When I visited Angkor Wat ten years ago, I heard the local guide say: “Angkor Wat is our national cultural heritage. Because we are poor now, we have opened Angkor Wat to the public to boost our economy and let you step on it as you like. After we are rich, you will stand from afar and treat it like a sacred shrine. ” Later, he took our small tour group down the streets of Cambodia, between the naked kids sucking conches and the illegal street peddlers sporting official identification badges, searching for myths, legends, dances, and local cuisine that could satisfy the cultural imagination of us outsiders. When he saw children flocking to us, he said lightly, “Don’t give them any money or candy. We don’t want our next generation to suffer from cavities.”
Who is the Lamb? Who is God?
Past discussions on indigenous topics have been limited by totems and taboos due to the rise of “political correctness”. Today, the media has adopted a not-so-rosy approach as it covers the recent sexual assault incident that involved an established Taiwanese indigenous artist. Because ethnicity is not a black-and-white issue, in this article, I would like to focus on the ecology of the pseudo-political correctness and pseudo-transitional justice fostered by those who possess significant cultural capital and cultural influence in Taiwan and how this development has transformed indigenous culture into a concept of capitalization. Like being listed on the stock market, the value of indigenous culture has become extremely volatile as the Taiwanese contemporary art community’s attitude towards indigenous culture rapidly swings between sacralization and stigmatization. This capricious attitude is the dark side of our cultural reality.
Weighed down by economic concerns, minorities have long been forced to rely on external resources, unable to act according to their own will. In the past few years, national institutions have begun to consider indigenous culture as the contemporary art mainstream and pour significant resources into promoting indigenous cultural activities, spreading the “sugar culture syndrome” as people benefit from each other’s capital. In December 2021, an artist chosen to represent Taiwan at the 2022 Venice Biennale and Documenta 15 has fallen from grace and become a marked beast hounded by all sides. Living in the mountains and the wilderness, the artist may have finally recognized that he was, and always will be, treated as “capital” and might have inflated his power as “capital” without garnering any influential supporters. The indigenous communities may have also realized that they are still caught in the collective imaginary community and have not truly achieved decolonization. The Han Chinese commissioners, who have the resources to influence public opinion, chose to cut ties, stand aside, and remain silent, treating their decision as a bad investment. If this incident serves as the sacrifice of the year offered by the Taiwanese art world, it may be fair for us to ask: Who is the sacrificial lamb on the altar? Who is playing God?
How did the state turn indigenous culture and indigenous artists into capital over the past few years? Just as Africa was not called the “dark continent” before the arrival of external forces, when the conquest of Africa resulted in the two opposite sides developing unique understandings of “darkness”, the rise of Taiwanese contemporary indigenous art was the result of a convergence of internal and external factors, apparently reaching its apex in 2021. This convergence can be traced back to 2018, a product of political considerations.
In the wake of 2017’s documenta 14 “Learning from the South” and account of the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts’s longstanding championship of “Austronesian identity”, major exhibitions on themes such as “the Anthropocene” and “contemporary indigenous art” were held in 2018, including the Taipei Biennial “Post-Nature” and “The Hidden South” hosted on the east coast of Taiwan. Meanwhile, the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party failed to win over the indigenous constituencies of eastern Taiwan, historically staunch supporters of the pro-unification Chinese Nationalist Party, during the 2018 local elections. These indigenous regions thus became the sore point of the art world and the political circle. Noting the recent critical success of indigenous exhibitions, the Taiwanese government has started to pour more resources into promoting indigenous culture. These internal and external factors worked together to thrust the already-existing contemporary indigenous art community into the spotlight.
Concerned with the modern global ecological crisis and captivated by the prospect of re-enchantment offered by the nature worship of primitive societies intellectually, Taiwanese art critics have retraced the historical experiences of migration and colonization of the indigenous, Han Chinese, and Japanese peoples of Taiwan by examining Taiwan’s colonial relationships with China and Japan. Beyond the reconstruction of Taiwanese identity, they have also managed to pave a way “through the field(s)” by considering the modernization of Taiwan’s forested mountains. As movements necessarily depend on social contacts and financial resources, compared with other recent movements preoccupied with retracing forgotten histories and cultures, the indigenous community was able to enjoy relatively generous resources after the Taiwanese government began promoting indigenous culture. However, not only were the fruits of early advocates stolen by opportunists, but Han Chinese also started to run comprador curating organizations, profiting from championing indigenous culture. Indigenous culture was capitalized on by the state, and indigenous art swept into the alienating ecology of the tourism industry. An ambivalent host-guest relationship developed between the intervener and the intervened.
