«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»
Following independence from colonial rule, these [developing] countries set out on the path of a ‘development’ targeted primarily at economic growth, and committed to a modernisation consisting of technological advancement, industrialisation and urbanisation.40 According to Rajan and Park, the development of industrialisation and urbanisation is a national target to help the developing countries move away from poverty after gaining political independence. Such development has largely relied on women thanks to their inherent qualities of ‘hard work, thrift, sacrifice to family interests, cooperation [and] pragmatism’. During industrialisation, Taiwanese women, especially those from rural areas, have been increasingly given the status of the subaltern and have been victimised Rajan, Rajeswari Sunder and You-me Park. ‘Postcolonial Feminism/ Postcolonialism and Feminism’ in Schwarz and Ray (eds), op cit, p 64.
Ibid., p 65.
M. Turner, © 2008 under the patriarchal social values. The work, Birth, visualises this reality and the marginal aspect of Taiwan’s society.
Finally, I have chosen Wu Mali’s work, Stories of Women from Sinjhuang (1997) [fig 25 and fig 26] as the final piece of visual evidence to support my arguments in this chapter. Similar to her piece, Epitaph, Wu once again used text and a video to express her concerns about forgotten women, and this time, in the context of Taiwan’s economic history. In Stories of Women from Sinjhuang, Wu puts up cloth, woven with text and patterns of flowers, on the three walls, constructing a U-shape space. On walking into the space, the audience is surrounded by the dark red cloth, forming a kind of wall paper that is attached to the whole length and width of the walls with various patterns of flowers and leaves in lighter colours. Similar to Epitaph, Wu installed a screen and a projector at the middle of the space, and she showed a short autobiography of a woman textile worker who had devoted all of her youth to the textile industry in Sinjhuang. In order to analyse this piece in more depth, it is useful to cite
some of the text:
I first came to work at textile plants in my teens. I worked everywhere:
Taoyuan, Sinjhuang, and Shulin. They were all wearing and demanding job[s]. […] Because my husband’s income was poor, we managed a garment factory for a living. Suddenly those good old days in textiles were gone. I ended up divorcing my husband [who] has the custody of the children and he still owns the factory. As for me, although I have lived for the past 20 years in Sinjhuang, I desperately need to get away from it.
None of the good feeling remains. The truth is Sinjhuang has cost me my life, my youth. I lost everything in the end.42 Lin, Margo and Wei Ying-Hui (eds). Wu Mali: Treasure Island. Taiwan: Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts. Exh. Cat., 2002, p 55.
M. Turner, © 2008 This rather depressing autobiography from the woman is shown on the screen and this kind of method is similar to Wu’s work, Epitaph, both of which uncover the stories of subaltern women’s lives. More stories of similar women’s lives are woven and brought to light on the walls. To be specific, the strength of this piece depends largely on the use of words and the simple installation of its setting. It is this kind of modest way of presentation that highlights powerfully and explicitly the hard life of women on the margins of society, as the approach directly points at the essential motif of the work.
The other important element of this piece is the sound of a sewing machine.
The continual, repetitive and even tedious sound keeps repeating and repeating in the space, as if it were the sound of the process when the text itself was woven into the cloth. A sense of déjà vu of the scene at a textile factory appears and the mechanical sound is very powerful as it symbolises the mechanised lives of working women in the labour-intensive textile industry.
The text, cloth and the sound construct a scenario, which presents the life, the work and emotions of the labouring women in Sinjhuang. The subalternity and marginal stories in the development of Taiwan’s economy are therefore shown and expressed in this artwork, through which what had previously been forgotten has therefore been revealed through visual art.
Reconsideration of Subjectivity Rajan and Park begin their essay, Postcolonial Feminism/ Postcolonialism and
Feminism (2000), by introducing some inspiring arguments:
M. Turner, © 2008 Postcolonial feminism cannot be regarded simply as a subset of postcolonial studies, or, alternatively, as another variety of feminism.
