THE THIRD ISSUE OF FIHRM-AP-With Songs and Contemporary Arts, Unaccounted Travelogue Weaves Together the Stories of Laborers
Author profile - Huatzu Chan, Li-Chen Loh
Huatzu Chan holds a Ph.D. in Arts Management and Cultural Policy from National Taiwan University of Arts. Huatzu is currently the deputy head of the Research Division in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei. Her former positions include the secretary general of the Association of the Visual Arts in Taiwan (AVAT) and the executive director of the Digital Art Center, Taipei.
Li-Chen Loh specializes in contemporary art and new media art studies and creation, art creation and criticism, art education, and digital marketing and trend studies. She is on a temporary transfer from the Department of Public Relations and Advertising, Shih Hsin University to serve as the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei.
About the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei
Founded in 2001, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei is the first art museum in Taiwan dedicated to contemporary arts. The museum further explores contemporary visual culture and society through a wide range of exhibitions and activities.
Today, the discussion of contemporary arts cannot exist independently outside of society. By encountering the ideas put forward by art works and reading the messages conveyed, the public are given the opportunity to freely start dialogues and exchange views. As an actor of socially engaged practice, the art museum aims to move the audience to reflection through their exhibition visits. By taking home with them the new ideas, they can take potential actions and make changes in the future. This is the power of contemporary arts which cannot be ignored.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei seeks to create space for discussion on contemporary social issues
Driven by this philosophy, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (MoCA Taipei) in recent years has mindfully incorporated a wide range of human rights issues in its curatorial practice. For example, in 2017, the Judicial Yuan's constitutional interpretation ruled that the failure of the current Civil Code to protect the freedom and equal rights of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and ordered that the legislature to complete relevant regulatory amendments or formulation of a special law to protect the right to same-sex marriage. This move made Taiwan the first country in Asia which legalized same-sex marriage. In the meanwhile, MoCA Taipei launched Spectrosynthesis - Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now by independent curator Sean C. S. Hu. As the very first large scale exhibition on LGBTQI+ issues organized by an art museum operated by the state in Taiwan, the significance cannot be more self-evident. Installed on the plaza before MoCA Taipei was a work called Rainbow in the Darkness by artist Chih-Wei Chuang. Viewers could leave messages revealing their darkest secrets and protest against injustice in silent screams. These were juxtaposed with many praises and good wishes, making them heard to the public. This giant closet rattled loudly with all kinds of voices and a powerful rainbow shined through. The exhibition further toured to places like Bangkok and Hongkong and continued to manifest the power of contemporary arts in action when it engages with social issues.
Pictures documenting Rainbow in the Darkness on exhibition. (Photo credit:Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei)
The core issues which MoCA Taipei has been following closely in recent years include indigenous peoples, migrant workers and new immigrants. Specific actions include curating dedicated exhibitions, organizing educational talks for the exhibition Perforated City, a program of multilingual guided tours in collaboration with the Central Broadcasting Station (CBS), and a podcast program which initiates dialogues on topics like migration, borders and labour. What's more, BLEED (Biennial Live Event in the Everyday Digital), a Taiwan-Australia collaborative project about to take place by the end of August this year, also will introduce into its exhibition and performance the discussion of important human rights issues which Taiwanese people should not avert their gaze from.
MoCA Taipei in recent years has been actively promoting multilingual guided tours. (Photo credit:Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei)
Unaccounted Travelogue mapped out the routes of Thai migrant workers in Taiwan
More than two years of field research and interviews by an international team formed the foundation of this exhibition. It all started in 2015 when Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok, Thailand launched Joyful Kaen, Joyful Dance, an exhibition which brought together a team of people who cared and were dedicated to the rights of minority groups over the years. The team included Gridthiya Gaweewong, the artistic director of the Jim Thompson Art Center, Thanom Chapakdee, a seasoned art critic, Arthit Mulsarn, a Molam researcher, as well as Taiwanese curator and co-curators like Shefong Chung, Chang Cheng and Yunchan Liao. Curator Shefong Chung has always focused on the research of artistic works and performances by various ethnic groups. With Trees Music & Art, a music label, she has organized Migration Music Festival, an independent music festival known for featuring folk music, roots music and contemporary issues around the globe for two decades. The festival showcases the uniqueness and charm of diverse cultures by presenting a wide range of folk music and songs. The two co-curators, Cheng Chang and Yunchan Liao, have been veteran observers of the reality of Southeast Asian immigrants and migrant workers in Taiwan. They have taken part in the work of 4-Way Voice, a publication featuring articles written in six languages, including Vietnamese, Thai, Bahasa Indonesian, Tagalog, Khmer and Burmese. They also founded the Brilliant Time Bookstore, initiated the Hometown Grandma Project and established the Taiwan Literature Awards for Migrants. Adopting a cultural approach, these initiatives invited members of the public to take part in social actions, introducing human rights issues to everyday life in a sophisticated way.
Unaccounted Travelogue is an exhibition which systematically combed through the idiosyncratic cultural essence and expression of the Isan region, Thailand. Taking Molan, a traditional form of folk music of local Isan, as the compass, an unofficial narrative as opposed to mainstream Thai culture, unfolded in the exhibition. Molam is deemed by the people of Isam as the expression of their souls and the evolution of its format also reflects the rise and fall of different regimes before and after the cold war. Coincidentally, afforestation squad's songs (lingbange), a folk music form emerged among the indigenous laborers during the Japanese colonization period, also reflected a collective journey of an entire community leaving homeland for better economic opportunities. In their singing, indigenous workers expressed their yearning for home, desire for love and struggles against reality. And these songs also bear witness to the blood, sweat, and tears gone into their fight for civil rights and traditional territory. With a sharp professional instinct for ethnic music, curator Shefong Chung identified two cultural trajectories and the development of Molam and afforestation squad's songs, in Unaccounted Travelogue as a way to show how the two courses of rapid change and development of Taiwan and Thailand mirror each other.
