«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»
When comparing traditional women’s life experience in the West and the East, it is crucial to recognise how differently women have lived but that they all have resisted a similar kind of sexual oppression operating in their respective cultures. Around thirty years later than contemporary women’s fabric art first appeared in the West in the 1970s, Lin Ping has the same attitude as Kate Walker, even though they grew up under two different cultures, but they both have lived through a time when fabric works were labelled as a woman’s gender characteristic as determined by a patriarchal ideology. The femininity of needlework in the East and the West could be seen as an advantage, rather than a weakness when being used by women artists. The artists both from the East and the West could give the audience and history a new and positive perspective to re-judge the fabric works. Thus, the evidence has suggested M. Turner, © 2008 that the exhibition, BuBaoFu, was conceived in order to carry out this positive input for contemporary fabric creation.
In male-centred Taiwanese society, men are expected to be brave and ambitious, while on the contrary, women are imagined in more limited and domestic spaces, such as the house. In addition, they have stereotypical job choices and are discouraged from educational opportunities. Women have tried to use their wisdom to widen the ‘micro space’ of their daily lives (the Wan Bu studio is a good example and will be discussed later) and work much harder than men just to achieve equal pay and equal respect. However, as I have already addressed, diasporic Taiwanese experience has introduced Western aesthetics to the island, Western women’s movements and philosophies have become yet another form of colonial power that influences contemporary Taiwan’s society. Taiwanese women of the younger generation, who were born in the 1980s and who are sometimes called ‘the generation of strawberries’ (i.e. being fragile, easily bruised), have more equal opportunities with regard to education and have more freedom to choose their future, instead of it being determined by their families and patriarchal limits. Due to Taiwan’s economic boom since the late 1970s and the progress of democracy in Taiwan’s society from the 1990s, the Taiwanese are now experiencing a ‘golden age’.35 Younger Taiwanese do not have clear concepts of national or gender identity and this phenomenon has reflected on the way they create their artworks, which tend to embrace internationalism and Westernisation.
The term, golden age, comes from Nicholas Kristof’s description of modern Taiwan’s society and he states that ‘China has 4,000, maybe 5,000, years of history, but it has never had an era like that in Taiwan today. There has never been a time when people were so wealthy or so free. Living conditions are so great! […] It’s a golden age’. Kristof, Nicholas D. ‘A Dictatorship that Grew up’ in New York Times Magazine, 16 Feb 1992, pp 16-17.
M. Turner, © 2008 Thus, there exists a large generation gap between women in Taiwan.
As a result, ‘fabric’ is no longer a symbol of burden for the young Taiwanese women artists, such as Shen Fang-Jung, whom I investigate later in this chapter. For them, fabric is merely an artistic material instead of being a sign of patriarchal pressure. This is the reason why Lin used PinYin instead of specific Chinese words for the exhibition title, because the dual definitions indicate different perspectives that women in different generations hold when considering ‘fabric’. Thus, by collecting various kinds of presentation to create art with fabric, the exhibition reveals the fact that fabric, as a colonial heritage from the Chinese and the Japanese, has been gradually re-interpreted by Taiwanese women in different generations and the display of artworks demonstrates the power of re-considering the colonial influence, which has hybridised the material with contemporary Taiwanese people’s lives.
Seven artists were invited to participate in this show and their works were produced through tailoring, sewing and several other techniques which are related to textiles.36 The works were shown in various ways, including the combination of oil painting and embroidery, installations made of cloth and handiworks, a documentary film and a collaborative project. The film was the According to my interview with Lin Ping, she explained to me the reason why she did not decide to participate in this show as both an artist and a curator. Also being a practising artist, Lin regards arranging this exhibition as a form of artistic creation in another form. When ‘art’ is viewed as a concept, there are many different ways to approach it. Artists would use different materials to create their own artistic works, while the curators create their art by the concepts, through which they conduct the exhibitions. For Lin, her ideas of fabric arts have been realised by the way she has conceived this exhibition, rather than any real visible material.
Therefore, when curating this exhibition, Lin seriously considered whether to show her own artistic works in the gallery together with other artists as she has been a successful fabric artist as well. However, she eventually decided to be simply the curator of this show, as a result of which, in her opinion, she could arrange all the artistic works in the gallery more objectively.
M. Turner, © 2008 record of the collaborative project, conducted by the artist Wu Mali, whilst the remainder of the works were created by single artists. The works were either hung on the wall or installed on the floor and from the ceiling of the exhibition space, through which the audience could wander around in the gallery space surrounded by different works. The multiplicity of the works demonstrates the diverse approaches towards fabric, whilst indicating inconsistent perspectives of viewing the colonial heritage from artists of different generations.
As this space has been fully funded by the Council for Cultural Affairs, since its opening in 2000, it is open to the public without any need to purchase tickets.
Additionally, the gallery is located next to the railway lines at Taichung train station; consequently, it is exposed to hundreds of passengers every day.
Thus, this space attracts not only those who speficially go to see the show because of their interest, but also those who visit the venue without even knowing that the gallery exists. As a result, this exhibition attracted hundreds of visitors of all ages, social classes and from all walks of life.
In order to demonstrate the curator’s concepts of this exhibition, I have selected some artistic works to introduce. I shall discuss Spiritual Quilt (2001) by the artist, Wu Mali, the Festival (2000) by Deng Wen-Jen and The Starfish Series (2003) by Shen Fang-Jung.
