In The Shadows; Penumbra

Samstag Museum, Adelaide
29 February - 4 April 2008

A penumbra is the partial shadow of an eclipse; throughout its history Taiwan has lived in the penumbra of many colonial powers: the Han Chinese, the Dutch, the Qing dynasty and, prior to World War II, the Japanese. The country currently exists in the shadow of the People’s Republic of China. The Taiwanese indigenous people and their language have been quashed under these successive occupations. Indigenous Taiwanese people now account for only two percent of the general population. Mandarin is the official language and many of the country’s indigenous languages are now extinct while others are currently endangered (a not uncommon story throughout the contemporary world). Considering that the works in ‘Penumbra: Contemporary Art from Taiwan’ are predominantly videos, there is a surprising lack of voices to be heard in the exhibition space. Is this silence a result of having spent too long speaking through another’s tongue?

Wu Diing-Wuu (Walis Labai is his indigenous name) uses ethnographic photographs of Taiwan’s indigenous population as the basis for his series of grating plate works. As the viewer moves around each work the subjects within these images fade while the rest of the scene, including the figure’s shadow, remains unchanged: in the same way that with each new colonising gaze the Taiwanese indigenous population dwindled. Memories—and their limits—whether they are of dying cultures, of historical events, or of childhood, reappear throughout the ‘Penumbra’ as an ongoing preoccupation.

Acid Tongue by Tseng Yu-Chin recreates the blurred vision of childhood memories. Four dark muddy views are projected onto the walls of an undersized room. There are moments within the sequences in which subjects are subtly illuminated, and in some of these moments the illumination hints at a raw emotion that has taken this childhood memory hostage. With barely enough room for a single viewer to stand within the space without interfering with one of the projections, viewing the work is complicated by the fact that other gallery visitors also wish to enter the tight space. Not simply immersed within the work, the viewer actually intrudes into and obscures these tense personal memories of banal moments in family life.

In the Visitor, the single channel DVD/QuickTime video by Wang Ya-Hui, the memories of family intimacy have escaped from the artist’s grandparent’s empty house. A small white cloud floats through each room. The cloud travels at a speed that is not fast enough to suggest that it is searching for an outcome but not slow enough to suggest that it is lost or unfamiliar with the house. It simply explores the interiors of this family home; the interior of the memories associated with this space. Huang Po-Chih explores space on a more intimate level in Flov”er, a single channel video. Using digital scanning and photo-editing software Huang documents every inch and moment of a flower’s existence. Stretching and twisting from a bud into full bloom, it mimics the twisting and stretching of the human face in emotions ranging from ecstasy to tragedy.

Kuo I–Chen’s works image the post-human planet. By looping a projection of space missions, war, death, disaster, and banality onto a spinning sphere, Kuo highlights the discrepancy between the planet as an object and a teleological view of history. In 41˚N, 74˚W and 33.5˚ N, 35.3˚E, two sizable digital prints, a small robot, ‘Survivor’, is pictured against the aftermath of devastation. The planet is without a trace of natural life or atmosphere. What is left is the evidence of recent natural and man-made disasters. Debris from Hurricane Katrina from August 2005, the tsunami in Asia in December 2004 and the attacks on the World Trade Center in September 2001 litter the images. By referencing these recent events Kuo hints that the end is not far from the present. As actual locations, 41˚N 74˚W is situated in New Jersey and 33.5˚ N 35.3˚E is just off the coast of Lebanon. These two locations are perhaps not the first two locations that spring to mind when considering where life may possibly exist after civilisation draws to an end. But disaster has a tendency to make the recognisable look unfamiliar.

The viewer, the gallery, and the works in ‘Penumbra’ all exist in partial shadow. Most of the works in the show are moving image and need partial shadow for optimal viewing. Partial shadow in this exhibition does not represent the periphery, but rather it is the only condition in which these works can be seen. In full light and total darkness the surrounds would overtake the works and blind the viewer. But if viewed in the grey light of the penumbra these works are illuminated.