Co-written with John Stephenson.
Originally published by The News Lens.
'Vase of an Anti-Aircraft Gun' is Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s first large-scale installation in Taiwan. Juxtaposing an ordinary living room with a weapon of war, the work speaks to issues of displacement, curatorial conflict of interest, and power.
Two anti-aircraft gun barrels penetrate up through floorboards, piercing the small coffee table, and – posing as vases – hold two large bouquets of lilies. The space features a comfortable sofa, and a large television looping news reports from 24-hour Taiwanese news channels. There are bookshelves to peruse, magazines strewn across a coffee table, paintings on the wall, and a calendar with the days marked off. But, it’s not a normal space. The room is built on scaffolding. The flowers are in gun barrels. It’s so easy to forget this – seated on a sofa, with the news on, rain mutely hitting the roof. This is "Vase of an Anti-Aircraft Gun," Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s first large-scale installation in Taiwan.
A must-see work
This is a striking and well curated show. Put together by Huang Shan-shan (黃姍姍) at the Jut Art Museum, “The Flying Land” is an inquiry into contemporary living in globalized urban spaces, and constitutes a powerful examination of ideas of “temporary lodging” and the “migratory” nature of the modern world.
Nishi’s installation is the exhibition's centerpiece, and his playful style ricochets off every aspect. Once inside, however, the viewer reels from sudden cognitive dissonance. Nishi has created an illusion that reveals both the real and non-real nature of the private spaces we wrap around ourselves. There may be no cannon in our living rooms, but the dangers and dominance of power exists as an ever-present reality. This uneasy feeling of displacement pervades “Vase of Anti-Aircraft Gun.” Any attempt to reconcile the discomfort by sitting on the sofa and leafing through a magazine is shattered by the presence of the ‘vases’. The scene recalls Chekhov’s Gun in its theatrical arrangement – the artillery part of an ex machina plot that is bound to play out regardless of our involvement or consent.
Sticking to her guns
In her curatorial statement, Huang explains that by invoking "The Flying Land" as both title and a metaphor, this show references The Flying Dutchman (De Vliegende Hollander) – the legendary ghost ship that can never make port – and touches on the “human condition of ceaseless struggle over diaspora in contemporary civilizations.”
Huang told The News Lens that the show is the culmination of three years of research inspired by her experiences of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. In her view, the works provide a thoughtful platform for discussion and examination of our world of “constant migration and temporary residence.” The setting of the Jut Art Museum in Taipei’s Da’an District also raises interesting questions about the role land development plays in the psychological and geographical displacement of people in contemporary urban environments.
Indeed, displacement is the foundation of Nishi’s work. The public monuments and spaces he uses are often very familiar to a city’s residents, and function as markers of specificity. Static, permanent, often overseeing the metropolis from a pedestal, these sculptures are distant and inaccessible. Some – like the Queen Victoria Statue in London, or the Merlion monument in Singapore – signal specific places and histories; their meaning couched in their physical contexts.
The anti-aircraft gun employed in Nishi’s work was used by ROC Navy marines during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958. Taken from a small park near Yuanshan, it was displaced to its current location at the Jut Museum for the duration of this show, in the process losing a key aspect of its site-specificity.
When asked by The News Lens why the monument was moved, Huang said she wanted to bring an audience to the museum. It took nine months to get permission to move the guns. The government at first wanted her to leave the piece in place at the 823 Artillery Battle Memorial Park (八二三砲戰紀念公園), and veterans and the navy opposed the moving of a war memorial. Sticking to her guns, the piece was relocated.
This act should, in principle, have brought the park and its monuments itself back into the public consciousness. In an interview earlier this year, Nishi said in that, “because these monuments stay in the same space for a really long time, people just start forgetting what is there.”
But the guns’ displacement to a private art gallery means the work is cut off from the public – an eventuality Nishi implicitly criticized in a 2012 interview with Art In America: “Exhibitions of contemporary art should be placed in [the] exterior, where there are more audiences, and even more where people who are not interested in art are passing by,” he said.
