Some Possibilities to Engage in Social Issues with Art Intervention—On Li-Hui Huang’s Works

by Chen Wei-Chien

I.

Many people have been discussing the relation and distance between art and society. The validity of this question relies upon the prerequisite of "art for art's sake." Naturally, this prerequisite should be understood in the context of art history; however, the fact that this prerequisite has become a point of contention shows that it has various aspects that are worthy of more discussion. Meanwhile, these contentions also involve issues of boundary, such as the evaluation and criteria of artistic creation and social conscience. Perhaps, we can discuss them by looking within the context of artistic creation. In this article, I attempt to explore some possibilities to engage in social issues with art intervention by examining the performance and installation series, Reversi, created by artist Li-Hui Huang in recent years.

Before applying the Reversi series to the discussion of engaging in issue with art intervention, we should first look at how this issue came to be. Prior to the concept of "art for art's sake," art existed to mainly serve religion or politics; therefore, such an issue did not exist at that time. The slogan of "art for art's sake" was first voiced in the nineteenth century. On the other hand, we should also examine the topic of "symbol" in visual art. Before the nineteenth century when art was predominantly in the service of religion and politics, symbols were largely used to construct various types of narrative. Moreover, based on the concept of stylistic analysis employed in the study of art history, we can also see that gaining control over the interpretation of "symbols" has also brought about stylistic changes. For example, Renaissance humanism had taken over the interpretation of religious symbols with its interpretation from a humanistic perspective. In the past, it had been forbidden to create the image of God, but Michelangelo had defied this religious convention and painted a vivid image of God in his depiction of the Book of Genesis on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel.

After the emergence of the middle class in the nineteenth century, this contention about the control over interpretation changed its course. To overthrow the manipulation of symbol by religion, aristocracy, and nationalism that had prevailed in art, artists moved onto the study of forms. The most obvious example would be that many painting schools after Impressionism had removed symbols through various approaches while solely pursuing the meaning of form per se. However, humanity has been using symbols to communicate and tell stories for thousands of years. As artists were advocating the removal of symbols, the so-called "modern art" had gradually evolved into a pursuit of aesthetic conception. Nevertheless, after Marcel Duchamp's appropriation of the readymades, symbols in art could be interpreted in a contemporary sense, which was the emancipation of interpretation; and it is one of the characteristics that allows us to identify contemporary art.

From this brief review, "to engage in social issues with art intervention" reveals humanity's attempt to create more possibilities for connection and contemporary interpretation in addition to pursuing formal beauty in art. What questions would we encounter in this attempt, then? We shall first examine two common approaches of making connection. The first one is a rather traditional approach, called "representation," meaning that artists would use their creations to communicate issues with more people. This approach that established painting's position as the witness was already challenged and destabilized upon the invention of photography, which also pushed painting further towards the study of form at that time. Therefore, the approach of "representation" in this era has become more complex. Representation is no longer simple documentation. Instead, it involves artists' self-reflection in a role similar to the "informant" in the field of anthropology or their legitimation of issues in a site of art, of which the latter would be the second common approach.

The so-called legitimation of an issue means to invite people involved in the issue to make their voices heard in an artistic site while artists or curators act as partners that provide technical or theoretical support. The controversy over this approach is whether the work by these involved people can be considered art. Is it necessary to give it affirmation in an artistic site? Many supporters uphold the idea that "life is art, art is life" when discussing this issue, which might be a valid point in the field of art. However, to engage in issues with art intervention entails engagement with other fields. So, we must be realistic and ask: why pouring resources into art if everything is considered art in the contemporary Taiwan, where resources are scarce and limited?

Herein lies the dilemma of engaging in issues with art intervention. Even though artists only aim to represent an issue, they cannot run away from existing criteria and ethical examination involved in the issue. After all, the act of seeing is itself a manifestation of power. Furthermore, artists hold absolute control over interpretation in terms of the display of artworks. If they relinquish this control, we might end up with nothing but an empty space created in the name of art. On the surface, this approach seems to expand the boundary of art, but it might cost us the possibility to face reality. In view of this dilemma, contemporary artists have shown us another possibility, which is to construct scenarios, in which audience can face and perceive the reality with their own body and make their own choices.

This approach of constructing scenarios has been adopted by many artists. However, in Huang's Reversi series, the artist not only represented the scenarios by using space and readymades, but also incorporated the concept of game to reinforce audience's perception and awareness. Therefore, space played a part in bodily perception whereas readymades functioned as symbols to facilitate understanding, and rules of game created character identification and thinking for the audience. To put it in simpler words, it was "to represent site with space, and to represent scenario with game." This showed that the field of art offers more possibilities than other fields when engaging in social issues. For this reason, this series of works is worthy of a further investigation from the angle of engaging in issues with art intervention.

II.

