«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»
As has already been addressed in Chapter 1, identity has been a highly sensitive and popular issue in the spheres of politics, society and culture in Taiwan. Consequently, it is hardly coincidental that identity served as the subject of this first themed biennial. A metaphor from a traditional Chinese saying reads that when lacking a clear identity, people are like ‘an orchid without roots’. The saying is derived from the fact that a plant without roots is very weak, therefore, people without an identity are in a similar situation.
See Fine Arts Museum of Taipei, 1996 Taipei Biennial: The Quest for Identity, exhibition catalogue, 1998, preface, p 3.
M. Turner, © 2008 Without a definite identity or solid sovereignty of a nation, people are likely to adhere to whatever is in power or in fashion. For example, owing to Taiwan’s colonial history, there is no precise definition of ‘what Taiwan is’ but anything can be an influence on Taiwan. Kurt Brereton describes this situation by
Taiwan has no beginning and no end: Taiwan is made up of an endless and infinite series of conjunctions – comings and goings in between here and there, this and that, somewhere between China and Japan, East and West, tradition and innovation, modern and post-modern, dependence and independence. Such a state of passing involves a sense of disappearing, fading away or dying out.15 As Taiwan’s colonial history has contributed to this kind of social phenomenon, the strong influence of globalisation makes it more challenging for the Taiwanese to seek a sense of identity for themselves. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum, therefore, intended to search for something that was solid and applied to most Taiwanese, and it was apparent that identity was what the curator of each category was aiming for. It was not until the Taipei Fine Arts Museum started curating themed exhibitions in 1996 that an increase in the number of curators began to emerge who could arrange shows strategically to raise issues that made Taiwanese people re-consider their environment.
Sexuality & Power was the first official women’s exhibition in which the debate was explicitly about the body and power. Shieh thereby announced that there were many connections between feminism, power and the body in contemporary cultural discussion. The issues covered by the show include heterosexuality, homoeroticism, homosexual politics, body political aesthetics, Brereton, op cit, p 61.
M. Turner, © 2008 women’s politics, the body and power.16 From the curator’s introduction to this category in the Lion Art magazine, the main theme chosen to connect all of the works is ‘power’. He asserts that ‘power did not only refer to that from political systems but also referred to what was created from knowledge and language’.17 This concept is inspired by Michel Foucault’s theory about the relationship between Power and Knowledge. I propose here that for curators, exhibitions provide the audience with knowledge of curatorial concepts and the shows themselves become a form of power for the curators to engender ideology in society. The category Sexuality & Power suggests that power exists in the sphere of sexuality and for several feminist philosophies, power also has a strong link with feminism. In the following argument, I address feminist perspectives on the issue of power, before going on to discuss another term, body.
Power is often regarded as an essential concept in social and political theory, and some definitions of power should be outlined before I discuss it any further.
According to Amy Allen:
Some theories define power as getting someone else to do what you want them to do (power-over) whereas others define it more broadly as an ability or a capacity to act (power-to). Many very important analyses of power in political science, sociology, and philosophy presuppose the former definition of power (power-over).18 See Li, Yu-Lin (ed). 1996 Taipei Biennial: Identity of Taiwan’s Arts II, Taipei: Fine Arts Museum of Taipei, Exh. Cat.,1996, p 197.
Shieh, Tung-shan. ‘The Age of Finding Bodies: An Introduction of “Sexuality & Power”’, in Lion Art, No 306, 1996, p 77.
Allen, Amy. ‘Feminist Perspectives on Power’ in Edward N Zalta (ed). The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (Winter 2005 Edition).
http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2005/entries/feminist-power/, consulted on 19 April 2006.
M. Turner, © 2008 The basic power that everyone has is to be able to do something (power-to) but feminists tend to conceive of power as the state in which one has the capacity to impose one’s will on others (power-over). According to Allen, the main ways in which feminists have conceptualised power are: ‘as a resource to be (re)distributed, as domination, and as empowerment’. 19 For liberal feminists, power is conceptualised as the ability to distribute social resources among men and women, whilst others view power not as a resource or critical social good but instead as ‘a relation of domination’.20 Feminists have often used several terms to describe this kind of relation, including oppression, patriarchy, subjection and subaltern, all of which have frequently been used in my research. Under this definition, power is exercised in an unbalanced way between two groups and the ‘power-over’ is imposed on the one who is weaker and in a lower situation. As a result, domination is created in this kind of unfair relationship. Radical feminists criticise this kind of domination and think that the formula is usually one of male domination over women in the socially and culturally rooted environment. In the early 1990s, Taiwanese women tended to be radical feminists and women artists’ works were created to highlight the situation of imbalance in the sexual relationship between men and women. In Sexuality & Power, women artists’ works were designed to criticise male domination and to seek their gender identity, and indeed for Taiwanese women artists, their artistic creativity is a kind of empowerment for them to re-elucidate the dominant relationship with their counterparts - men. In Sexuality & Power, Shieh proposed two main topics from feminist discourses that would allow
M. Turner, © 2008 artists to debate and empower their works to have an influence on Taiwanese society. Sexuality and power, as a result, became elements that were clearly inseparable from one another. The body, being the major object under review according to the curator’s concepts, became the main theme for artists to express their views through visual art.