Rather it is an intervention that is changing the configurations of both postcolonial and feminist studies. Postcolonial feminism is an exploration of and at the intersections of colonialism and neo-colonialism with gender, nation, class, race, and sexualities in the different contexts of women’s lives, their subjectivities, work, sexuality, and rights.43 Both neo-colonialism and colonialism, which appears with the force of political occupation, are intersected with the discourses concerning the colonised and the colonisers in the fields of gender, nation, class, race and sexuality.
Postcolonial feminism is concerned with women’s lives and roles within the new structure of power related to the issues listed above, and it includes the discourse of the women’s labour force in Taiwan. Spivak has clearly indicated that labouring women in the developing world are the worst sufferers of global capitalism by stating that ‘the worst victims of the recent exacerbation of the international division of labour are [Third World] women’. 44 Spivak further asserts that the ‘[Third World] produces the wealth and the possibility of the cultural self-representation of the “First World”’.45 Indeed, it is the developing world, especially its women, who contribute the major amount of labour to the global market but meanwhile they also endure the suppression of their male counterparts. Nevertheless, the obstacle they are experiencing also comes from Western women whose culture, art and even fashion have given those working-class women a kind of psychological dilemma about whether or not to be Westernised.
Rajan, Sunder and Park, op cit, p 53.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. In Other Worlds: Essays in Cultural Politics. New York and London: Methuen, 1987, p 167.
Spivak (1990), op cit, p 96, original emphasis maintained.
M. Turner, © 2008 The exhibition, Lords of the Rim: in Herself/ for Herself, is a visual interpretation of the questions of postcolonial feminism and it specifically explores the positions of Taiwanese women living outside of the metropolis.
The most significant contribution that the show has made is that it exposes the silent women of the developing region. The perspective that Chang adopts addresses Taiwanese women’s subalternity, not from the points of view of nation and nationalism (which the 2.28 Commemorative Exhibition in the first chapter has covered), but from the contradictions between the developed and the developing World (as mainly economic consumers and producers).
Owing to the fact that this exhibition was the first event to deal with this subject and that it was supported by the mayor of Sinjhuang and several local textile companies, the show received a lot of attention from the local and national press. However, after the exhibition was over, there have been hardly any shows held and organised on similar topics and concerns. This is owing to the fact that since many of Taiwan’s companies have moved their capital and factories abroad, the labour market in textiles and other labour-intensive industries have declined on the island. The concerns towards working class women have shifted from being about their suffering as mechanised objects to their becoming unemployed and anxious in the diminishing job market. I foresee and suggest that future curatorial concern surrounding working-class women would be centred on this aspect and influences on their lives.
Indeed, this show provides an example that enables me to view Taiwan’s society with a broader perspective, by acknowledging the hard work and hardship of the working-class women during Taiwan’s industrialisation, as well M. Turner, © 2008 as demonstrating the ‘reality’ of the marginal part of society. This attitude echoes what Rajan and Park have argued: ‘a postcolonial feminism that addresses the issues concerning the most “backward” parts of the world may claim the most advanced understanding of the contemporary “reality”’. 46 Accordingly, it is clearly conspicuous that the organising of Lords of the Rim is
re-consideration of the position of Sinjhuang, as a ‘lord’ and as a subject.
Ultimately, I am emphasising that this exhibition intended to create a very positive impact by looking at the marginal issue of society and by exposing a hidden economic identity of the women’s labour force in the global economic system, through which what has been forgotten as the crucial subaltern part of existing fact of Taiwanese presence is being re-shaped.
M. Turner, © 2008 PART II: Colonial Heritage Colonial Space: Sweet and Sour Yeast (2001-2002) In this chapter, I am examining the exhibition Sweet and Sour Yeast [fig 27], held at two alternative art spaces in Taiwan during 2001 and 2002. This exhibition was curated in two former colonial buildings built during the Japanese colonisation of Taiwan in the early twentieth century. These spaces are now known as Taipei’s Hua-Shan Arts District, which was originally built to house a wine factory, and the Kia-A-Thau Art Village in Kaohsiung, which was previously a sugar factory. Both factories were abandoned when the development of high technology became the economic policy of the Taiwanese government. Each art space is mainly organised and administered by women artists. The inspiration for the exhibition derived from the smell and flavour of the factory spaces and also the function of yeast, which is used in the wine making process. The title of the exhibition, Sweet and Sour Yeast, is taken from one of the famous desserts produced in the sugar factory.
