Ecologizing Taiwan: Cities, Sounds and Supersensitivity

On October 13th, the Taiwan Studies Workshop ‘Ecologizing Taiwan: Nature, Society, Culture’ organised by Michelle Yeh and David Der-wei Wang took place at University of California, Davis. Inspired by Felix Guattari’s The Three Ecologies, the workshop sought to “extend the definition of ecology to encompass social relations and human subjectivity, as well as environmental concerns”.

Ten scholars from across the US and one from faraway Sweden (basking in the Californian sun and finding it a bit hard to focus on academic pursuits) presented their work on aspects of contemporary Taiwanese culture and history in relation to various interpretations of ecology.

I was happy to note that several presenters engaged with sensory aspects of film and fiction, something I myself find particularly interesting:

Ling Zhang from SUNY-Purchase shared her research on aural strategies in Chen Yingzhen’s novellas, including narrative voice, ambient sounds and collective singing.

Pao-Chen Tang from University of Chicago presented an analysis of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s film The Assassin from 2015, which focused partly on the animal qualities strived for in martial arts practice and partly on the autistic features of the film’s protagonist and how they enhance her professional prowess. However, it also touched on supersensitivity as a motif in hit man films as well as a stereotype in the representation of people with autism.

Under the title ‘Urban Ecologies: The Flora and Fauna of Fictional Taipei’, I presented my work on the role of plants as markers of place and ethnicity in Chu Tien-hsin’s 朱天心 ‘The old Capital’ 古都 together with the interspecies communities described in Wu Ming-yi’s 吳明益 short stories about Taipei.

My aim was to add an urban dimension to the flourishing discussion about ecoriticism in Taiwanese literature and to argue that the city presents not only a possible but an essential site for human engagement with the so-called ‘natural environment’. Furthermore, I think fictional narratives offer new and less discipline specific ways of engaging with human beings and their curious ant heap cities as part of, rather than anti-thesis to, nature and nature writing (自然写作).

All photos taken by me in Taipei, April 2017.

Ai Wei Wei’s ‘Trees’ and the dead beetles – not about China

A few weeks ago I visited Louisiana to check out Ai Wei Wei‘s exhibition there. Like many others I wasn’t that impressed.

One thing that caught my eye and interest, though, was the amount of dead beetles locked in the tree-roots of the ‘Rocks and Trees’-installation (2009-2010) (whether or not it was intended, I care not).

For how long had the beetles survived in the installation, their artificial art-home through airports, gallery basements, packing and unpacking. Are they Chinese beetles or picked up in some storage room along the way, and does that make a difference? (they’re dead all the same) And how on earth did they get through airport security?

The little black bodies, lying belly up at the foot of the dead tree trunks nailed together to form a tree-figure, lend the interpretation of the work an extra dimension. The trees are obviously constructed, made up of different parts forcefully put together to form an ideal structure. The artificiality of the structure however, renders the single parts or branches unable to survive. Even the inhabitants of such an artificial construction will not last long.

To read ‘Trees’ as an allegory for the Chinese society, forcefully holding together very different geographical and ethnological communities to form an ideal united nation, is tempting. But it might be more fruitful, and even relevant, to look at the dead trees as a more general critique of ideology.

Few of us can get completely away from a desire for order and consistency, in which trees look like trees, cultures are recognisable as cultures, and Chinese art is about China.

What I got out of seeing Ai Wei Wei’s dead trees (and not least the additional dead beetles) was a feeling that this kind of thought hygiene might be very unfit to accommodate, or even take into consideration, real life.