Foreign Affairs: Artists from Taiwan

Collateral event of the 53rd International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia

The Exhibition of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan
Venue:  Palazzo delle Prigioni, Castello 4209, San Marco, Venezia, Italy (Boat station: S. Zaccaria, next to the Palazzo Ducale)
Artists:  HSIEH Ying-Chun  CHEN Chieh-Jen  Chien-Chi CHANG  Cheng-Ta YU
Commissioner:  Fang-Wei CHANG
Consulting Committee:  Amy CHENG  Manray HSU  Hong John LIN  Chia-Chi Jason WANG Jun-Jieh WANG
Organizer:  Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan is pleased to present the Exhibition, Foreign Affairs: Artist from Taiwan, at Palazzo delle Prigioni, Venice on7 June - 22 November 2009. 

The term “foreign affairs” suggests a host of allusions, an empty canvas of possibilities for the imagination. “Foreign” signifies an “outsider,” something or someone from “overseas”. Meanwhile, “affairs” may broadly refer to any number of issues or events. In English, it hints at an extramarital dalliance, a “love affair,” a form of relationship outside official channels. The Chinese expression for “foreign affairs” also hints at illicit relations, and is used as a double entendre for sex. In stereotypical impressions and conventional usage, “foreign affairs” indicates one nation's interactions with other nation's, predominantly the handling of country-to-country relations. Yet it can also describe exchanges among individuals. In Chinese saying, “this person is good at foreign affairs," it describes someone with good social skills, and who maintains excellent interpersonal relationships, affirming that interaction with others is one way in which people achieve validation and strengthen identity. In other words, through foreign affairs the construction of the subject is a constant process of exchange, communication, dialogue and interaction with others. Whether with groups or individuals, the establishment of a relationship depends on communication and dialogue. It is a process of constant construction and affirmation, deploying a shifting relationship between others and oneself.

For a long time, the Taiwanese people have been locked in a difficult political conundrum in terms of foreign affairs, and have developed their own means of reaction and response, both individually and collectively. At this year’s Venice Biennale, the Taiwan Pavilion takes Foreign Affairs as its title and to serve as the exhibition’s unifying metaphor and concept. The selection of works explores the practical state of cross-regional art in the context of the operative logic of contemporary global politics, economics and society; alternative possibilities for communicative interaction; and also the question of Taiwan’s status and identity. The participating artists, according to their own identities, enter into other regions, with their unique personal modes of practical application-to observe, document, and intervene-in order to communicate, interact and collide, with that area of the world, concretely putting a system of foreign affairs into action.

Hsieh Ying-Chun (b. 1954) is a Taiwanese architect who for years has worked under tremendous budget limitations to provide minorities and disadvantaged members of society with collaborative construction. Hsieh is known for the low-key approach he takes to various architectural projects for clients. More than an architect, Hsieh is an architectural activist who takes social, cultural and economic limitations and ecological concerns into consideration to create works that embody the ideals of “sustainable construction”. Hsieh Ying-Chun opposes modernist division of labour and classification. Taking a unique perspective on architectural aesthetics, he brings together local materials and residents in direct and effective fashion, reducing reliance on financing and taking an eco-friendly approach to projects. In addition to working on reconstruction projects following Taiwan's devastating earthquake of 21 September 1999, Hsieh has worked extensively on construction projects in rural China (such as latrines that separate faeces and urine). He is currently assisting China in the country's reconstruction efforts after the Sichuan earthquake of 12 May 2008. As both an architect and an individual, Hsieh puts architecture into action beyond local limitations, taking up the mantle of “foreign relations” through direct deeds.


