“The Boundaries of Strange Lands”: Imaginations Inspired by Root-Free Air Plants
“The more lost a person is in a strange neighborhood of a remote city, the more he remembers the cities that he has passed through. As he reflects on the various stages of the journey, he learns more about the city where he departed from and the familiar places he had visited as a young man…”
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Chun-Yi Chang, curator of the Air Plant: Performance Ability within Contemporary Arts exhibition (hereafter referred to as the Air Plant exhibition), describes the exhibition as “a large canvas featuring art painted by painters.” Based on this concept, the Yo-Chang Art Museum may be viewed as a white square box in which artists use bright colors to paint a space that is neither installation nor stage but a mixture of the two; the deserted scenes of the space suggest the absence of the body. In The Northern Campus, another venue of the Air Plant exhibition, houses with courtyards are made into seven separate exhibition areas, where each area serves as a thick layer of brushstroke and the memories, histories, buildings, and landscapes created by artists from their respective locations become a part of the painting known as the Air Plant exhibition. Chang adopts the concept of symbiotic collaboration (to which she refers to as the “game rules” of the exhibition), where artworks to be created and the locations where they are to be created in are not specified, and artists (including herself) use their creative energy and thoughts to inspire one another between the summer of 2017 and the early winter of 2017, ultimately giving birth to the artworks showcased. In an exhibition article, Chang explains the notion of “rhizome” introduced by Gilles Deleuze (i.e., any part of a rhizome can become connected to an external object to form a bond), that of “radicant” presented by Nicolas Bourriaud (i.e., radicants adapt to the environment in which they are in and are characterized by their continual growth and connections to the outside world), and that of “air plant” (i.e., a type of plant in the Bromeliaceae family that is incredibly resilient and can survive even without roots), where the idea of air plants is used to signify “free art-creating entities.” These art-creating entities comprise more than just artists and include also viewers and participants visiting the exhibition. Chang elucidates that “As these viewers and participants stand in front of the artworks, they observe, read, experience, and become involved with the artworks. As a result, they undergo perception experiences or thinking patterns that differ from those they experience in their everyday lives.” To Chang, the new perception experiences or thinking patterns that the viewers and participants experience are enough to transform them into art-creating entities. In addition, she emphasizes that the goal of the Air Plant exhibition is to create an art-practicing field that gives birth to new artists. The philosophies of “art-creating entity” and “art-practicing field” preached by Chang reveal the passion that she has for art practices.
Heterotopia─The Peach Blossom Spring
In These Things That Drift Away, Joyce Ho constructs three connected waiting rooms in similar colors of white and uses repeats and differences to refresh our bodies’ memories. (Pictures. 1) In Trajectories & Impacts, Yannick Dauby utilizes round, wooden speakers to create a lag between the sounds heard by our two ears. (Pictures. 2) In Relative Perception N°4-C, Yung-Ta Chang amplifies the senses of hearing, touch, and vision. In Stand Naked in the Street with Sleeping Lions, Craig Quintero et al. fabricates a surreal scene that can only be observed from outside. By using a myriad of artistic skills, artists of the Air Plant exhibition illustrate the richness and poorness of everyday life and display a twisted, deformed reality, one that is the polar opposite of the real world. Similar to the idea of “heterotopia” (hétérotopie) put forward by Michel Foucault, where heterotopia denotes a place that exists between “utopia” (utopie) and reality, the aforementioned twisted, deformed reality exists despite being the direct opposite of reality. A similar example can be observed in mirrors: that is, although the world in a mirror does not exist, the mirror does; when we look at ourselves and the things surrounding us in a mirror, it makes the world in the mirror real. Likewise, because we are only able to perceive where we are by looking at the image in a mirror, it makes where we actually are unreal. Thus, by forming a heterotopia using artworks, we rediscover the things in our lives that we have neglected or forgotten.
