«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»
Therefore, this exhibition both exposed the lives and situations of the Chang, Y. C., op cit, p 339.
M. Turner, © 2008 disadvantaged women’s labour force and promoted the name of Taiwan in the global artistic environment.
Judy Chicago exhibited her completed projects, including the Through the Flower (1973), the Powerplay series (1983-1987), the Thinking about Trees series (1993-1997) and a setting of the Dinner Party (1974-1979), which were displayed both in the Sinjhuang Cultural Art Centre and the Hanart Gallery in Taipei city. The space in the Hanart Gallery was specifically arranged for Chicago, aiming to support the main scene of the event in Sinjhuang and to create a kind of ‘connection’ between the two locations, the Taipei metropolis and Sinjhuang. However, I would argue that Chicago’s involvement in the project did not accord with the curator’s themes of expressing the subaltern status of the women’s labour force in the textile industries in Sinjhuang.
Rather, it created a peculiar scenario whereby Chicago’s participation signified a greater élite power, which made no attempt to interpret the Taiwanese women’s labour force. It was the Asian women artists who interviewed and talked to local women in Sinjhuang in order to understand the life of working-class women. Chicago’s contribution illustrated the great differences between margin (Taiwan) and centre (the West) and simply amplified the contrast between Sinjhuang and Taipei, in the show.
As already addressed in the introduction, the West has become the new imperial power that largely influences and, to some extent, unifies the appearances of global culture. The fear of not being Western or even White enough can be seen in this show and it is a paradoxical conflict in the complex psychological inferiority found in Taiwan’s artistic field. I suggest that the M. Turner, © 2008 curator’s inclusion of Chicago (as one of the pioneering Western feminist artists) was a strategy to ‘upgrade’ this show to what could be considered a
consequence, the adoption of using Western artists and choosing Western ‘styles’ could be said to devalue Taiwanese women artists as the subaltern in the frames of global art.33 At this point, I should underline the fact that the philosophical and psychological condition of feeling inferior to the West, and therefore being eager to duplicate Western styles, is one of the dimensions of the complexity of Taiwanese culture. I suggest that the multiple conditions of Taiwanese culture include diasporic experience, especially in the aspects of education and training in the West. It is interesting to note that most of the established Taiwanese artists and curators were trained in the West before starting their careers in Taiwan, so their viewpoints and interpretations of Taiwan are different from the majority of Taiwanese people who have never been (or seldom go) outside of the island. I propose that this situation constructs what Taiwan is and the curation of this exhibition (and all other shows featured in this thesis) expresses this fact.
Visualising the Subalternity Before examining some artworks, I should stress that this exhibition has a strong connection with local fabric industry community. The curator received I have recently discovered that Elsa Hsiang-Chun Chen, a Taiwanese art historian and critic, has also proposed a relevant view to my argument regarding Chicago’s involvement in the exhibition. She states that ‘[i]n essence this [Chicago’s participation] shows clearly the way in which the art community in Taiwan has in the long term internalised its dependence on the cultural order of European and US hegemony’. Chen, Elsa Hsiang-Chun. ‘Reading Feminist Dimensions of Contemporary Art in Taiwan’ in Huangfu (ed), op cit, p 78.
M. Turner, © 2008 a great amount of support from several local textile companies, a local reading club and Fu Jen Catholic University Textiles Department.34 The exhibition was supported by the Sinjhuang City Council and was held at the Sinjhuang Cultural Art Centre, the only state-run art space in the region. Moreover, owing to the fact that the Centre is a multi-purposed space, where a local library and a theatre are located, the exhibition (with no tickets required) attracted a large number of viewers, including regular visitors, children, adults, males, females and people from different professions and classes.
Works exhibited included two and three dimensional pieces, throughout two separate rooms on the ground floor of the gallery space. In order to argue how Taiwanese women artists explore ‘voice-consciousness’ to let the subaltern speak, I examine in more detail a representative sample of works in the show. The first artist under investigation is Hou Shur-Tzy, who exhibited Labours and Labels (1997).