On the other hand, the "Not Here for Fun" section organized by Cheng Chang and Yunchan Liao traced the footprints of Southeast Asian migrant workers over the course of three decades in Taiwan. This section displayed the narratives from texts published in 4-Way Voice, the singing show Singing in Taiwan and the stark accounts and video footage by runaway migrant workers crying out against their fate. In the gallery room, the visitor would also find a replica of The Library on the Floor and a collection of the works from the Taiwan Literature Awards for Migrants. Also, the book lending service of The Library on the Floor, previously discontinued due to the pandemic, was also revived on the weekends here in the exhibition. Given the geographic proximity between MoCA Taipei and Taipei Main Station, director Li-Chen Loh has been thinking about reaching out to migrant workers who usually hang out at Taipei Main Station on weekends and holidays and inviting them to the gallery rooms of MoCA Taipei after she took office, as a part of the museum's efforts of promoting cultural equity. The museum started its collaboration with CBS in 2021. CBS anchors are enlisted to give guided tours to visitors of different ethnicities. So far there have been tours given in various languages like Bahasa Indonesia, Thai, Japanese, and Korean as a way to gradually expand the scope of interaction between MoCA Taipei and audiences of diverse backgrounds. Visitors who were migrants were also invited to leave a message in their own native language in exchange for free entry to the exhibition. MoCA Taipei strived to realize cultural equality in its own museum practice through different strategies such as working in tandem with media, offering multilingual services, building cross-industry alliances, and granting free entry.
A guided tour in Bahasa Indonesia of Unaccounted Travelogue (Photo credit:Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei)
In addition, Shefong Chung also worked with three Thai co-curators on the gallery room entitled "True Love Can Wait Forever". Three years is the length of the employment contracts signed by those migrant workers coming to Taiwan for one single term. It is also a period of time that carries the weight of migrant workers hoping to reinvent themselves for a better future. Eleven artists/art groups from Taiwan and Thailand responded to the curatorial theme with a wide range of artistic formats like visual works, videos and soundscape installations. Following the path paved by the intertwined singing and dancing of Molam and afforestation squad's songs, the stories slowly unfolded, describing the predicament of blue-collar workers from minority background sandwiched by the political and economic development of both Taiwan and Thailand as well as their struggles and loss dismissed by nationalism.
The gallery rooms of Unaccounted Travelogue exhibited materials like audio and video recordings and historical documents of Molam. Photo courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei Photography: ANPIS FOTO Shibang Wang
The unyielding spirit of resistance
History has shown us that the fight for equality has always been a thorny path full of struggles and challenges. From the preliminary curatorial meeting, the team weighed whether to include the work by Molam Bank (artist's alias) and the decision was explored from multiple angles. Over the years, Molam Bank has been good at sounding the resistance voice of people in the low stratum against the government and criticism against the royal family. The artist has been in and out of jail multiple times since 2015. Long confinement in the harsh prison environment and the experience of untold cruelty has rendered the artist mentally and physically unstable. However, through the joint effort of the curatorial team, consensus with the artist was reached and the sound of resistance banned by the government of Thailand from the public finally traveled overseas to Taiwan for the exhibition, allowing the harsh reality of these minority groups to come to the attention of a wider audience.
Exhibitions curated by MoCA Taipei frequently trigger dates on all sides. In 2020, MoCA Taipei invited Non-Freedom of Expression Exhibition by Japanese curators Arai, Hiroyuki and Okamoto, Yuka to Taiwan. When put on at the 2019 Aichi Triennale, the exhibition stoked fierce controversy. The exhibition was shut down in a haste three days after its opening and reopened a week before the closing of the Triennale. The exhibition toured to Jeju 4·3 Peace Park, Jeju Island, Korea and Taiwan after the pandemonium. After the announcement about the exhibition was made, the backlash arrived in MoCA Taipei through social media, warning that this move would jeopardize amicable Japan–Taiwan relations and demanding an immediate halt of the project. Many different parties also expressed their concerns and the museum was asked to carefully consider whether it should host the exhibition. Taking the stance to uphold freedom of expression and retain a space of diverse expressions for contemporary art, the museum communicated with all parties and the exhibition eventually opened.
For the preliminary preparatory stage of Unaccounted Travelogue, the museum and the curatorial team also repeatedly evaluated and discussed several works which might arouse considerable public concerns. These experiences reflect the role of a city museum as the vessel of exhibition. How to be inclusive and guarantee the freedom of expression challenges the wisdom of those involved in the practice.
A progressive society needs different voices. We believe that dialogue and consensus would gradually emerge from ongoing conflicts, communication and reconciliation. During the exhibition, we received the unfortunate news of the death of Thanom, one of the Thai co-curators. Thanom always stayed by the side of the powerless during his lifetime. His immense courage and faith supported his fearless and stubborn resistance against the repression and crackdown by the oppressors. We believe he had already planted deeply the seeds of such powerful and precious faith in people before his departure. With the exhibition of Unaccounted Travelogue, MoCA Taipei, as an art museum, showcased the museum's engagement in social action and the ripples of its actions. The trumpets for revolution will continue to blare, calling for more like-minded souls to take up the mantle.