The heterogeneous space portrayed in the artworks serves more than just the polar opposite of reality; that is, the said space seeks to be different and similar in homogenous and heterogeneous realms, respectively, to an extent that it alters the characteristics of the original realms. This phenomenon is particularly apparent in artworks presented in houses with courtyards. In 254 Yen, Joyce Ho and Snow Huang tidy up the hat and clothing items left behind by a temporary resident, converting the first small room facing the street in the exhibition area into a “lost and found room”; the following welcoming message is written on a bright, white wall: “For the person who has lived here, we have packed up your belongings, please pick them up whenever you need.” (Pictures. 3) Next to the small room and inside the door are exhibition walls covered with clues revealing the identity of the resident; through a long, narrow hole on the left exhibition wall, visitors get a glimpse of the scene reproduced by Ho and Huang, in which milk is splashed all over the kitchen table; on the right exhibition wall is an interview documentary being played. These ongoing activities turn the room into a memorial-style space that shows the life history of a person. In Ceylon Houndstongue and the Realms of Land, Water, Fire, Wind, and Space, Yen-Hong Liu changes the exhibition space into a dwelling space featuring his personal marks. Inside the dwelling space are his old furniture, paintings, and sculpture. In addition, he sets up a dream studio to offer incoming visitors tea and ask them about their dreams, which he would then paint. Occasionally, he would stay at the exhibition space overnight. It was not until the night when he woke up from his sleep and realizing that he could move easily around the place without turning on the lights that he realized that he has turned the exhibition space into his personal residence (Picture 4).
In Kuei-Chih Lee’s Recycling Scenery, a dweller’s home is transformed into an exhibition space with indistinct boundaries that divide the inside and outside areas. The area is open to visitors at all times, rivalling the notion of Wuling fisherman waiting for their unexpected visitors described in Tao Yuanming’s The Peach Blossom Spring (i.e., “… In the side of the hill was a small opening which seemed to promise a gleam of light. The fisherman left his boat and entered the opening…” Recycling Scenery is like a peach blossom spring that co-exists with the real world and is a place that is secluded but not untraceable. This artwork is able to imbue a sense of solitude despite being in the middle of a busy city. Tree branches collected by Lee are used to build an intertwined house; a giant tree that seemingly penetrates through the walls echoes the location in which the artwork was made, that is, a native scenery with dilapidated walls and aged vines and trees. Where is the peach blossom spring located? Maybe it can only be found by coincidence, as evidenced by the aforementioned fisherman accidentally discovering the peach blossom spring but unable to replicate the process (i.e., “The fisherman hunted for the marks he had made, but grew confused and lost his way.”). Deliberate attempts to reproduce previous accomplishments result in utter failure. Maybe this mysterious location can only be discovered by chance, signifying the cunning resistance of the peach blossom spring (a symbol of art) to reality (Picture 5).
Heterogeneous Coexistence: Organic Proliferation
The first exhibition section of The Northern Campus is co-created by three artists, namely Yannick Dauby, Wei-Chia Su, and Jui-Chien Hsu, who successfully fill the exhibition space with loud sounds of footsteps. In Yannick Dauby’s Trajectories & Impacts, images of rapidly moving bodies well up in people’s minds; the loud sounds serve as a stark contrast to Wei-Chia Su’s Free Step–Sense of Place, which silently introduces the bodies of two dancers in a diversified impromptu dance that is performed in a dark room; the dance is broken down, extended, and repeated by 11 small TV frames, and the interactions between movements and stillness of the images accentuate the aesthetic beauty of the bodies. (Picture 6) In the space connecting the two aforementioned artworks is a cane chair, in front of which are a floor-to-ceiling window and an empty garden. By sitting down and putting on the soundproof headphones found on the cane chair, visitors will find themselves embraced by a relaxing space filled with children’s laughter in the outdoor space (Yannick Dauby). Cracking through the space co-created using sounds and bodies are small corroded iron sheets and a round gypsum ball used by Jui-Chien Hsu to add a sense of weight to the exhibition space. These subtle objects are a foreshadowing of Jui-Chien Hsu’s main exhibition.
