(Many thanks to Said for an interesting follow-up to my post on memes and Fallen, as well as to Janet for referencing the same post in a recent carnival. The underlying concern of that post--namely, the invisible bonds of virtual contagion which link us together--is developed further in the following discussion of three Chinese works (from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora in the US) which each revolve around two individuals who are quite literally bound to each other).
On July 4th 1983 (Independence Day), Hsieh Tehching and fellow performance artist Linda Montano tied themselves together with an eight foot long rope, and vowed to remain tethered together in this way, 24 hours a day, for the next 12 months. While they had previously been sexually involved (see 萧元’s 2002 book, 《做壹年》Steven Shaviro, in the introduction to the DVD Tehching Hsieh: One Year Performance Art Documents 1978: 1999 inaccurately claims that Montano and Hsieh had never met before they began the performance), they nevertheless vowed not to touch either sexually during the year of the performance.
This rather remarkable performance was one of several which the Taiwanese artist Hsieh performed in New York beginning in the late 1970s. In his first (begun in 1978), he locked himself in a room and vowed not to leave for a full year and, furthermore, not to speak to anyone, watch television, or even read during that time. In his next project (begun in 1980), he vowed to punch in on a time clock every hour, on the hour (24 hours a day), for a full year. Hsieh’s next performance (begun in 1981) consisted of remaining outside for a full year (including a New York winter), never once entering a structure with any sort of roof (this is the only one of his performances which he failed to complete, on account of being arrested near the end of the performance). Following his 1983 “Rope” performance, his final year-long performance was the paradoxical commitment not to “do art” (including talking about art, reading art, viewing art, etc.) for a full year. This was then followed by the multi-year (1986-1999) “performance” consisting of a commitment not to “make art” or to “show it publicly” until the end of the millennium.
While Hsieh’s other performances can be read as commenting on various facets of modern industrial society (e.g., the way in which a Fordist economy conditions our relationship to time), the tether performance is the one which comments most directly on Hsieh’s status as an Asian immigrant living in the US. In a direct inversion of the familiar trope of the immigrant suffering from culture shock leading to a fractured identity, here we have the immigrant quite literally tethered to his American alter-ego—with the concrete bond of the rope emblematizing the attraction/alienated relationship which Hsieh has, not only with his performance partner Linda Montano (who is herself the daughter of Italian and Irish immigrants), but also, more generally, with the American culture which she represents.
This image of two individuals voluntarily linked together is also the subject of a curiously perverse 1992 short story by Dung Kai Cheung 董启章 entitled “A story about two long-haired girls” (关于两个长头发的女孩子). Punctuated entirely in alternating bracketed paragraphs (conventionally used in Chinese to indicated embedded dialogue), the story shifts back and forth between the viewpoints of the two long-haired girls in the title, and their male interlocutor and observer. Curiously, though, the paragraph breaks demarcated by the brackets do not correspond at all with the alternation of the voices in the story. Instead, several successive bracketed paragraphs may be narrated in the same voice, while there is sometimes an alternation in voices (particularly between the two girls themselves) within the same bracketed paragraph. Like Dung’s 1991 story “Cecilia,” the narrative voice floats freely between the triangle of embedded subjects, each of whose sense of self is inextricably bound up with that of the others.
While “Cecilia” features an accountant’s infatuation with a display window mannequin, “A Story” describes a similarly fantastic-yet-plausible situation of two girls who, “beginning from I don’t know when, have always braided their hair together.” Though the male narrator does not know when they began this practice, he nevertheless recalls having once glimpsed them standing in the living room and kitchen, respectively, of their apartment, but notes that now that they have braided their hair together he will never again see them similarly separated. The reason for their decision to link themselves in this way is also left unexplained, though there are hints that it has to do with the nightmares one or both of the girls were having.
In an afterword, Dung explains that the story has its origins in a dance performance entitled “A Story of Some Women” (关于一些女人的故事), choreographed by Mei Zhuoyan (梅卓燕), after which he heard several debates concerning whether the performance was “too feminine” or, conversely, “not female enough.” It was, therefore, Dung explains, in order to explore this question of the perception and narration of femininity by a male observer/writer, that he decided to write this story with its fluidly shifting narrative perspectives, and its complete lack of anything resembling a plot.