Taken as the symbolic theme of this show, ‘yeast’ played an important role in both spaces. The most popular dessert produced by the Kia-A-Thau sugar factory was sweet and sour yeast ice cream [fig 28 and fig 29], which was made from sugar and yeast by fermentation. Similarly, the winery that was the forerunner of the Hua-Shan Art District required another kind of yeast to brew the wheat and rice during the winemaking process. Yeast is a kind of organism which can survive and keep reproducing itself by interacting with other ingredients. The physical properties of yeast enable a process to take M. Turner, © 2008 place which provides a metaphor of regeneration and mutual support.
The newspaper, China Times, described the exhibition’s use of the concepts of ‘yeast’ and ‘connection’ in the following terms:
The exhibition was organised on the theme of ‘connection’ and focused on the role of ‘being a woman’. The organism, yeast, keeps producing by connecting rather than eating or killing others. Women artists hope to work with each other through this exhibition and then create more exposure and become stronger.1 A dictionary definition regarding the properties of yeast serves to illustrate the appropriateness of its application in these metaphorical senses. According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary, yeast is ‘a microscopic single-celled fungus capable of converting sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide; any unicellular fungus that reproduces vegetatively by budding or fission […]’.2 The most commercially significant use of yeast is to ferment the sugars of rice, wheat, barley and corn in order to produce alcoholic drinks; in addition, yeast is widely used to raise dough for baking. By consuming sugar, yeast keeps reproducing itself and growing, whilst at the same time it produces alcohol and carbon dioxide. At this point, it is worth noting that a key property of yeast is that it keeps connecting with itself in order to survive and that the speed at which yeast reproduces depends on the temperature and the environment.
This characteristic is similar to the strategy employed by women artists through the use of exhibitions, i.e. they connect with each other and gather together in order to develop, survive and, ultimately, to be seen.
Chen, Shi-Lin. ‘Women Artists and Sweet Dialogue: Interacting through the Exhibition Shown at the North and the South of Taiwan’ in China Times on 5 November 2001, p 14.
Pearsall (ed), op cit, p 1658.
M. Turner, © 2008 The curator of Sweet and Sour Yeast, Chang Hui-Lan, addressed the idea of connection and explained in the exhibition catalogue that ‘this exhibition joined not only the two alternative spaces together, but also connected every woman artist, through which a more complete body was created to express their artworks’.3 The simple-unit organism, yeast, by connecting itself with many other units, becomes stronger and more complete. This exhibition operated as a prime mover (like yeast) to initiate action and then assembled other elements (history, nature and people) in order to present the issues of gender and even national identity. It provided audiences with visible artworks and promoted a series of emotional and mental responses, such as a sense of nostalgia, concern for the natural environment and ideas of how to combine the old and the new, at a time when Taiwan was beginning to rediscover its roots.
Both the feminist content of the show and the use of old buildings from the colonial period promoted a sense of nostalgia and a re-interpretation of Taiwan’s long colonial history. Here, I am emphasising that the importance of using former colonial buildings was intrinsic to the exhibition, and a further essential consideration was the process by which the Taiwanese could re-establish their location within colonial history.
Through this show, I found that the Taiwanese views of binary relationships have changed. The term ‘binarism’ has been widely used in postcolonial Chang, Hui-Lan. ‘Sweet and Sour Yeast: A Sweet Conversation between Kia-A-Thau Sugar Factory and Taipei Winery’ in Kia-A-Thau Cultural Society, Sweet and Sour Yeast: A Sweet Conversation between the Kia-A-Thau Sugar Factory and the Taipei Winery. Exh. Cat., Kaohsiung, 2002, p 10.