In Jui-Chien Hsu’s Direct, corroded iron sheets, gypsum balls, and a large iron sculpture can be found, in which rubber tubing is employed to manage the “weights” of the different items and maintain a delicate sense of balance. These items resemble living objects that have been turned into stones because of Medusa’s gaze. The exhibition space is playfully referred to as the Maze of Death because of the various items being suspended in an unstable state; anyone who violently yanks on any one of the rubber tubing will likely cause the giant artwork to instantly break apart. Hidden in the exhibition space containing the aforesaid industrial materials are head portraits of two mysterious women. In Joyce Ho’s The Everyman’s and Visibility, the artworks of two artists were joined together without the need for legitimate reasons (i.e., the artworks were joined together because Hsu told Chun-Yi Chang that he dreamed about Ho’s artwork being shown in his exhibition room, which prompted the Chang to immediately invite Ho to introduce her artwork in Hsu’s exhibition space). As a result, The Everyman’s is displayed at Hsu’s exhibition site, where Hsu created another artwork to interact with The Everyman’s (Picture 7). The red lines used to divide the space in Visibility mirror the red rubber tubing described above, exemplifying how creative thinking interacts, complements, and coexists between exhibition areas, between artworks, and between artists.
Organic proliferation and changes also occur during the artwork planning process. For example, in Joyce Ho and Snow Huang’s 254 Yen, an artwork inspired by the objects left behind by a stranger who temporarily resided in the exhibition area, the artwork continues to evolve as the two artists search for the identity of the stranger, perform investigations, conduct interviews, and discover more clues. In fact, some of the artworks displayed at the Air Plant exhibition regularly change even after the opening of the exhibition. Examples include Yung-Ta Chang’s Relative Perception N°4-C, which uses iron sheets that repeatedly change over time. Sometimes, the notion of organic proliferation is inspired by the idea of sharing. In a seminar, Yung-Ta Chang indicated that the number of iron plates chosen for Relative Perception N°4-C was based on the number of waiting rooms used in Joyce Ho’s artwork as the said artwork was said to be placed beside his. Subtle differences, a concept Ho and Chang both pay attention to, inspired Chang to use copper sulfate of varying concentrations to create different metal plate designs.
Freeing from One’s Roots─Returning Home
Despite their dreams being fulfilled, some artists choose to continue dreaming. Craig Quintero et al.’s I Stand Naked in the Street with Sleeping Lions, inspired by Sigmund Freud’s ideologies, presents a pink stage, a pair of clocks placed next to each other but showing different times, a seemingly static but non-static thin tube, a bent table, a deer head facing upward on a table, suspended deer bones, and a painting of a man with a deer’s head and holding a gun. (Picture 8) These dreamlike objects form a mobile dream that contains the elements of both imagination and reality. In Christian Rizzo’s Some Events Are Currently Ongoing…, important performances and artworks that he had created throughout his career (e.g., fluttering clothes, black balls, and a mannequin wearing a hoodie) were collected, where the original concepts displayed by these performances and artworks are reshuffled to wave a dream in a strange land (Picture 9). In Joyce Ho’s These Things That Drift Away, a cool, colorless dream is shown. In this dream, three digital clocks approximately five minutes apart, three videos one second apart, three white chairs of varying whiteness, and three phones with varying dial tones are utilized to produce three similar waiting rooms with subtle differences. As visitors wait, discern differences, and walk back and forth between the rooms, they find themselves exposed to a middle ground that contains no sense of belonging. Regarding dreams, although they are not real, they share an intricate relationship with reality. Similarly, despite air plants being free from their roots, their connections with the soil in which they grew are never completely severed; regardless of how far they float in the wind, they cannot escape their inborn characteristics. Likewise, a dream, no matter how surreal, is unable to escape from the consciousness of the person dreaming it.
