Taipei can be a beast in the day, a city roaring with the exhaust of a thousand scooters, the buzz of a thousand restaurants and street stalls, waves of pedestrians endlessly coming and going. For his solo outing at ShugoArts in Tokyo, artist Jun Yang chooses instead to focus instead on the night, when the city sleeps, recovering from one day and preparing for another.
The bulk of the gallery space is taken up by a theater designed by the artist as well as White Light (2009), a work composed of three shop signs from Taipei that have been stripped of the colorful stickers that give them their commercial identity. At the back of the gallery is the orange neon work Picture Postcard (2006), a skyline of Vienna with a gap where the artist’s former apartment building was torn down because it wasn’t part of the city’s “historical” appearance. Yang’s A Short-Story on Forgetting and Remembering, a video work narrated over as if it were a private essay in a diary, explores the creation of false memories and the acceptance of the fake in the place of the real. Yang hired an actor and a cinematographer to make the video, shot in grainy, atmospheric Super 16 film, but the artist himself plays narrator with a script partly drawn from reality and partly a fictional conceit. The true central character of the video, however, is the city of Taipei, which acts as a subject from which the artist can tease out his observations on implanting memories.
Yang points out that when the Kuomintang army withdrew to Taiwan and brought with them fifty thousand boxes full of China’s Imperial treasures, Taiwan’s cultural history went from four hundred years old to five thousand almost overnight. This additional layer of Mainland Chinese history acted like an implanted memory grafted on the island’s indigenous history. In a tender moment that illustrates this point, Yang films his actor flipping TV channels, past a Taiwanese beauty in a cosmetics ad to a Buddhist lecturer, and then to a clip from Blade Runner in which Harrison Ford explains that a “replicant” character’s memories are just implants, put there by her masters. The artist then cuts to a dramatically composed shot through the actor’s apartment window. The window frames a view of red and yellow Chinese character signs—a sight that could have been an inspiration for the Ridley Scott movie itself—and beyond that, a string of orange streetlights extending into the distance. As the camera remains there for an extended pause, one can feel the breeze blowing through the park at the side of the road.
Visually, the film slips between two modes: One is painterly, using Taipei’s ubiquitous neon signs to present abstract, dynamic images. The other is documentary, following the actor across rooftops and nearly empty buildings and sidewalks. The overall effect is impressionistic; Yang accurately captures both the emptiness and the periodic hustle of a Taipei night.
A Short-Story, companion piece to Paris Syndrome, is a video work in which actors wearing wigs and thick make-up are pictured in front of faux European building complexes in China. In both pieces, Yang acts as a poet of displacement, but in the latter, he does this with a light and sometimes-humorous touch that saves the work from drowning in itself. Discussing the temporary nature of even the monuments of the Mainland Chinese in Taiwan, Yang’s actor gets out of a taxi at Taipei’s Chiang Kai Shek Memorial, not to gaze at the towering structures, but to stop at a vending machine for a uniquely Taiwanese Sasparilla soda. With comedic moments like these, the film folds in on itself, circling around ideas of how people accept a mutable past and construct new selves to suit the ever-changing present. As Yang muses in the final moments, “Maybe they didn’t need the real wood… perhaps, if the fake wood filled their needs of the moment, for them, that was enough.” Donald Eubank