themselves, or how to cook, but in how an entire social context is reflected in our eating. But now I got to know some other people there from different backgrounds, and we sometimes come together to cook, to share stories with each other. And personal stories also reflect the public history, that is always my interest.
Gabriel Gee: While we can consider the macro level of socio-economic change in a given space, the textures of landscape are also articulated in the fabric of the living, individual as well as in communities.
W.M: For me it always goes together, it is a parallel thing. Through the private story we get to realise what happened in the outer world, why these people came here, it is certainly related to the macro history.
G.G: The contemporary story of migration in Qijin you evoke, mirrors a process that has been unfolding for many decades in the history of Taiwan. Amongst the motifs to be found in your work, and food is one of them, there is the island, which you explored in Treasure island.
W.M: It’s a series of work from the 1990s. I did a research from a feminist perspective. In this series, I focused on people. In 1997 I had two pieces, one entitled Epitaph, which was about women stories, whose husband were killed in the massacre of 1947. At the time when Chiang Kai-shek came to Taiwan, there was a huge conflict between the Taiwanese and the Chinese. I tried to re-write the stories from the perspective of women. And the other one is about women stories from Hsin-Chuang, a city which was known for its textile production, and later also for electronics. Textile was always amongst the main industries of Asian countries after the Second World War. Taiwan got a lot of financial support from the United States after the war, and the textile industry boomed, especially in the 1960s – 1970s. Gradually, because the labour coasts got higher, textile industries moved to South East Asia or China. These workers became unemployed, and it turned into a social problem. I met some women who used to work or still worked in the textile factories, although now the industry has changed into clothing design. I met these women, and I found out their stories were almost the same, they had the same pattern. Most of them came from South of Taiwan to Taipei, in a particular district associated with textile industries where they could find work. In the countryside, they couldn’t find job. As women, they were not encouraged to pursue studies after elementary school. So they came to Taipei, and tried to make money for their family. Later on they got married, with men working in the same business. From the late seventies to the eighties and nineties, they encountered huge problems as those textile industries disappeared. The husbands became unemployed, women had to find other jobs to make a living. It brought a lot of issues between family members. So I tried to write down their stories. Although I had let’s say five stories, they all looked almost the same: different people’s stories but the same pattern. That was a work in Taiwan that referred to the working classes, and from the private world touched upon those macro-level forces.
I also made works about the men, such as Birds slide over the skies (1998). Men in Taiwan have very complicated identities. For example, my father, who is now almost ninety years old. When he went to elementary school, the Japanese had control over the island. After he graduated from elementary school, coming from a poor family, he had no chance to study further. He became a soldier, he went to Japan, and joined the army, in the air army. After the Second World War, as the Japanese had lost the war, he came back to Taiwan without anything. He had imagined that he could get a diploma at a Japanese University, and that this could help him find a good job in Taiwan, and make a living for his family, as his parents were very old at the time. He was quite ambitious, but then Japan lost the war. He came back and got a job working for the government at a lower position. This was during the day time. He went to evening classes so that he could get a business diploma, and find a proper job. So for my father, his identity is much closer to that of a Japanese, as to that of the so-called Chinese. And then in Taiwan there are many men who came from China with Chiang Kai-shek, their identity is Chinese. But some of those people also have complicated stories. There were people in North Thailand, Chinese mainlanders in Chiang Kai-Shek military, who were against the communists. They fought till the end on the Thailand border, but at the end of the war, they had no place to go, and got to stay there. They were not able to go to China, and didn’t have the opportunity to come to Taiwan, and were not recognised by Thailand’s government. Much later, some of them had the chance to come to Taiwan. There are also Taiwanese people who were sent as soldiers by Japan to South East Asia, and didn’t manage to come back at the end of the war. Some came back to Taiwan much much later. Their identity is also Japanese, they don’t have anything to do with China, and our so-called Chinese government. Certainly all these works have to do with a history of East Asia and South East Asia, with colonialism, and the war.
G.G: In reflecting on travel and migration, another motif that you have explored is the ship. Ships convey a range of symbolic associations, some of them very ancient, in different civilizations.