Confronted with this development, the long-oppressed indigenous community not only had to consider the cost and benefits of the just, long-overdue compensation or the newfound prestige of indigenous people but also questions such as: How can indigenous people rewrite indigenous spirituality when they were caught in a matrix of tourism, capitalism, institutionalized exhibitions, and protectionism? What kind of future should they look forward to? And how many of their own members were responsible for maintaining the “imagined” indigenous community, inflated by external interventions, in the wake of ancestral, religious, and circumstantial changes?
Funding indigenous exhibitions became the mode between 2018 and 2021 through the concerted actions of the Ministry of Culture, the National Culture and Arts Foundation, local Cultural Affairs Bureaus, indigenous institutes, and art museums. Contemporary indigenous art was now the new, politically-correct vogue in cultural research and the arts across Taiwan with the influx of government resources, the dissemination of Han Chinese discourse, the incidental intervention of art critics, and the coalition of indigenous and Han Chinese curators and artists all contributing to its success. This sort of streamlined configuration created a complex ecology in which people found themselves sometimes as God, sometimes as the sacrificial lamb; everyone was God, everyone was the lamb.
The Intervention of Capitalization
The sudden and unprecedented influx of resources was a significant challenge to the elites and researchers of the indigenous society. The relatively unsophisticated indigenous community was suddenly thrust into the limelight as they received their historic, long-awaited, albeit duplicitous, compensation and shouldered an inexpressible burden as they were faced with the Faustian dilemma in their new state of deprivation.
Neither the indigenous community nor the Han Chinese community who took part in this wild fever dream of funding and activism could point out whether this should be seen as a set of cultural governance policies, a return to the roots stemming from the new Taiwanese consciousness, the compensational guilt of cultural transitional justice, or the relational aesthetics between cultural agents and cultural agencies. Nobody could say how, under the aegis of multiculturalism and political correctness, indigenous culture might endure the shock of modernity and globalization and maintain its primitive social structure watched over by ancestral spirits. Nobody would confront the vital issue of whether it was the atavism of modern man or the helical discovery of ideological history that was responsible for indigenous people being considered in contemporary times as the last remnants of the call of nature, the Eden against modernity, and possessors of profound ancient wisdom. Nobody would question whether the touristification and commercialization of indigenous handicrafts and parks were psychologically exhausting indigenous culture or alienating it with its own proliferation.
Looking at the institutional system of international biennales, we have seen how the West has consistently searched for puzzle pieces in global cultures by going through a succession of art trends, including Chinese contemporary art, feminist contemporary art, Latin American contemporary art, African contemporary art, and Southeast Asian contemporary art. People who lack cultural literacy but are in charge of funding and public relations often base their decisions on the latest art trends and the advice of their inner circles. They often consider cultural programs, such as the recent eastward and southward policy, to be opportunities for political manipulation, presenting them as cultural achievements and a kind of responsive avant-garde movement. As the Taiwanese contemporary art scene wanders through its different iterations of Tai-Ke aesthetics, body art, participatory ecology, and the indigenous call, we could almost argue that it has become a kind of crop rotation industry.
According to anthroposociology, indigenous people do not have creative concepts such as “making art” or “producing art”; they produce objects based on their work-life, ritualistic, and daily needs. Bartering during the early days was only a way to exchange items necessary for one’s survival. Unlike capital, these objects were neither dominant nor exhibitive. The exhibition of indigenous relics is a phenomenon that comes from the concept of the preservation of cultural heritage. The question of what is indigenous contemporary art is obviously a question derived from the modern or westernized concept of the exhibition. As institutional gatekeepers of the contemporary art scene work together to incorporate indigenous artists into the biennale system, inviting international curators to write about and promote indigenous exhibitions, we can see that the contemporary spirit of indigenous art is bound to be challenged by the institutional mechanisms of modern capitalist society.
The Hungry Leviathan
Who can interpret and determine the light and darkness of the ethnic world? Can indigenous communities escape the destruction brought by the powerful, external, intervening beast from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (note 1)?
