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Feature Story

Taiwan Pavilion at Venice Biennale opens with Shu Lea Cheang’s work

By Yali Chen
 
Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) selected Taiwan’s avant-garde artist Shu Lea Cheang as the sole exhibitor to represent Taiwan at the Venice Biennale in 2019. She has become the first woman artist to represent her country since TFAM began holding single-artist exhibitions at the Venice Biennale in 1995.
 
On May 9 this year, the Taiwan Pavilion at Palazzo delle Prigioni in Venice opened with Cheang’s new project “3x3x6.” In addition to the artist, Spanish curator Paul B Preciado; Lin Ping, Director of Taipei Fine Arts Museum; Celest Hsiao-ching Ting, Deputy Minister of Culture; Lee Sing-ying, Representative of the Taipei Representative Office in Italy; Taipei City Deputy Mayor Tsai Bing-kuen; and Tsai Tsung-hsiung, Commissioner of Taipei City’s Department of Cultural Affairs attended the opening ceremony of Taiwan Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale.
 
In her speech, Ting said that Cheang’s works offer sharp insights into often-neglected issues impacting modern society. Through prompting reflection on timely topics like technological surveillance, the exhibition demonstrates the vibrancy and openness of Taiwan’s art scene.

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Photo from TFAM
From left, Spanish curator Paul B Preciado; Lin Ping, Director of Taipei Fine Arts Museum; Taiwanese artist Shu Lea Cheang; Taipei City Deputy Mayor Tsai Bing-kuen; Celest Hsiao-ching Ting, Deputy Minister of Culture; Lee Sing-ying, Representative of the Taipei Representative Office in Italy; and Tsai Tsung-hsiung, Commissioner of Taipei City’s Department of Cultural Affairs at the opening ceremony of Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale on May 9.

Deputy Mayor Tsai Bing-kuen described the exhibit as “thrilling and down-to-earth” because it had reflected a hot topic in Taiwan and symbolized Taiwan’s open and diverse society.
 
TFAM Director Lin Ping said that Cheang was the first female artist to represent Taiwan in Venice, with the solo presentation curated by Spanish philosopher Paul B. Preciado. Her show touches on transgender, crime and punishment, as well as modern imprisonment and technological surveillance.
 
Preciado, a good friend of Cheang’s for many years, spent eight years doing sex reassignment surgery. He said that Cheang’s exhibition hopes to shatter the gender binary.

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Photo from TFAM
This rotating projection tower designed by Taiwan’s artist Shu Lea Cheang uses a 3D camera surveillance system to project the life-size images of ten historical and contemporary figures.

“I will not call Shu Lea the first ‘female’ artist to hold the solo exhibition in the Taiwan Pavilion,” Preciado said. “I think she is a ‘gender of the future’ at the forefront of a trend. I see her work as one of the most powerful creative and experimental tools to navigate this transition.”
 
The artist’s new multimedia project features images, installations and computer programming that integrate the past and present into the virtual and real worlds. Through digital technologies, she explores social issues such as transgenderism, sexual freedom, gender norms, and network monitoring in today’s society. Her creation has drawn international attention at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
 
The Taiwan Pavilion is located in the Palazzo delle Prigioni. It was an old Venetian prison from the 16th century until 1922 and across from the Palazzo Ducale. The legendary libertine writer Giacomo Casanova was imprisoned there in 1755. With the history of the setting in mind, Cheang created her work “3x3x6.”
 
It is an immersive installation with multiple interfaces that help the viewer to reflect on different technologies used for confinement and control, from physical incarceration to omnipresent surveillance systems in modern society.

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Photo from TFAM
Female performer Liz Rosenfeld acts as French philosopher-writer Marquis de Sade in the 3x3x6 Public Program, a presentation of Cheang’s project.

The artist said that her work represents a 9-square-meter prison cell constantly monitored by six cameras. It depicts people imprisoned for their gender, sexual, and racial nonconformity. It also questions how legal and visual regimes have shaped sexual and gender norms over time.
 
Taking Casanova’s story as her starting point, Cheang has conducted in-depth research on 10 historical and contemporary figures incarcerated due to gender and sexual dissent.
 
The other two historical figures include French philosopher-writers Marquis de Sade and Michel Foucault. As for the other seven cases, she chose global and contemporary figures from Taiwan, China, Germany, France, Zimbabwe, the U.S., Israel, and Mexico.
 