After being given a common theme, the artists of this exhibition use their creativity to develop their artworks. As these artworks follow their own creative paths, organic proliferation is achieved. The realization of co-creative thinking is the result of the deliberate efforts made by Chun-Yi Chang, who states that “what I am pursuing is a higher-level concept, where I am trying to find out whether common, shared creative thinking inspired by conversations between art-creating entities exists prior to the formation of a special domain.” She references the notion of “common” (commun) remarked by François Jullien to explain the following: to her, the idea of “common” in art practice is a means for resources to be moved and given freely from an entity to another, and a means for entities to benefit and engage in interactions with one another to facilitate external developments. This may have been the reason why she never emphasizes the perspective of “cross-domain” despite the Air Plant exhibition featuring artists from different backgrounds (e.g., the backgrounds of visual art, performance art, sound art, and behavioral art). In other words, by practicing the ideology of common, she learns to pay more attention to the innocent and chaotic condition of a domain prior to its division as well as infinite possibilities that this condition can offer.
The Air Plant exhibition, which is viewed as both an experiment and a game, seems to convey concepts that are unrelated to those that have been put forward in art history. However, the idea of root-free is undoubtedly an implicit way of expressing the emotional tangles between art creators and their motherlands, where the former wishes to leave behind the latter but is unable to do so. The scenery of a person’s motherland will never be forgotten; however, the person is only able to appreciate the beauty of it when he/she finds himself/herself wandering aimlessly in a strange land (similar to the idea of air plants floating without direction). For the Air Plant exhibition, forums and workshops (totaling 17) are held to initiate a psychological relay race, where artists expound their creative philosophies, art critics propose the possibility of creating “original discussions” in exhibition curation and art creation practices, and scholars discuss art development trends, differences between northern and southern art institutes, and mechanisms involved in curating art exhibitions. When Chun-Yi Chang slowly and methodically elucidates the growth history and future vision of air plants, it reveals her wish to have these little soldiers break through the heavy encirclement of challenges, allowing art exhibitions and theory explorations to continue to flourish, on the basis of which a rich and fertile art-practicing field can be cultivated. Although the vision is promosing, the encirclement or reality remains. Concerning the method to break through such encirclement, it may be as simple as a few touching words or a promise to allow one’s idea to soar into the sky, such as the remark: “I want you to make what you want to make the most right now.”
Descriptions of the pictures:
Picture 1. Joyce Ho (2017). These Things That Drift Away.
Picture 2. Yannick Dauby (2017). Trajectories & Impacts.
Picture 3. Joyce Ho + Snow Huang (2017). 254 Yen.
Picture 4. Yen-Hong Liu (2017). Ceylon Houndstongue and the Realms of Land, Water, Fire, Wind, and Space.
Picture 5. Kuei-Chih Lee (2017). Recycling Scenery.
Picture 6. Wei-Chia Su (2017). Free Step–Sense of Place. (Sound created by: Yannick Dauby; image created by: Chun-Yi Chang).
Picture 7. Artwork created by Jui-Chien Hsu based on Joyce Ho’s The Everyman’s.
Picture 8. Craig Quintero et al. (2017). I Stand Naked in the Street with Sleeping Lions.
Picture 9. Christian Rizzo (2017). Some Events Are Currently Ongoing…
1 “An interview with Chun-Yi Chang, the curator of the Air Plant: Performance Ability within Contemporary Arts exhibition.” Official website of the Air Plant exhibition: http://www.airplants.sense-info.co/tw/
2 Michel Foucault, <Des espaces autres> (1967), in Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité, n°5, octobre 1984.
3 Sheng-Hung Wang. “From ‘Air Plant’ to ‘Religious Neighbourhoods’: Discussing the Possibility of Original Art Theories.” Artalks. Website: http://talks.taishinart.org.tw/juries/wsh/2017123101
4 During the exhibition preparation period, when artists ask Chun-Yi Chang what she wants them to make, she always replies by saying “I want you to make what you want to make the most right now.” (Same as Footnote 1)