Huang's Reversi series was shown for the first time in Reversi—Li Hui Huang’s Solo Exhibition at Black and White Gallery in Taichung in April 2016. In October of the same year, Reversi was on view almost in an identical form in the 2016 Street Fun, Fun Street Community Art Festival curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Taipei. In both exhibitions, this art piece revealed a combination of performance and installation. Huang's Happy Paradise exhibited in the 2016 Taipei Biennial, which adopted a similar form, could also be viewed as a work derived from Reversi.    In Reversi—Li Hui Huang’s Solo Exhibition at Black and White Gallery in Taichung, a large Reversi board and game disks were placed at the center of the gallery space. The four edges of the board were written with names of the roads demarcating Zhongxin Market, which housed Black and White Gallery. The artist invited tourists as well as Zhongxin Market residents and shopkeepers to be the two sides of players in the board game and respectively use the light and dark disks. Each participant could only make one move every day. A mark indicating the direction of north that was hand-drawn with a pencil could be seen in the middle of the empty floor space in front of the board, and a light that rotated with time was hanging from above. Every tourist entered the space at an allotted time, and the artist would mark his or her silhouette with black, thin tape on the wall. As for the local people, the artist used starch paste to create their figures according to the relative position between their homes and the art gallery. Meanwhile, tourists would leave the time of visit by their silhouette, and the locals would write down how long they have lived in Zhongxi Market.    Judging from the space and the installation, we could tell that the Reversi board epitomized the entire space of Zhongxin Market. In addition, the silhouettes of the locals on the wall, with their rough texture created with smeared starch glue, also conveyed a sense of history, implying that the locals have lived there for a longer time. In contrast, the tourists' empty figures outlined with thin tape hinted at the transiency of their stay. However, the disparity in the numbers of the two groups created a visual effect that the they were in a neck and neck situation; and this feeling became stronger as the exhibition progressed. Furthermore, it was a very accurate choice to discuss the issue of urban renewal concerning Zhongxin Market with a board game.

Zhongxin Market is a deserted market in an area of high-priced housing in Taichung. The residents there have been wrestling with construction companies regarding the issue of urban renewal. As a matter of fact, old and deserted Zhongxin Market has always been a rather eyesore to the people living in expensive apartments and mansions around the area. Even citizens of Taichung City also consider the dilapidated market to be out of tune with this whole area despite the market's transformation through the intervention of art and creative culture. Therefore, the assessment of this time-worn and derelict market and the plan for its future have become a point of continuous contention.

More interestingly, when the artist designed this game, tourists and locals were not necessarily opponents. Although the players from opposing sides in the board game might uphold different values, tourists could also betray their side and assist the other side to gain an advantage and win the game by assessing the situation of the game themselves. What made this game legitimate and effective was that although each member of the participating audience might be assigned with a role pertaining to the rules of the game, he or she could still make an independent choice in the game and exercise an influence according to individual values and judgement. However, no one could have the absolute advantage and determine the outcome of the game with just one move. The artist did not simply provide the audience a symbolic role; every participant had to face his or her own values in this scenario and exercise an individual influence in the situation. In truth, this design has already come close to the situation of contemporary democracy.

In terms of "symbol" that we have discussed earlier, the game of Reversi set up by the artist onsite was indeed a symbol. However, as the artist created a situation through the game's rules, her values were not revealed. There were no restrictions and punishments regarding the stance of each participant. It meant that the participants could turn on their own team and influence the game without being exposed. The artist only represented the situation so that every participant could have a chance to consider and face all kinds of possibilities, which allowed everything symbolized by this board game to be re-interpreted in a contemporary way. It even enabled everyone to interpret his or her own situation and standard of judgement in the game. Moreover, participants could feel a sense of ease as they "played" because it was, after all, a game. In the name of "art," audiences, who might have been reluctant to express their minds or feeling distant and unfamiliar with the issues, were also given a chance to engage in the issues and reflect upon them from a different perspective.

Comparing to Reversi—Li Hui Huang’s Solo Exhibition at Black and White Gallery in Taichung in April 2016 and the version of Reversi on view in MOCA Taipei's Street Fun, Fun Street Community Art Festival in October, Happy Paradise exhibited in the 2016 Taipei Biennial in September of the same year offered an intriguing contrast. Unlike the solo exhibition in Taichung, the other two exhibitions were group exhibitions. At MOCA Taipei, Reversi was shown in a metal-sheet hut on the museum's plaza, and Happy Paradise was displayed on the right-hand side of the hall of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) in the Taipei Biennial. Both spots were rather prominent and eye-catching. The version of Reversi shown at MOCA Taipei was similar to the one displayed in Taichung; however, the version on view in the Taipei Biennial only retained a certain part of the concept and form from the previous version. What difference did it create, then?

The biggest difference between Happy Paradise and Reversi was the removal of the board game, and their similarity was that both art pieces still emphasized on the connection between the artworks and the time and space of their localities. In Happy Paradise, the artist installed three historic images that were associated with the TFAM's urban location on the French windows of the museum's hall; the images were Prince Hirohito's procession along the Imperial Messenger Road, Eisenhower waving to the crowds, and the relocation of Taipei Zoo. Digits on the images indicated the temporal distance between the events and the TFAM in 2016, whereas other related events/remnants were annotated on the lobby floor in a corresponding spatiotemporal map. Happy Paradise adopted a similar method to Reversi, which was audience's silhouettes marked on the French windows. However, in this work, the silhouettes were covered with silicone. The artist also invited audiences to place personal items in the silicone, which was peeled off after it dried up. The silicone flakes were then piled as a human figure that had layers resembling geological strata. Finally, the theme song for the zoo's relocation, "Happy Paradise," could be heard in the space.