In the article “Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism,” published in 2010, Andrea Smith proposes that the underdogs of history need to act collectively as marginalized people to effect political change. Further developing Alderfer’s “ERG theory,” she argues that marginalized communities and groups should choose to stop being the imaginary other and pursue their own self-growth. She believes that scholars of indigenous studies should not limit themselves to providing a platform for indigenous voices (note 2) because this cultural agenda could easily lead to the consumption and commodification of indigenous people in the multicultural academic-industrial complex.
Smith uses the term “post-identity” to point out how scholars often re-instantiate a white supremacist, settler colonialism on issues regarding colonialized indigenous peoples. The genocidal presence not only continues to wipe out indigenous peoples but also reinforces the contested structures of white (Han Chinese) supremacy, settler colonialism, and heteropatriarchy. Government officials and the mainstream art circle of Taiwan often place “indigenous people” in a matrix of migration and colonialism and expect them to conform to the standard imagery in their performances and visual artworks. The protectionism of Taiwanese cultural governors who continue to emphasize the preservation of indigenous culture is based on their soft superiority. Indigenous culture is seen as a spiritual culture in the natural world, isolated from modernity; indigenous people are worshipped as novelty items and assumed to need no food or drink while possessing the supernatural powers of the spiritual or sacred man. Fixed in the gaze of the “behemoth of primitive nature” and the “behemoth of modern society”, indigenous people are condemned by the binary judgment of modernity, according to both the social contract and the disappointment of the social superior, when they fail to be “primitive” enough.
The most treacherous virus in Taiwan’s contemporary art scene is the “hunger syndrome,” a syndrome linked to the allocation of resources. Infected by this virus, the art circle has managed to develop a predatory ideology of capitalization and resource allocation. Those who possessed cultural capital and controlled resources have created an arts ecology that is gradually losing its authenticity. In the second half of 2020, shortly after the final selection of the representative of the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was announced, doctoral candidates from two Taiwanese art universities met with the artist in Pingtung during an inter-collegiate exchange program. The artist was asked about the subject he had in mind for the exhibition. After giving it some thought, the word that came out of his mouth was “hunger.” Eventually, this subject, which the author believes to be linked to the ERG theory of human survival (note 3), was not chosen; instead, the official theme was “Kinerapan: Right of Crawling” (蔓生: 撒古流), a heroic title that satisfied general expectations. In the joint statement co-signed by the international curator, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and the artist and posted on the official website, we read that the exhibition was intended to be a modern allegory with traditional indigenous narratives that sought to create a “spiritual space” through sculptures, installations, and animations. Despite this public announcement, in December 2021, the Taiwanese art world still performed its own “hunger theater”, filled with novelistic journalism, online campaigns, casual onlookers, anonymous agitators, sadistic doxing, and people searching for missing persons, much more “sprawling” than what sculptures, installations, and animations could hope to achieve; more legendary than legends, more allegorical than allegories.
Hungry political parties and hungry cultural factions continue to test our sense of truth and justice with events that are being revealed, concealed, and downplayed by them. As people choose to condemn, distance themselves from, or remain silent about these events, ambivalent words such as victim, perpetrator, advantaged, and disadvantaged are caught in an unruly state of flux among the public at large as people wrestle for resources in the name of transitional justice. With the successful assembly of an ever-shifting leviathan by the cultural manipulators, it makes one somewhat nostalgic for the days when people have not yet begun to expect any resources or rewards. Having said that, we should still hope that, eventually, as we slowly weed out the opportunists, it will be those who have devoted themselves to the indigenous community who will be vindicated in the end.
Note 1 Leviathan is a mythical creature that appears in the Tanakh. In Hebrew, “leviathan” signifies “wreathed, twisted in folds” and “vortex”. The book Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, commonly referred to as Leviathan, is written by Thomas Hobbes and published in 1651. In this book, Hobbes uses this term as a metaphor for the supreme state apparatus.
Note 2 See Andrea Smith, “Queer Theory and Native Studies: The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism”, A Journal of Lesbian and Gay, Volume 16/ Issue1-2, Duke University Press, 2010.
Note 3 ERG theory is a humanist theory of needs proposed by Clayton Alderfer. In this theory, Alderfer further develops Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, theorizing the human needs in social life into three basic categories: the existence category, the relatedness category, and the growth category.