Portrait of Hsu Chia-Wei. Courtesy Liang Gallery, Taipei.

Makeshift Histories

Hsu Chia-Wei

Also available in:  Chinese

In my multiple conversations with Hsu Chia-Wei about his film-based practice, the artist elaborated at length on the political histories of Asia. These discussions, however, were devoid of pedantry; Hsu is candid about the accidents and coincidences that led to his excavations of these marginal histories. “I think as I work. I don’t usually embark on a project with comprehensive research or a defined theme,” he said to me, during a Skype call in May. While working without a preset outcome is an important part of the practices of many artists, for Hsu, who is cognizant of the caprices of authoritative histories, this approach is rooted in a determination to find unprejudiced, even indeterminate, ways of uncovering the past. 

Hsu was born in 1983 in Taichung, Taiwan. During his childhood, his family rarely discussed the state’s tempestuous political history. Nonetheless, traumatic histories are embodied in the identities of his relatives. His grandmother, raised and educated in Taiwan as Japanese, absorbed a Chinese identity after Japan’s retrocession in 1945. Following the ongoing movement for Taiwan’s sovereignty beginning in the 1990s, she adjusted to being Taiwanese. Hsu considers the meandering biography of his grandmother to be an emblem of Taiwan’s unstable past. He emphasized: “Every period of colonization erases the past to construct new historical narratives. History textbooks are revised accordingly.” These sentiments, together with his BFA and MFA studies at the National Taiwan University of Arts (NTUA) in Taipei from 2005 to 2010, gave birth to the video-essay, The Story of Hoping Island (2008), which features a shipyard that was once a site of Imperial Japan’s naval expansion and Taiwan’s subsequent economic takeoff. Lengthy takes of this shipyard are paired with his grandmother’s narration of a myth about a bioluminescent creature. This meshwork of reality and fiction is interwoven with dissonant electronic music and the lapidary shimmer of floodlights, culminating in impressions both foreboding and dreamlike. 

At NTUA, Hsu became interested in how the moving image lends itself to a critical examination of the past. Although he never formally trained in filmmaking, he wrote his master’s thesis on Anna Sanders Films, a French film production company founded in 1998 by a group of artists including Pierre Huyghe, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. According to Hsu, the raison d’être of Anna Sanders Films—unlike early video art pioneers such as Nam June Paik and Bill Viola, who conceived of their moving-image works as anti-narrative, autonomous objects—is to reconsider the ways we tell stories: “It’s not about resisting the narrative itself, but being attentive to the ideology behind the narrative.” 

This concept has shaped Hsu’s sensitive recastings of history, which do not simply subvert a monolithic image of Taiwan’s past. Instead, his works reveal Taiwan as a fragmented series of sites where various ideologies collide and are exposed. After creating The Story of Hoping Island, he continued to research island histories, and in 2011, chanced upon Turtle Island in the Matsu Islands, an archipelago in the Taiwan Strait. There, he discovered the remains of the former residence of Marshal Tie Jia, a frog god who, even today, rules over Chinbi village—villagers must seek his approval for all major decisions through a divination ritual involving a chair. This discovery led to a series of video installations and a publication tracing the god’s diasporic biography against the backdrop of China’s and Taiwan’s violent modern histories. The video Spirit-writing (2016) centers around Hsu’s request to render 3D impressions of the frog god’s original temple in the Wuyi Mountains in China, which had been dismantled during the Cultural Revolution. In this uncanny meeting of the divine and technological realms, one is moved by Hsu’s exchange with the frog god, who is able to mitigate his past traumas through the ritual. Addressing doubts over the divination ritual, Hsu emphasized that the frog god, fictional or not, is inseparable from the everyday lives of the villagers, and that the idea of truth can be ambiguous when considering history alongside belief systems. 

Despite this suspension of historical objectivity, Hsu is aware of the issues around representation in his works, especially with regard to witnesses and people that appear in his films. He negotiates these problems through hors-champ, a cinematic technique in which film equipment, the crew and even the director is visible in the frame. In Marshal Tie Jia – Turtle Island (2012), we see an elderly performer in a temple, singing a poem in the style of Min opera, a favorite pastime of the frog god that is now threatened by obsolescence. An abrupt change in scene interrupts the nostalgia: a green screen reveals the temple to be a digital image and we see the standing lights and a boom microphone that surround the performer. This break in the scene forces spectators to contend with the constructions of history. 

These cinematic techniques are not simply ruses, however. Through his filmmaking, Hsu aims to insert the past into everyday consciousness, a method that extends beyond the image. “Beyond the narrative, there’s also the act of making films. Actual events take place on-site, in the present,” he said, explaining that for most film projects, he will gather what he calls “a temporary community,” comprised of locals, traditional performers and a film production team. At times, these groups overlap, as with the video Huai Mo Village (2012). Set in the open courtyard of an orphanage in Chiang Rai at the Thai-Myanmar border, the orphanage director recounts his turbulent past as a Kuomintang soldier after the Chinese Civil War, a mercenary for the Thai military and, later, an intelligence officer for the US Central Intelligence Agency. The orphans make up the audience and the crew, in this way participating in reconstructing history rather than passive posing as subjects before a lens. Here, Hsu is more programmer than storyteller, and the process of filmmaking allows the past to be coeval with the present. 

Following on from his conversations with Marshal Tie Jia, Hsu has recently begun to consider other nonhuman perspectives on history. In March, the artist completed his first performance work, Black & White – Panda (2018), made in collaboration with performers skilled in the Manzai tradition of Japanese stand-up comedy. In a comical retelling of China’s panda diplomacy, the mammals are not depicted as innocent objects of affection but take center stage in the performers’ descriptions of this history, as if complicit with the Machiavellian actions of politicians. Later this year, Hsu will expand on Black & White, and will travel to Singapore to research the Malayan tapir’s relationship to British colonization. 

In his current practice, Hsu traces the complex, intertwined pasts of animals, machines, humans and gods, all the while rejecting academicism: “Artists are springboards for dialogue, not teachers or professors.” With this anti-didactic approach and sensitivity toward storytelling, Hsu orients us toward multiple modes of being and counter-narratives. 

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