No Clear Pathway – Notes on an artist residency in Taiwan.
Here is a collection of notes, descriptions, thoughts, reflections, and links to others on the residency project; ‘Tree Tree Tree Person’ – a 6 week international residency in Taroko National Park, Taiwan, in which artists stayed within the homes of the Truku tribe and were asked to create new work inspired by the experience and place, for two gallery events elsewhere and one final event in the Taroko Mountain.
The sound is traffic, the smell is food and garbage.
The rains fall unforgiving and brings in the surrounding forest.
– Taipei, Notebook.
I went to Taiwan for an artist residency. I went because I wanted to put myself in a new place and I wanted to think about and be in the dark. During my 6 weeks staying in Taroko (The home of the Truku tribe) I did find myself in very new places and spent hours in the dark, both literally and metaphorically. I met a community of indigenous people with stories to tell me, which uncovered the historical and current trauma of this place. A place of rising and falling clouds and turquoise rivers, a place being farmed and worked hard upon, a place being stolen for tourism and excavated and sold for concrete. I also met a family who took me in with immense heart and kindness without much language or understanding who became my sisters, my mother and my father, our dogs. And I met a collection of artists, from different places with different ways of engaging, processing, reacting to place and people, but all together trying to consider how art can be made here. Here we all were on an international, site based, community engaged art residency….and we were all like, what the fuck are we going to do?
We sit out for the moonrise, for the weightless star.
The place is awash, black, blue, silver.
My moon shadow is long and the dogs are flat out.
– Taroko Mountain, Notebook.
Our time was split between the town (where the Truku tribe were resettled once forced to move from the mountain when it was turned into a National Park) and the mountain itself in the old villages of the Truku people where some people run guest houses. Whilst in the mountain I put my head and my experience into my chosen topic: the darkness. I will write a separate blog on this and link it here when it’s finished. Fed by the isolation and outstanding feeling of living somewhere in the sky – I could get some focus. This is my usual residency goal – some dedicated time and focus. But this residency was different – it was confronting…which was why it was so hard but also so interesting. Whilst in the town, I put questions to myself on my being there, the relevance of my work, is it possible to work with any of this new information, to respond to this place, does anyone want me to, should I? This thinking was triggered by many things but inspired by the group of artists formed through this residency, who were dedicated to honouring the true situation of this residency and what our presence means. For me some of the absolute central concerns of what it means to be an artist came up through this questioning – the role of art in society, the difference between aesthetic and purpose, the value of friendship, companionship, camaraderie, facilitated through event, the failure or pointlessness of art as social tool, the impossibility or poetry of translation, the artist as human – as friend, the artist as work – as information generator/communicator, the artist as present and interested – the impact of attention. None of this got answered, but it all got thrown up, tossed around and basically resulted in some depression, confusion and hearts wide open.
A meal cooked in the mountain: boiled eggs with bitter gourd cooked with garlic and chilli, courgette and carrot stirred fried in stock, greens cooked with rice vinegar, steamed chicken and fish, pork and bean soup.
– Taroko Mountain, Notebook.
Here is a note I made when trying to plan a performance for the end of the residency, a performance to be done in the mountain for a visiting group of tourists;
I am met with a feeling of responsibility in the opportunity to expose something or inform an audience about this place with the stronger want to say thank you, or goodbye, or make a gift, to the people and the place that have hosted and cared for me. These two tasks are complicated by other feelings of not being informed enough due to short time period and subjective nature of information, along with being an outsider and not committed or connected enough to this place in order to represent it, or its communities experiences, to others. It is impossible to make a clear pathway through this. But this is true all the time. We cannot make a clear pathway. The context of this place meeting the context of me will always be resistant and filthy.
On returning people have asked me questions…
WHAT DID YOU ACTUALLY MAKE? (most common question)
I made work about the dark. A topic I brought with me, a love I’d fostered the previous winter, on letting the dark season bloom, enjoying the qualities that darkness brings, investing in developing night vision, developing a distaste for torches and the bent will of humans to light everything. I brought this with me, but I also brought with me an intense grief that folded itself into this subject. I found relief in the dark, there was a lot to place in the dark, I wanted to be outside of life, I stood in the dark to look back on it, its light spilling to the edges of my feet. From this I made a small one-on-one performance for pitch black room, some writing and a 4am walk in the city of Tainan. I also made a fire in the mountain, for the end of residency programme, I made a fire with my friend Ania for our friend and Truko host Simat…we made a fire because ‘Last night Simat told us how she wishes there were more people living on the mountain, so that everybody could gather around the bonfire at the end of the day and talk about what they have done. So this is what we do’.
What did they think of the work? They – the indigenous people who hosted us, the community we met. Well they weren’t really there for the work. We presented in galleries in others cities, far away from them. Then we showed some work in the mountain, but they were working – cooking the meals. For me, I feel like our relationship to them had little to do with the artwork we were making, it seemed much more important to them that we were just there, interested, caring, understanding. Leaving was hard, we cried and they cried…but I feel like there was little said about any ‘work’.
Do you think what you did in the mountain succeeded? I think that the situation we were invited into was flawed, and that we dealt with it with intelligence and spirit. In a way no, there was no success – success is weird and unmeasurable. There is no success there, there is surviving. But we did get our heads together as a group of artists and decide on an agenda for the final showing, that pointed the invited tourists towards the Truku people in resistance to using the site as an aesthetic of nature, because if we had done so this would have been a major disrespect to the people and the true nature of the place.
WHAT ARE YOU LEFT WITH? A determination and interest to develop a form of working that is inclusive and much more open in aesthetic, and responsive to collaborations with community. I want to figure out of a community practice and how my profession as artist manifests in this position.
A love for Taiwan. A heartstring to Taroko.
‘What we’ve found is a town divided’ –https://www.facebook.com/sheafandbarley/posts/1168941376544611 – Sheaf+Barley (other participating artists) post, an excellent description of the historical and contemporary situation of Taroko National Park and the Truku people very well.
‘I start with the place I come from’ – https://charlie49613017.wixsite.com/artist-home-swap/single-post/2017/11/06/Artist-Home-Swap-2017-ethical-and-ethnic-gaze-how-art-making-process-take-part – Howl Yuan’s (organiser of Artist Home Swap, that brought us to Taiwan) blog, explaining the context of the residency and his reflections and learning.
‘We show solidarity by being there as human beings’ – https://www.facebook.com/dorothywongg2/posts/10155834662460746 – Article from other participating Artist, Ben Ryser, on behalf of collective Island, including Dorothy Wong and Eva Lin. Brilliantly describing the questions we faced as artists and the relationships we made with the Truku people.
Ania Varez (Participating Artist), Simat and Myself