As ‘body’ is the factor that links all of the works together, it is essential to address it as a theme, an object, a subject and as a symbol for women artists, since the body has been one of the most significant topics of feminism since the late 1960s. The body was also the key object for Taiwanese women artists to use to articulate their feminist critique in the early and mid 1990s.
Some investigation of how the body is perceived and how other people have used ‘body’ in their arguments may help us to analyse women’s works in this category. Mary Douglas, an anthropologist, argues that ‘the body is a powerful symbolic form, a surface on which the central rules, hierarchies, and even metaphysical commitments of a culture are inscribed and thus reinforced through the concrete language of the body’.21 The body is central to what we eat, how we dress and the daily rituals with which we enact our lives.
Furthermore, I suggest that the body is also the interface by means of which our culture is presented: how we live and even what we look like. According to Charles Rosenberg, ‘the body was seen, metaphorically, as a system of dynamic interactions with its environment’.22 Our bodies need the warmth that is provided by clothes, air to breathe, water to drink and food to eat. They
Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London:
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 2002, p 3.
Charles E Rosenberg, ‘The Therapeutic Revolution: Medicine, Meaning and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America’ in Vogel, Morris J and Charles E Rosenberg (eds). The
Therapeutic Revolution: Essays in the Social History of American Medicine. Philadelphia:
University of Philadelphia Press, 1979, p 5.
M. Turner, © 2008 rely greatly on the natural environment as they require a specific climate in order to survive. Hence, in my view, the body symbolises what we are, but the physical differences between males and females and the different interactions they have with the environment have produced their own specific characteristics.
Being physically weaker than males, females have been taught to stay at home to raise children and do housework, whilst males have been taught to work (hunt) in society (nature).23 As a result, the body has been symbolised by different characteristics and different expectations determined by culture and nature. One example of a major difference between male and female is menstruation, a subject which several women artists have explored in their works.24 Furthermore, the body has been used as an object of pornography and the dominant point of view for such voyeurism is usually that of males looking at females. Erotica is, however, different from pornography. Audre Lorde states that ‘the erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power’.25 Many feminist women artists in Taiwan have often used erotica to criticise the social environment and men’s values towards women, such as Chou Wen-Li’s Visual Taste (2001) and Deng Wen-Jen’s Betel Nut (2003). The works they have created are powerful because they question the line drawn between erotica and pornography, as judged by the viewers. Their works also directly and Similar themes have been argued in Chapter 4 with the concepts of ‘nei’ and ‘wai’.
Some examples are Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1999) and Joyce Wieland’s Woman and Fox (1986).
Lorde, Audre, ‘Use of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power’ in Conboy, Katie, Nadia Medina and Sarah Stanbury (eds) Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, p 278.
M. Turner, © 2008 sharply criticise reality by focusing on subjects which might be considered as being taboo or scandalous. For example, Yen Ming-Hui’s works (which will be discussed in greater detail in the latter part of the chapter) often showed naked bodies to the public, although she argued that they constituted neither erotica nor pornography. Even though society criticised her for exposing naked bodies in public, which prompted debates regarding pornography, she argued that she used ‘essential bodies’ to address the basic nature of human beings.
Here, art became a sort of power for the artist that made people think, argue and respond. I therefore emphasise that body, as one of the most important subjects for art, creates a space for different voices and ways of thinking to interact, from which power emerges in the course of the unresolved arguments.
In Sexuality & Power, thirty artists were invited to participate in the show, of whom eight were women: Chien Fu-Yu, Lai Mei-Hua, Lee His, Lin Li-Hua, Lin Pey-Chwen, Shu Maggie Hsun-We, Tang Chiung-Sheng and Yen Ming-Hui.
The involvement of women artists’ in Sexuality & Power was the highest compared to the other categories in the exhibition. However, the percentage of women artists in this category is a highly distorted 26.6 percent. According to the number of women artists in the other categories, details of which are given in Table 2, it is evident that women artists’ involvement in the Taipei Biennial 1996 was very low, making up only ten percent of the total number of artists represented. The figure indicates that the artistic field in the mid 1990s was mainly dominated by men (all of the curators in each category are men!) and the category Sexuality & Power was the first exhibition that invited more women to participate in official exhibitions. The quest for gender identity is,
As has already been argued, this category was curated so as to respond to the themes of identity, gender and body under the influences of globalisation and urbanism. The women artists, taking part in this category, gave expression to the perspectives that they took on this social phenomenon by combining their modern input into traditional ideology. Most of the works in the category were two-dimensional and they were mainly oil paintings. At the beginning of the post-martial law era, the Taiwanese artistic field absorbed Western traditions of oil painting, for various reasons but chiefly in order to declare their independence from Chinese painting styles. Women artists invited to display in this category comprised the very few women who were active in exhibitions and their works proposed the radical ideology of challenging the patriarchal prejudices of Taiwanese society. In other words, the invited women artists in this exhibition were the very few who were active at that time, so the selection of the artists was different from the way in which curators have selected artists M. Turner, © 2008 for exhibitions since the late 1990s. In the following section, I shall firstly introduce the work of Chien Fu-Yu, a feminist photographer, before moving on to discuss the women painters.