At the opening of “Topophilia,” bottles of Taiwan Beer and cartons of Long Life cigarettes set on round tables at one end of the gallery gave viewers momentary pause. The scene, straight out of a homey village feast, was actually Michael Lin’s work Imported, the booze and smokes two classic Taiwanese gifts. The question is, are these ceremonious tokens an instance of Lin embodying Chinese culture at its erudite best, or of Lin displaying the gracious manners of a Western gentleman? He was born in Japan, raised in Taiwan, and educated in America; he has loved in Europe, lived in Shanghai and Taipei. The complex background that composes his identity is both a vivid portrayal of Lin and a thread that connects twelve participating artists, who hail from a diverse spectrum of countries and regions. Moving outwards from a shared root called “China,” the artists, like modern nomads, weave through different artistic occasions the world over. Art becomes a “map of the mind,” born of their inner lives in interaction with their ever-changing environments, as they experience the drift (or dérive) of Guy Debord’s psychogeography. When an emotional state evolves into a -philia, it moves beyond the purely emotional level and enters deeper psychological territory. Passion develops into respect, fascination into commitment. “Topophilia,” then, expresses the “affective bond with one’s environment.” When the ground beneath our feet does not prove stable, our connection to it becomes particularly sensitive.
This breed of “sensitivity” becomes an unspoken tension underlying many of the participating works, “Topophilia” being an exhibition that explores geographical and psychological space. Lee Kit’s personal dérive finds itself in as specific places as a blue blanket from a KLM Royal Dutch Airlines flight or a piece of wood painted with a scenic background; under the artist’s gentle touch, ordinary things start to generate emotion, and the vast emptiness of space in air travel begins silently to spread its loneliness. Flying may allow artists to travel quickly from this shore to the other, but the soul always takes a much longer time to catch up. Patty Chang and David Kelley shot their Shangri-la in southwest China, developing a fictional plane crash into an experimental recording that deals with the relationship between myth and reality. In the Western world, Shangri-la is synonymous with Utopia; in China, contention over the name itself has resulted in a crude dialogue between geopolitical forces and the tourism economy. In the work, the artistic effort of local workers as they manufacture a model aircraft and a cursory film set once again blurs the boundary between fiction and reality; like the love song in the film itself, there is buried here, amidst the absurdity, a kind of sweet longing.
This re-interpretation of Shangri-la certainly carries with it a heavy tone of Oriental exoticism. American-born with Chinese heritage, Patty Chang has chosen to use her artwork to expose Western stereotypes of Asian women by exaggerating them. But stereotypes such as these are by no means limited to views of Asian women. Taiwanese artist Chen Chieh-Jen’s blog that he began after his US visa was rejected makes a record of the pomposity of US immigration officials, and has become evidence used against him—he is now barred from entering America. The artist’s personal experience is a footnote to exercises of international political power and is one of many common stories that ultimately come to expand the grand historical narrative. Jun Yang’s The Center of the World seems to assume the same mission as these stories, using a confessional style reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ filmic language to unequivocally probe the bigger questions of society and human existence.
Perhaps for curator Mathieu Borysevicz, who was born in New York and has lived in Shanghai for many years, this exhibition is one he just could not pass up. Like the participating artists, his identity is borne of a complex, peripatetic background. Active for years on the international art scene, he has visited so many places, each with attendant emotional baggage, that he may be in need of topophiliac release. Perhaps the collective force of these artists can help.