Hou Shur-Tzy, like many of the active women artists in Taiwan, was educated in the US, for her Master’s Degree in Arts following a Bachelor’s Degree in philosophy at the National Taiwan University in 1985. She returned to Taiwan in 1994 and began her career as a fine artist, mainly using photographs as the medium to express her concepts. The work, Labours and Labels III [fig 19], is a series of thirty pieces, which take the form of photographs documenting the women’s labour force in textile factories in Sinjhuang. Each photograph indicates different fabric work carried out by women in the factory, including The list of firms involved can be found in the list of acknowledgements published in the exhibition catalogue.
M. Turner, © 2008 sewing, cutting, ironing and labelling. To emphasise the quantity of production, underneath each photograph, the artist indicates the amount of work that the labouring women produce: ‘10,000 cutting a day’, ‘500 ironing a day’, ‘200 dozens of polo shirts a month’ and ‘2000 label-sewing a day’.35 The work, Labours and Labels III, has now been collected at the Fine Art Museum of Taipei.
In Labours and Labels II [fig 20 and fig 21], a woman looks thoroughly preoccupied with her work, sewing a large piece of cloth on a sewing machine.
The photograph is shown in black and white, so that the various colours of textiles in the factory are ignored, forcing the viewer to focus entirely on the reality of the labour itself. In the photograph, another piece of cloth is placed on the table and the woman, with her hair tied-up, seems to be very carefully pulling the cloth while the needle of the machine rapidly repeats its up and down movement. A fan, which has not been switched on, is right behind her and suggests that the environment for work is unpleasantly hot in the summer.
The photograph is a small scene but represents women’s massive contribution to the labour force during Taiwan’s industrialisation.
On both sides of the photograph, the artist collects and shows dozens of labels, which indicate the origins of where products are produced, such as, for example, ‘Made in Taiwan’, ‘Made in Chang Ho’, ‘Made in Italy’, ‘Made in China’, ‘Made in Indonesia’, etc. Hou pinned short red threads under the labels that show the names of towns in Taiwan where the products are made.
See Sinjhuang Cultural Art Centre. Lords of the Rim: in Herself/ for Herself. Exh. Cat., Taiwan, 1998, pp 46-49.
M. Turner, © 2008 Juxtaposing the labels and the photograph narrates both the real scene of production behind the labels and the manufacturing reality of the women from the developing world. The neglected scene of labour in the textile industry is exposed to the viewer, the majority of whom are middle-class consumers.
Hou uses documentary photographs to ‘touch the consciousness’ of the subaltern women and to confront the visitors, through which the historiography of the working woman has been recorded. Most importantly, this exhibition was political and powerful in terms of arousing the public’s attention to the real life of the lower classes, who have been forgotten under the ‘glory’ of Taiwan’s ‘economic miracle’.
Besides the physical hard work, working-class women experience another hardship - that of the labour of childbirth, highlighted in the following work. Lin Chun-Ju’s installation, Birth (1997) [fig 22-24], is very different from Hou’s documentary photographs. Lin is renowned for her installation works, made of textiles and fabrics, thus her involvement in this exhibition was not unanticipated. Birth is entirely made up of fabric and bobbins, using industrial hardware and output as artistic materials. Lin carefully arranges a pile of colourful cushions, beanbags and cloth on the floor with dozens of black bobbins on the walls surrounding them. Lin connects the fabric on the floor and bobbins on the wall with bright red threads, by which she creates a scene reminiscent of blood-vessels, flesh and the formation of a new life.
Instead of stereotypical and bloody images of women giving birth, the work, Birth, is presented in a beautiful and colourful piece. With various colours and textures of the fabrics, the work gathers a mixture of diverse products from M. Turner, © 2008 textile industry. There are major elements of this piece: bobbins and clothes;
hard/solid and soft/flexible. Three white connected walls in the background and a large pile of colourful clothes on the floor form a stable installation, which makes the structure of the space calm and well-balanced. However, several red threads and items of clothing make the connection between the walls and the large pile of clothes on the floor, through which there exists a kind of tension and strength from the extension and stretching of the fabric.