Spiritual Quilt (2001) [fig 54 and fig 55] was produced based on a community project produced by eighteen Taiwanese women, organised by the Taipei M. Turner, © 2008 Awakening Association and conducted by Wu Mali from late 1999.37 This work is composed of two parts: a fifty-six minute documentary film shown on the wall, and a big cushion in the shape of a heart with several small red heart-shape pillows inside, displayed on the floor.38 The documentary film was produced based on the recording of the workshops during 1998 and 2003.
The film connects several scenes of different stages of the workshops, during which the participants shared their life stories, their views of society, and their creativity in how to transform clothes into a piece of art. The fifty-six-minute film links the key moments of the participants’ change in their conceptions of art and even their views towards being women, mothers and daughters-in-law.
This work has two dimensions: aesthetic consideration towards a new presentation of fabric art as well as social involvement with a women’s group.
This project, working with a women’s group, was entitled the ‘Wan Bu Studio’ and was produced by the woman director Jian Wei-Shin. The film recorded a group of women mainly living in the Taipei metropolis and how they shared
shown as a celebration of the Taipei Awakening Association’s ten-year anniversary and was then used in Wu’s Spiritual Quilt.
The words, ‘Wan Bu’39 are composed of two separate words: Wan (play; to The definition of the quilt is that ‘the work must possess the basic structural characteristics of a quilt. It must be predominantly fabric or fabric-like material and must be composed of at least two full and distinct layers, which are a face layer and a backing layer. These two layers are held together by hand, machine-made functional quilting stitches or other elements that pierce all layers and are distributed throughout the surface of the work’. See Quilt National.
www.quiltnational.com, consulted on 2 February 2005.
This piece of work was originally created for a group exhibition held in the Taipei Contemporary Museum in 2001.
Here, the words, Wan Bu, are spelt according to the PinYin system.
M. Turner, © 2008 entertain oneself; have fun) and Bu (cloth; fabric; textiles); therefore, the term refers to ‘having fun with cloth’, which signifies a playful experience, a free spirit and a new relationship (different from traditional understanding) between women and fabric. In Women’s Experiences of Lives and Their Dialogues
with Fabric, Wu Mali writes about ‘Wan Bu’:
It [the Wan Bu Studio] could be described as a creation of the Taipei Awakening Association. It provided women with a special and private space by collecting women artists, fabric arts and community organisers through the interface ‘Wan Bu’. ‘Wan Bu Studio’ was performed by organising talks, studios, solo/group creation and exhibitions. Although its original theme was to cherish the unwanted stuff (cloth) from the community, how women help each other and share their emotions became the core concepts of Wan Bu Studio.40 The Wan Bu Studio was initiated by Shiu Heng-Shu, a member of the Taiwan Awakening Association and wife of a fabric businessman in YungLe market;
the members of the Association are mainly housewives.41 Shiu collected a great amount of unwanted cloth from many fabric shops and managed to transform the material into artistic works. Wu Mali gave this piece of work the title Spiritual Quilt and for her, each quilt represents a story from each woman’s life.42 According to Gretchen Giles, ‘the very nature of the quilt as an object brings up comforting, domestic images. Quilts are used to comfort, to ensure succour against cold nights. They are crafted to warm a baby, to embrace a
M. Turner, © 2008 Wu, envisions the comfort and the warmth from a quilt through the touch between our skins and the fabric. Wu interprets the quilt as the skin which covers our body and protects it from the dirt and germs in the atmosphere.
Wu Mali inspired the women in the studio to create art by making their modern quilts, which are traditionally viewed as domestic objects.
The process was very moving because you were exposed to everyone’s story of life. For example, the quilt made by YanLin looked very clean and pure, but it was decorated with many dry leaves. It revealed a statement of death.44 During the project at the Wan Bu Studio, the women had an opportunity to reveal their emotions and feelings by creating their own quilts, which reflected their lives and roles as housewives. By exhibiting their works in the public spaces when the project was finished, they shared their life experiences with the public and then received more mental support from other women, and even from men. Their lives are not just limited to the kitchen or the living room; on the contrary, they started to communicate with the wider society by the interaction between their works and the audiences. These women, mainly housewives, found the confidence which had been lost when they were over-occupied with domestic work. The self-awakening of these women has been very significant in Taiwanese society as it revealed that even ordinary women had the chance to express themselves. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s when Taiwan started to become democratic, it was mainly those in the upper layers of the social structure (who were born in the 1950s and 1960s) www.metroactive.com/papers/sonoma/03.24.04/womans-work-0413.html, consulted on 31 Oct 2004.
From the dialogue of Wu Mali in the film by Jian Wei-Shin.
M. Turner, © 2008 directed women’s movements. However, through this project women from all kinds of classes and backgrounds were encouraged to reconsider themselves, which helped Taiwanese women to develop a consciousness of the self.
Thus, through this project, the curator’s intention to broaden the concepts of ‘micro space’ was conducted.
Wu Mali’s earlier artworks address the relationship between women, the concepts of nation and the working class, for example, in the works Epitaph (1997) and Stories of Women from Sinjhuang (1997). Her works reflect the history of Taiwanese women but they are only from her personal perspective as an educated middle-class woman, rather than for Taiwanese women in general. This project has allowed Taiwanese women to become the subject and to tell their own stories, with the support of Wu who directed and harnessed the strength of the women in the community.