Either way, getting Tatzu Nishi to Taiwan is a big deal, and certainly a coup for Jut Art Museum. Moreover, it will do little to harm to their catalogue claim of being “the first art institution focusing on issues concerning ‘future’ and ‘city’ in Taiwan.” Other internationally recognized artists on the bill include Ulla von Brandenburg (Germany), Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan (Philippines), and Wei Leng Tay (Singapore).
The story behind how this exhibition ended up in Taipei and at the Jut Museum in particular provides an alternative lens through which to view its overarching theme of displacement.
The organization behind the Jut Art Museum, the Jut Foundation for Arts and Architecture, is part-funded by its parent, Taiwan's Zhongtai Construction Group Co. Foundation CEO Aaron Lee says in the organization’s 10th anniversary publication that, “as a land developer, I have always believed that I am greatly responsible for and have been actively involved in the city’s urban development, architectural design, and lifestyle shaping.”
One example of this claim in action is Project UrbanCore, which makes use of undeveloped land by allowing artists, architects and researchers to try out their ideas in their transitory non-spaces, often working with or through local community groups. Ultimately though, Zhongtai is in the business of building high-end residential tower blocks. They are all tall, shiny buildings whose project titles indicate a utopian future in the making – Zhongtai Symphony and Will See Tomorrow being apposite examples.
The problem with utopias, as art historian and critic Claire Bishop states, is that they are “predicated on the exclusion of those who hinder or prevent [their] realization.” Bishop aims this criticism at contemporary art’s tendency to leave behind a “feel good factor” while failing to deal realistically with the underlying issues. She believes that good art should also antagonize; and show us the things we don’t want to admit are there.
While the largest elephant in Nishi’s room is China’s reservation of the right to use force to invade Taiwan as mandated under its Anti-Secession Law, and the current icy state of cross-Strait relations, there is also a subtle, small-elephant dynamic at play between the host institution and the artwork.
Curator and art critic Lu Pei-yi captures the framework for the conflict of interest at play here in her 2010 paper “What is Off-site Art?”
Off-site art is often confronted by difficulties arising from broader social, economic, and political arenas and is sometimes commissioned for specific pragmatic purposes, as a means of propaganda, to promote a city’s image or its urban regeneration.
In the case of “The Flying Land” and Nishi’s installation, these broader difficulties include the displacement of communities and people in Taipei in the name of urban regeneration and land development, and the difficulties inherent in placing an exhibition of this nature in a museum with connections to a land development company.
This antagonism may not have been to the fore when creating this show, but with the Jut Foundation HQ and its accompanying steel-and-glass buildings looming over the installation, partially blocking Nishi’s piece from public view, the connection between institution and artwork, like the gun in the artist’s room, becomes impossible to ignore.
Is a land development company really the appropriate leader in a discussion of urban regeneration? This is a group that has the clout to move a war memorial to one of their sites, ostensibly to boost the profile of their art museum. And are we dealing with a genuine interest in urban innovation, or is this another example of, in the words of political scientist Jamie Peck, the harnessing by powerful groups of “creativity strategies”, which, “for all their talk of local ‘authenticity’ [...] reconstitute urban-elitist, ‘leadership’ models of city governance, despite their ritual invocation of grassroots efforts?” In any case, it is encouraging to see that the Jut Foundation is willing to engage and explore better ways to build a city, and that Huang was given full creative license to do what she wanted in this show is to be commended.
“The Flying Land” thus offers much to contemplate about a “contemporary city’s ceaseless transition, regeneration and perpetuation.” But the fact is that the exhibition presents no plan for a better world. There is no solution put forward to the problems of living in a contemporary city like Taipei. When the viewer leaves Nishi’s room, China’s missiles will still be pointed at the island and Xi Jinping will not suddenly have decided that Taiwan is not part of China. We can sit in our houses and watch our televisions, and once again thrust to the back of our minds the precarious nature of the peace we enjoy.
TNL Editor: David Green
- Nov 24, 2018 A LOADED GUN: TATZU NISHI IN 'THE FLYING LAND'
- Jun 17, 2018 TAIPEI AND THE TACTICS OF EVERYDAY LIFE
- Feb 16, 2018 THE LONG POEM OF WALKING TAIPEI
- November 2017