Chang states that ‘with the concept of women’s production in the [textile] industry, and for a baby, Lin Chun-Ju installed the space to resemble both a factory and a maternity room’.36 The work refers to two kinds of production, both of which require a great amount of physical effort: making a living in the factory and giving birth in the maternity room. Lin demonstrates that there are two aspects that dominate the lives of working-class women in Sinjhuang: to be a good textile labourer and a good mother. However, it is hard to be both pregnant and a blue-collar working woman at the same time.
Before the Labour Standards Act was passed in 1984, there was rarely any protection or benefits for working-class women during their pregnancy. It was very common that they were forced to quit their jobs, because the factory owners wanted to avoid the inconvenience of a temporary loss of their labour force. When the Labour Standards Act was announced, but before the revised version was made and passed in 2001, according to the law women labourers were only given thirty days of maternity leave. Furthermore, the fines, used to punish those factory owners who did not provide women with See Chang, Y.C., op cit, p 340.
M. Turner, © 2008 sufficient maternity benefits, were very low.37 Birth demonstrates the difficulty that working-class women experience in maintaining their socially expected role as a mother whilst being oppressed in the male-centred working environment.
Wang Shih-Chih interviewed some women labourers at the Dung Yang and Fu Chang textile factories located in Taoyuan county concerning their experience of giving birth and maternity leave. One of the interviewees said
We always keep working until the moment when we are going to give birth and it is the same for everyone […] We have never stopped working before the labour pains begin as we dare not take our maternity leave earlier. We were only entitled with thirty days for maternity leave [before 2001].39 This interview demonstrates that the oppression of women from the developing world derives from the hierarchical structure of organisation, which According to the database of Taiwan Women Web, before 2001, the penalty against factories’ own unofficial regulations, which allow them to sack married and pregnant women, was either too low or unclear. The Web states that ‘the penalty was just between 2,000 to 20,000 Taiwanese dollars (around £30 - £300), which is insufficient to stop the employers from treating women unequally and without respect’. For detailed information, see ‘Taiwanese Women’s Treatment in 1998: Women and Law’, Taiwan Women Web, http://taiwan.yam.org.tw/womenweb/st/98/st_law.htm, consulted on 14 May 2007.
Both the Dung Yang and Fu Chang textile plants were shut down in 1996. Owing to the increased interest in cheaper overseas labour forces, mainly in China and South Asia the owners decided to move their factories outside of Taiwan. However, according to the records, the Taiwanese labourers (mainly women) who devoted most of their youth working in these factories did not receive any redundancy payment and there were 21,878 factories that were closed down for the same reasons between January and November 1996. This situation has worsened the lives of working-class women in Taiwan. For more information, see He, Yan-Tang. ‘The Situation of Unemployed Women Labourers During the Period When their Employers Close Down the Plants’ in The 2nd National Women’s Conference, http://taiwan.yam.org.tw/nwc/nwc2/work2.htm, consulted on 14 May 2007.
See Wang, S. C., op cit, pp 36-7. This interview was conducted and published in 1997.
According to the revised Labour Standards Act announced in 2001, maternity leave has currently been extended to 60 days.
M. Turner, © 2008 determines a female workforce and formulates their work as a part of the machines in the factories. The machines that never stop mechanise and objectify women’s bodies, which are expected to work continuously even during their pregnancy. Women have become a part of the machine which works mainly for the benefits of capitalism and the wealth of a nation during industrialisation. Women, therefore, merely serve the patriarchal society that expects them to be productive, by contributing labouring for the textile industry and by producing new lives.
The experience of working-class women in Taiwan is a typical example in the developing world. Rajeswari Sunder Rajan and You-me Park address this
condition in developing countries by stating that: