ArtAttack’s ‘Best of Biennale’: Wu Tien-Chang’s Taiwan Pavilion

As you may have gathered from the multitude of photos circulating on our social media accounts, ArtAttack has been at the 56th Venice Art Biennale enjoying the fruits of 18 months of creative labour by artists and curators across the globe.

Personally, my main takeaway was SO. MUCH. ART.

Throughout the 3-day visit, our team was, all jokes aside, in danger of mutating to HeartAttack during the insanely busy days and BugAttack every night. Nonetheless, the experience, despite the chaos, was undoubtedly worth it, and over the course of the next couple weeks we are excited to provide reviews of some of our favourite moments from this truly inspirational trip.

As the cynic in the ArtAttack team, I’ll admit I tend to turn a blind eye to some of the more esoteric forms of contemporary art. Sound based art leaves me cold, performance art has never quite held my attention and I find video art to be more ‘video meh’.

However, stumbling past San Marco on the way to the Giardini on our first day we came across the Taiwanese Pavilion where the refreshingly unassuming Wu Tien-Chang was holding court. Picture walking into a dim 16th century palazzo, an empty room containing nothing but huge dark screens. Then suddenly, just when you are starting to wonder what this “art” is all about, traditional Taiwanese folk music starts to hum softly, Vaudeville-style lights pop on, the curtain rises and then what can only be described as one of the most arresting few minutes of video that I have ever seen begins.

The work, based on Chang’s 2011 series ‘Unforgettable Lovers‘ depicts an androgynous sailor in a latex mask that exaggerates certain facial features (primarily manga eyes and lips – think uncomfortable sex appeal). The sailor stands on a moving platform strolling away from his ship, to the beat of the music, guitar in-hand. As the piece evolves, so does the sailor, turning first into a soldier and then an air force pilot. Throughout the transitions, distinct changes in timing, stature and clothing imply, in my view, a shift from the historic romantic notions of serving one’s country — a prideful soldier happy to patriotically risk his life — to a more menacing, modern-day view of the terrors of war. This is almost entirely conveyed through subtle changes in body language by the actor in the piece — truly brilliant.

The most amazing aspect of the work is that the entire scene was captured is one continuous camera shot, every act recorded in one go. This draws the viewer even more fluidly into the story due to the uninterrupted nature of the sequence. The technical achievement here is something monumental — costume and prop changes, shifting positions for the actor, and still Chang managed to capture it all perfectly.

Taiwanese Pavilion, Wu Tien-Chang, 2015
Taiwanese Pavilion, Wu Tien-Chang, 2015

After watching this main piece, the two other large screens in the room light up to reveal cartoonish photo-realistic, laser printed artworks. These images are some of Chang’s grotesque exaggerations of theatre performers (acrobats, clowns and circus troupers) from the 2000’s, a nod to his creative evolution over the years. These works, with their clever use of light and dark, create an awkwardness and gloomy tone, as well as that feeling of almost pitiful comedy. Pathos drips off these works like candle wax and leaves the viewer feeling both artistically full and spiritually heavy.

Taiwanese Pavilion, Wu Tien-Chang, 2015
Taiwanese Pavilion, Wu Tien-Chang, 2015

A brief discussion with the artist after our viewing (albeit through a translator) suggested that he, in the evolution of the form and content of his work, was trying to reflect the cultural evolution of Taiwan. He explained that in his country, everyone wears masks in their daily lives. These masks create ambiguity and unknown emotion, making it difficult to assess the appropriate reaction in any situation. To illustrate the extent of this cultural phenomenon, I paraphrase Chang,  “In Taiwan people have processions in the street for weddings and funerals, however, it is impossible to tell which is which”. This strange undercurrent of ambiguity pervades the installation, and in my view, makes it that much more fascinating. After all, black and white is boring – it’s the grey areas that intrigue.

All in all, I have had to eat my words — video installations can move me. Thanks to Wu Tien-Chang, I will now look at all forms of art I encounter with an open mind.

– Sam Senchal

Biennale Arte 2015 is on view throughout Venice until 22nd, November 2015.

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