WM: I began the work Follow the Dreamboat in 1996, when I was invited to Hong Kong for an exhibition. When you are in Hong Kong, no matter where you are, you always see the boats. And 1996 was a tricky time for the Hong Kongese, as in 1997 the city was due to go back to China. I used to pass by the government immigration offices, where people queue to get in. I realised that day, that was almost the last day people could apply for British passports, and there were thousand people waiting. I was very impressed by that image, as it meant that people were trying to escape, they wanted to go away. I asked the people who came at Hong Kong art centre, where the piece was displayed, what their dream was. Everyone at some point has some kind of dream, as one worries about what tomorrow will be made off, what will be next, and I wanted to know what people dreamt about. Some said their friends were going away, and they hope to meet again someday, and wrote different messages, which were strange to me but also very touching. Later on I did the piece again in Kaohsiung, in the Fine Arts museum. At the time I didn’t live in Kaohsiung, but I made some research and realised that the very first Chinese in Taiwan settled in Kaohsiung in the sixteenth century, in the Qijin area actually, and they came because of the fish. Because they are certain fish that came to Taiwan in winter. People from Fujian came to fish, but did not stay to live, until the late sixteenth century and seventeenth century. According to the stories, one day the fishermen got hit by a typhoon, and couldn’t go back, and that’s why they stayed. It’s an interesting story. And for me it was an opportunity to learn more about the city. Because in the beginning, as I first mentioned, Qijin was a small Chinese fishermen’s village, with only few people. Now it’s about two million people in the agglomeration. Most people who came to live here, came from somewhere else.
G.G: Kaohsiung as a port city has a river, the Ai-ho. Rivers connect the sea and the shores to the hinterland, goods are transported in and out of the land through rivers. In the north of the island, in Taipei, there is the Tamsui river, on which you worked.
W.M: The Dutch came from South East Asia, and first settled in Tainan, in the south of the island, where the sea is better as well, than in the North. In the north, there is a lot of wind. This is a reason why Taipei was built later, by Japanese. Before the Japanese, the Chinese also started urban development there, but when the Japanese came, they really developed the whole urban system, as the city was closer to Japan. I did the project on the river around a specific area, where I also live, quite close to the sea. I developed the project as we live in Taipei, and the Tamsui river is the main river in the city. At the time, I had begun to be more interested in environmental issues. The reason why, was that in the nineties, my work was related to people’s stories, to social issues, and also explored the so-called independent Taiwan or its reunion with China. There are a lot of conflicts of identity in Taiwan, and I don’t think there is a definite solution to these questions, it’s not something that you can decide by yourself. I was also exploring questions of gender and equality, and the fact that women had always have a lesser status that men. I was thinking that if we stay within this polarity, there is no way out, and that’s what brought me to reflect on where we stay, how do we make our living, how do we survive.
And hence the important question of the land, the place where you live. I started to work on the river issue, because this river is the main river in Taipei, and while if you ask people about the river they might say ‘of course! the river’, and they might have been to Tamsui, but they don’t really know what happened to the river. So my project was to get people to come close to the river, and to see what happened to the river. There is a lot of pollution, as we used the river as a dumping site, or to expand the land, or we changed the course of the river as the city developed. I thought if we really understand where we are, we might find another solution to our survival. So it’s not just the political issue in this micro-politics, but to see where you live and how to make the best out of it. That was my river project, around 2005-06. Later on I did the Plum Tree Creek project. The river issue was big, and I thought if we really want to bring changes, we have to start with something small; and I should focus on where I am, it’s in Zhuwei, about half way to Tamsui. In this particular area, you have the Taipei Arts University, I have a lot of friends who live here, as I do, and I began to work with the Bamboo Curtain Studio and Margaret Shiu, who founded the studio. And we started to think of what we could do to bring changes. And I thought why not start with the creek, the Plum Tree Creek. But there wasn’t this name, we named it! Because when we began the project, people kept asking where the place was, but this particular area, it’s called Plum Tree village, and I started naming the creek as such as well, though the people didn’t know of this name. In fact, they don’t see this place as a creek, it’s just seen as a canal for dumping water. So I began to explore the issues here, and I realised that in the past twenty years, the whole landscape has changed. When I was in the university, forty years ago, I used to pass this area as I used to study in Tamkang University in Tamsui. In the late seventies I took the train to Tamsui daily, it was a green farm area, whereas now it’s full of buildings. If the houses are more than four stories high, they’ve been developed in the past twenty years. I interviewed one lady, who is maybe now eighty years old, she said that when she was young, there were only three or four houses, and all the family lived in the house. Now it’s a town with 20 000 people. One can see from the urban development how the creek has changed. The water became covered, underwater, under the road. If you walk to the upper part, to the green fields, you can see the water again. So from the creek, I started talking to people about various issues, one of which is pollution, and what has happened to the creek, which brings the question of urban development, and how we manage the city.
G.G: in Taipei tomorrow as a lake again you developed a garden. Gardens, are enclosed places, where nature is being taken care of. The idea of ‘taking care of’ is important in your practice.