Chen Chieh-Jen (b. 1960) has long employed trenchant, poignant images to open up a dialogue with the West about global relationships of history and power, the plight of labour workers under globalisation, and the possibilities of exposition and action. The insulting treatment recently accorded him while applying for a U.S. visa has precipitated discussion of the plight of the Taiwanese people under the post-Cold War, post-colonial, and neo-liberalist global order. The new work, Empire’s Borders Ⅰ (2009), is a film that opens showing the various and sundry checks that Taiwanese citizens must endure when applying for a U.S. visa for business, tourism, or family reasons. From there, it discusses how the empire employs all means at hand to penetrate every other area with its imperial mentality. In her interview with Chen Chieh-Jen, Amy Cheng writes that Empire’s Borders I goes on to reflect on the internalisation of imperial consciousness within Taiwanese society. In one sense it coaxes out the thinking embedded and internalised in their consciousness, while in another, the acts of writing and speaking about it are the beginning of a movement to “eliminate imperialist mentality.” In other words, for Taiwanese citizens this work has the effect of stripping away internalised imperialist mentality and enhancing self-awareness. For the Empire, it is a “foreign affairs” protest at its domineering attitude towards foreign relations.


Chien-Chi Chang (b. 1961) has long focused on various social issues through the lens of documentary photography. Among his best known works are photos chronicling illegal workers in New York's Chinatown (China Town); The Chain, a series of photographs taken at Longfatang, a controversial psychiatric shelter in southern Taiwan; and the matchmaking and courting rituals that bring Taiwanese men and Vietnamese women together in marriage (Double Happiness). Chang began his uninterrupted observation and chronicling of the lives of illegal immigrants on the streets of New York’s Chinatown in 1992, traveling to Fujian province in China to visit their families and relate the unique tales of these people that live on the margins of society. Hong John Lin notes that the most remarkable aspect of the photography process is that “the photographer becomes a part of the subjects’ lives, so that a total state of disarmament is reflected in front of the camera.” Chang has chosen to work with disenfranchised people around the world, getting along with his subjects for extended periods to establish trusting and friendly relationships, putting foreign affairs into action. taiwan2

Cheng-Ta Yu (b. 1983) is a member of a generation that did not experience the stormy “identity” discourse that led up to and succeeded the end of 40 years of martial law in Taiwan (July 15, 1987). Yet he lives in an age fraught with issues that result from the most varied ethnic groups living together. Cheng-Ta Yu’s latest work is a video documentation of two Philippina women who married Taiwanese men and work in the same building in Taipei. After more than a decade living in Taiwan, local language has become a tool in their daily lives, but in his interaction with them, Yu tries out three different languages (Mandarin, Taiwanese, and English), taking on some of their idiosyncratic pronunciations in his conversations. Tip-toeing around the minefields of broken language, misunderstandings and corrupted accents become the norm. To conclude the video with a note of levity, the women sing a song in Mandarin in an effort to liberate everyone from the language barriers that inevitably formed in their conversation, and to dismantle the grave notion of cultural difference. In Ventriloquists: Introduction (2008) Yu lurks behind foreign residents of Taiwan like a ventriloquist, getting them to imitate the Mandarin statement he concocted for each personality as they introduce themselves. Over the course of imitation, the unfamiliarity of the imitators with the target language, inevitably results in some unintentionally funny moments and sometimes total communication breakdown, which native speakers surely find especially hilarious. Cheng-Ta Yu’s “broken language diplomacy” is testimony to the possibility of establishing a mixed culture that is lively, optimistic and constructive.


The four artists featured in this exhibition share common points of intersection. They have all long focused on the unequal treatment of the disadvantaged in the midst of globalisation, and have taken action through distinctive, personal, and practical means. Furthermore, they have all engaged in dialogue and interaction with other areas of the world, from the individual identity of an artist and through direct involvement, even personally colliding with specific international systems in order to highlight its problematics. Whether it be the social-activist open architecture that Hsieh Ying-Chun has employed both in Taiwan and China, Chen Chieh-Jen’s exploration on the borders of Empire that has commonly presented in Taiwan since World War II, Chien-Chi Chang’s long-term concern for the problem of illegal immigration between China and the United States, or Cheng-Ta Yu’s video of foreign women married into Taiwanese society and the circumstances of international travellers visiting Taiwan, all are personal, informal expressions and practical applications of “actual foreign affairs,” exploring the current state of the individual in the imbalanced unsymmetrical circumstances of globalisation.

The exhibition is supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, R.O.C. (Taiwan); the Council for Cultural Affairs, Taiwan; the Taipei City Government; the Department of Cultural Affairs, Taipei City Government.

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