While interesting, this explanation nevertheless does not fully explain why the story is specifically concerned with two girls who braid their hair together. One (possibly obvious) interpretation, however, is that these two girls represent China and Hong Kong, and that this 1992 story about their decision to physically tether themselves to each other constitutes an allegorical exploration of the impending 1997 return of Hong Kong to China.
If Hsieh’s and Montano’s performance can be read as an allegorical exploration of the process of immigrant acculturation and alienation, and if Dung’s short story a decade later can be seen as a reflection on Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty, a third work from a few years later develops this same theme of physically-linked individuals to give visual expression both to the political schisms which have arguably fractured Taiwan even since handover of the island to the KMT after the end of WWII.
The work in question is by contemporary Taiwanese visual artist Chen Chieh-jen 陳界仁 (1960--), who is best known for his practice of digitally modifying historical photographs, particularly by inserting versions of his own image. As he describes at one point (cited by Joyce Liu ),
I put these vague historical photographic images into computer, and enlarged them on a very large scale. On the screen these enlarged images seemed like the historical vestige scattered in the mist. Uncertain number of indistinct images, some vague faces, some pieces of dismembered bodies, some broken traces, with floating scents drifting in the mist. Who were they? When I intrude myself into the boundless space of image-specters, and tried to paint their faces according to my imagination, every stroke of my pen seemed to betray their original faces. These faces that I have painted seemed more like the masks, bearing the brand of my own face, the face of the Other. But, who is the real Other? As I painted the historical images, I also fused my body image and my body memories into the mist of images.
The resulting fluid shifting between observer and embedded subjectivities is strikingly reminiscent of the effect which Dung Kai Cheung claims he was attempting to achieve in “A Story.”
One of Chen’s best-known works is “A Picture of Rebellion 1947-1998” 內暴圖1947-1998》 (1998), which was initially presented as part of a commemorative exhibition on the anniversary of the infamous Feb. 28th Incident of 1947 (in which the arrest of a woman selling cigarettes without a license led to wide-spread protests an a subsequent military crackdown which ultimately resulted in the execution of tens of thousands of Taiwanese). Originally installed at then end of a hall with four white funeral tablets on the adjoining walls, and accompanied by muffled, whispering voices, this oversized image features a corpse holding a skull lying in the foreground, and three pairs of Siamese twins in the midground. Each twin is struggling with his pair, while simultaneously attempting to saw away at the flesh which binds them together. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of this image is the expression on the twins’ faces (which are adapted from Chen’s own self-portrait?), which appears to be one of exquisite agony and ecstasy, an excruciating sado-masochistic pleasure from cutting the flesh which is simultaneously Self and Other.
As Joyce Liu observes,
The exact Chinese title of this piece, Neibao tu 1947-1998 (Internal revolt 1947-1998), indicates that what Chen Chieh-jen intends to reveal in this work is the condition of internal schism and revolt, the split between the state apparatus and the people under Martial Law, between the KMT and the early settlers, as well as the perverse pleasure the state expressed in its power to control and exclude.
While “A Picture of Rebellion” explicitly engages with the 1947 massacre, and the political rift within Taiwanese politics which it helped to exacerbate, the end-date of the work’s subtitle (1947-1998) suggests another, parallel, reading of the work’s thematization of physically linked bodies. While Taiwanese politics continues to be internally rift in 1998, of much more immediate significance than the Feb. 28 Incident and the Nationalist martial law regime which followed, is the broader question of Taiwan’s relationship between the Chinese Mainland. Taiwan and China remain in an elaborately Kafkaesque geopolitical dance, in which both maintain the political fiction that they both represent “China.” Ironically, the increased informal contact and economic investment between Taiwan and China in recent years may, paradoxically, finally lead to a cleavage two sovereign states bound at the hip by encouraging a formal recognition of the de fact status quo. Or, conversely, it may lead to a cleavage in the opposite sense (“to cleave” being one of those wonderful words which contains its own antonym, potentially meaning either “to join,” or “to separate”), putting in process a sequence of events whereby Taiwan (like Hong Kong and Macao) is finally “returned” to Mainland China.
Originating from three different points within the Greater China sphere and the Chinese diaspora, each of these three works (a short story, a performance work, and a photographic/installation work) each these three works gives an unexpectedly literal resonance to the concept of the “body politic,” wherein physically linked bodies underscore the porous nature of the ties linking together ostensibly sovereign nation-states and the “flexible” citizens who inhabit them.