Throughout the research process, the artist consulted legal and scholarly advisors and followed newsfeeds. She then used these in-depth studies to develop ten fictional transpunk videos in sci-fi and abstract image format.
 
Ten actors play the roles of these 10 characters. But the avant-garde artist intentionally used people of the opposite sex and with races different from the original characters to shatter gender stereotypes.
 
She used, for example, a woman weighing more than 100 kilograms to portray Marquis de Sade, a thin male, and chose an Asian to portray a European.
 
Their fictionalized portraits become part of the exhibition. That’s why the title “3x3x6” symbolizes today’s standardized architecture of industrial imprisonment: the 3 x 3 square-meter cell constantly monitored by 6 cameras.

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Photo from TFAM
Taiwanese artist Shu Lea Cheang (left) with Spanish curator Paul B Preciado.

Combining physical space with surveillance devices, the project explores the new conditions of freedom and control within contemporary democratic societies. The installation invites viewers to imagine a society without prisons, a society beyond the epistemological prison of gender, sexual, and race categories.
 
Cheang also used the panopticon interface that she had created in “Brandon” (1998-99) as her starting point. The pioneering work “Brandon” was the first Internet art commissioned and collected by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
 
The artist transformed the exhibition space at the Palazzo delle Prigioni into a high-tech surveillance area around a rotating and inverted surveillance tower. Her panopticon functions as a newly developed 3D camera surveillance system to project the ten portraits simultaneously. The space is infused with virtual and real data collected from history and live interactions.
 
The exhibition space is divided into four galleries with interconnected narratives, taking viewers into the matrix of the prison-industrial complex and transpunk fictions.
 
In Gallery A, a tower structure embedded with ten projectors beams a mixture of morphing images. Computer algorithms mix three image sources for the installation projection, including images of individual viewers on-site (with their consent) and their selfies taken with a smartphone application.
 
Cheang installed a newly developed 3D camera surveillance system at the entrance of the exhibition. From the moment visitors enter the exhibition space, they get involved in the surveillance system. Their faces are scanned and their images later modified. One computer program then hacks these real images and reprograms them into transgender and cross-racial digital images that resist surveillance networks.
 
In Galleries B and C, ten films are played on a loop, with their audio accessible via mobile phones and wired headsets. At the end of the exhibition, visitors are directed into a control room where imagery and data converge. The work leads them into a maze of multiple narratives involving legal documents, fake news, historical reports, myths and fantasies and where the distance between the observer and the observed is radically questioned.

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Photo from TFAM
Taiwan’s artist Shu Lea Cheang’s solo exhibition in Taiwan Pavilion at the
Venice Biennale uses this rotating projection tower.
 
 
A cube structure in Gallery D will eventually expose the hardware and software behind the exhibition’s control mechanism. By revealing the mechanism behind her work, Cheang asks viewers to examine the distance between surveillance and desire. “When an individual experiences pleasure and voluntarily participates in observing another, are they not too being exposed to surveillance?”
 
“Cheang forces visitors to interrogate the distance between punishment and pleasure, surveillance and lust, between the system that is apparently watching us and us as actively participating and enjoying the act of surveillance,” curator Preciado said.
 
“‘3x3x6 explores the relationship between political punishment and sexual enjoyment, between modes of seeing and processes of subject production. Inverting the watchful eyes of our panoptic society to partake in an empowering collective vision, the exhibition aims to reinvent desire and pleasure beyond hegemonic norms,” he added.
 
“With this exhibition, we explore the possible strategies for resistance against highly controlled societies, the self-affirming dignity against repression, and the variable versions of self-granted pursuits for (un)happiness,” the artist said.
 
“3x3x6” deals with the themes of sex, gender, race, imprisonment and surveillance. People may wonder whether these themes and Cheang’s creation will be received in the European context. And is it significant for an Asian country like Taiwan to present this conversation on the world stage?
 
In the European context, we drew references from Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison,” and “The History of Sexuality,” as well as the exhibition curator Preciado’s own “Testo Junkie” and “Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics,” Cheang said.
 
In Asia, Taiwan is one of the leading countries that tolerate and celebrate the LGBTQ community, said Cheang. The artist gave credit to the Taipei-based museum for taking up such challenging topics by presenting her new creation.
 
The work “3x3x6” is on view in Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale through November 24, 2019. For more information, please visit https://www.taiwaninvenice.org/.