In comparison with Reversi, the artist removed the board game from Happy Paradise but more strongly emphasized on the historical traces created on the walls. One of the reasons for this alteration was that the issue of urban renewal, such as that of Zhongxin Market, did not exist in government-owned places, such as the TFAM. Furthermore, when Reversi was shown at MOCA Taipei, the work functioned as a public space that visualized the fight between the government and the private sector in the old neighborhood. In the TFAM, which was a public space, the artist aimed to address citizens' collective memory; and she was indeed able to form an adequate and captivating situation through correlations between the miscellaneous personal items in the human-shaped silicone figure and the collective memories displayed on the French windows. Nevertheless, unlike Reversi that allowed participants to make individual choices, audiences were passively transformed into a stratum in the silicone figure in Happy Paradise, and left a slightly recognizable personal clue in the pile at best. Of course, this symbolized the insignificant resistance a citizen could perform in an urban plan orchestrated by the public sector. However, in this piece, everything remained only symbolic.

III.

Taking a closer look at Huang's works in the past, one can see that the key to her works have always been establishing scenarios and interacting with audience; and both have been quintessential to her works. We can see this in her Make Me High and More series, which have been exhibited five times since 2007; 15 Minutes of Marriage that has been exhibited twice since 2010; Asian Babe created during her study in Chicago; and See the Image, Forget Me Not that was created during an artist residency at Treasure Hill Artist Village. Chronologically speaking, Make Me High and More was probably her earliest exhibition of performance. This performance comprised of two parts in a wooden box. Audiences could control the vibrator inside the artist's body. Although the performance seemed alarming and shocking, the actual experience came near to the experience of making a confession to a priest. The underlying reason might be that, despite the extremely intimate atmosphere of the situation, the artist had placed the power to initiate the situation in the hands of the audience, subverting the approach of manipulating the interpretation of sex adopted by many other artists while relaxing the audience so that a dialogue could be created. 15 Minutes of Marriage followed a similar logic. The artist first created a wedding scenario in the exhibition (Live Ammo version), and then, invited visitors to marry the artist for fifteen minutes, which entailed a wedding ceremony and a customary celebration in bridal chamber. This shortened marriage ritual challenged the generally accepted sanctity of marriage. This was, of course, a privileged practice entitled by the artistic license; but it was precisely because the performance was conducted in an artistic site, the participants had felt secured enough to try this act of marriage; and it was the only way that the concept challenged by the artwork could be perceived by each participant.

After Huang returned to Taiwan in 2015, her works have shown continuation of Across the Universe from her Chicago period and the Reversi series while See the Image, Forget Me Not that was created during her residency at Treasure Hill Artist Village might reveal another origin of the Reversi series. In this exhibition, the most prominent part was when the artist drew and projected the images of tourists who were visiting the exhibition at the artist village and taking selfies. These images taken by the artist were related to the unique spatial quality of Treasure Hill Artist Village and revealed the history of Treasure Hill as well as its current state as an artist village. Similarly, the artist did not show any value judgement in this work. In the installation, she only re-created the space's past residents with chalk, simultaneously using human existence as a measurement of space and time and placing human existence in the scenario.

Huang has always characterized her work as performance; but comparing to traditional performance works that evolve around "events," Huang's performance works seem to lean towards "situations" more. The installations combined with her performances not only serve as a background of events to evoke audience's perception and shared experience, they also function as a basic design to assist audience in entering the game. The performance here does only simply refer to the artist's actions, it also includes the audience's participation, even the interaction between different participants, instead of the mere performance by the artist or the interaction between audience and artist.   In fact, the interaction between audience members might be an important route to connect them with the addressed topics in Huang's works. From the works mentioned above, we could see that the artist does not only pay attention to one single issue; instead, she cares about the condition of different people involved in an issue and its context prior to and after the discussion of said issue. An issue might be judged and evaluated in different ways, and every person has his or her own values. However, each person's situation might also be suppressed in the discussion of an issue. Therefore, Huang replaces the criteria employed to assess an issue with the rules of games, and represents a scenario that allows every audience member to face the issue in his or her own way. This approach might not be able to propel the progress of specific issues, but it might be helpful in terms of getting people to reflect on an issue and to empathize with an opposing stance.

This approach also offers another route for engaging in issues with art intervention. As the field of art functions as an important factor for contemporary society to explore the subject of boundary, the importance of engaging in issues with art intervention is not to make artists visible, but to create more room for discussing issues through the ability of exploring boundaries with art and the space it creates. It avoids the possibility of minimizing available options due to the urgency in the original field of an issue. In the meantime, if the field of art wishes to preserve its meaning and significance in contemporary society, when it intervenes into issues, it is important to retain the original artistic characteristics and avoid adopting straightforward representation or being reduced to a camouflage for legitimacy.