W.M: I used to do installation work, and for the installation work, space is the key issue. A concept, placed in different places, would change. Space was always key, but in the nineties I was working in the white cube, I was supported by museums. I became dissatisfied with this, as I only worked for museums, and the general public doesn’t care, or even know what you are doing. For example, my parents they had no idea of what I was doing. I wanted to break that isolation, where as an artist you are only working in the art world and have no relationship with the general public. I was gradually more interested in doing the work in the real sites. But in the real sites everything becomes complicated. You need to get different permissions, and you need support, without the museums, so you might ask the public to support you, and that’s how I started to think about the public, and to try and get the public to become engaged with the issue I was interested in. My work always had a socio-political character, but nowadays I’m really interested in trying to find out what the ‘public’ means.
G.G: We have touched upon textile, water and food. You have also been interested in texts, in the written text, and in oral texts. I’m thinking of your Venice installation, and Follow the dreamboat, your use of shredded paper; in an interview you touched upon the relation between artistic practice and linguistic input, and on the one hand we see in your work a manipulation of the written text, literary classics as well as newspapers, and on the other hand an interest in hidden stories, the underlayers of the written text, and in giving voice to that which we can’t see. Is it appropriate to think of a certain suspicion of the written text?
W.M: This has so much to do with our context in Taiwan. In the nineties I tried to rewrite the history, and to reveal the stories that cannot be found in the textbook, to write the stories from different perspectives. Shredded paper I used much earlier, in the eighties. I was trained in Dusseldorf, and from 1982, I started to work with newspaper, from a workshop in the school. The professor asked us to work with newspapers, and see how to use it. Most people would do collage, but I was interested in making sculpture out of them. I started to crumple them, to cut them, so that it became a sculpture. I was doing well in developing my ‘form language’, and I wasn’t working with installation work. But when I finished my studies, I was thinking of how I could go further with newspapers, and did a piece entitled Time Space, where I hung all the newspapers in the space, which was my very first installation piece. Before 1985 I was interested in the form language, and how you can express yourself poetically with the visual form. I had tried all kinds of possibilities, and found a way to present these well, but what should come next? I realised that newspaper is not just about paper, there are many messages within it, carrying so many social and political issues. Therefore, from 1986 my work became very socio-political and not just formally preoccupied. Then I came back to Taiwan, and I was confronted by the socio-political issues in the island.
G.G: To what extent did the socio-political concerns and traditions in the art school in Dusseldorf play a role in this development?
W.M: Certainly there must be a connection, I saw Joseph Beuys every day, and my professor, Günther Uecker, his work is very aesthetic, but when you hear him talking, it’s always about socio-political issues. It was a sort of Zeitgeist, in Germany in the 1980s socio-political issues were very prevalent, the Green party had just been established, and later on they got power in the parliament. Although I actually started my studies in Vienna, from 1979 to 1981, in die angewandte Kunsthochschule, and at the time performance was the main avant-garde form in Vienna. Psychology was also very important, and you can see many artworks related to psychological theory. I hadn’t learnt about this in Taiwan, and even in Europe, as in art schools, we didn’t have lectures about such topics, but it informed the Zeitgeist, and informed our subconscious. Once I was back in Taiwan, I tried to gradually understand what I had seen and learnt when I was in Europe. It helped me to find a way to express myself. When I came back to Taiwan, no one was doing installations. Most of the work was very abstract, poetic, expressionistic. Even nowadays the artwork is very expressive. But I came from a different artistic background, having studied in Europe I have developed a different way of thinking about art from my colleagues in Taiwan. Also Taiwanese artists, if they had pursued studies abroad, it would have been mainly in America, where you get a very different education. Today, there are many artists who are educated in London, or in Paris, but at the time I was amongst the very first to engage with socio-political issues through contemporary art forms, although there are also many painters in Taiwan, who come from the realist school, whose work is also related to socio-political issues.
G.G: At the moment, you are involved in the organization of the upcoming Taipei biennial, which is going to explore environmental issues.
W.M: Yes we are very busy. We were thinking of how to do the biennale differently, as you can see biennial everywhere today, and Taipei has had one for more than twenty years. And we have been thinking of the museums, and what the museums mean to the city, and whether there is a different way of approaching it. That is why they asked me to become involved, as I’m not a curator, I curate things, but it’s very community-based, and issue orientated; I think I was asked because I am one of the artists who is known to be interested in environmental issues, and I also know other activists in Taiwan. And I am trying to fold these concerns and actors in the biennial. The biennial in Taiwan is mostly for the art world, and I hope that we can open it up a bit, and have NGOs and activists involved. But activists do not care so much about problems of representation, they are really concerned about how really to bring the changes. A lot of them are very creative, and I’m trying to see how to bring them together with artists as well as scientists through an eco-lab. For me it’s a kind of experiment in a way.
The 2018 Taipei biennial is entitled Post-nature. A museum as an ecosystem. It is curated by Wu Mali and Francesco Manacorda, and runs from 17th November 2018 to the 10th of March 2019.
Tamsui river @G.Gee