Heterochronicity as Écriture féminine: Problematising the Historical Traumas of Taiwan, China and Indonesia
Letter. Callus. Post-War
Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts
12.07.19 – 22.09.19
Entering the exhibition space of Letter. Callus. Post-War, I was immediately struck by the aura of death that permeated the space. Facing the entrance is Lo Yi-chun’s Deer Rug, ostensibly the skin of a dead animal hung on the wall: an image of death. This was echoed by the soundtrack of Zhang-xu Zhan’s video installation, Tale of Animal AT58, which featured a repetitive and oddly disquieting melody, in which the instruments of Indonesian gamelan and Chinese lion dance music – both ritualistic musical forms – intertwined. Behind the screen lay Zhang-xu’s signature paper sculpture, which employs techniques of zhizha, a traditional Chinese paper art most commonly used as funereal offering.
In a space so primed for haunting, repressed spectres are conjured up from a forgotten past. There is Rumphius, the now obscure naturalist employed by the Dutch East India Company, whose work had allegedly been stolen after his death by the much more famous Linnaeus ( Liu Yu’s Caecus creaturae ); there are Indonesian comfort women as captured by the lens of Meicy Sitorus, some of whom have passed away since their encounters with the artist; there is the grandfather of Maharani Mancanagara, who left behind a box of diaries and a life story that no family member wants to recount; and there is also Rika, the European woman who wrote a letter to a Chinese man in 1969, twenty-seven years after their meeting in Surabaya during the Second World War ( Au Sow-yee & Chen Yow-ruu, If We Do Not Exist, How Could Our Memories Remain and Not Pass Into Silence ). According to popular beliefs in Chinese societies, these are spirits stuck between the realms of the living and the dead because they harbour unfulfilled wishes. In Derrida’s terms, the ghost is that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive. Generally, we can say that ghosts arrive from the past and appear in the present; but in the specific cases mentioned above, the ghosts in fact have no place to dwell in the past, for they are residues that have fallen through the fissures in history writing.
It is precisely these long-forgotten vestiges that form the overarching theme of the show, but this is a ‘hauntology’ that operates on its own particular terms, as it foregrounds the letter and the body as the preferred mediums for channelling the spirits – which explains the ‘Letter’ and the ‘Callus’ in the title of the show. Familial and private documents such as letters and diaries serve as the starting points of several works, while the body is explored as the site of memory by some of the artists. To speak about unwritten history, effaced memory and unspeakable trauma is to disrupt time, to stop time in its tracks, to force it down a convoluted labyrinth where past, present and future are sometimes conflated. In Shen Chi-chung‘s psychoanalytic studies of trauma, three temporalities are identified: first, the actual occurrence of the unanticipated traumatic event; second, the reconstruction and interpretation of the traumatic event through the attribution of symbols; third, repeated discussions and re-interpretations, the need for which was caused by the incomprehensibility of the traumatic event and the ensuing anxiety. That is to say, the traumatic subject no longer experiences time as linear and exclusively forward-moving. Instead, temporal disjunction becomes the imperative condition of being, as the traumatic event becomes a point in time of eternal return.
It is in view of this sense of heterochronicity, stipulated by the artistic and curatorial choice to focus on historical trauma, that the significance of the letter and the callus becomes apparent. The form of the written letter has beyond doubt become anachronistic, but additionally it has always been a heterochronic thing. There is always a chasm of time separating the act of writing and sending the letter and the act of receiving and reading it. Compared with its electronic cousin, the written letter always contains more than its written contents, as it is inevitably marked by its materiality: the ink smudge, the tear stain, the traces of its journey, the yellowing and brittling paper… Letters like the ones Lin Yi-chi dug out from her family home are affixed to specific points in time ( when they were written ), while carrying traces from all the times that they have passed through. Lin’s grandmother was separated from her brother half a century ago, when the latter decided to leave Kinmen in Taiwan for ‘Nanyang’ ( the Chinese term for Southeast Asia ) in search of better prospects. He finally settled on Bangka Island, Indonesia, and the siblings stayed in touch by letter for years. In her effort to tell the story of a family that came to be separated by geographical distance, national borders and cultural identities, Lin travelled to Bangka with the decades-old family letters as her only pointer. Here, what appears to be a spatial movement ( from the destination to the origin of the letter ) is in fact also a temporal one ( from present-day to the time when the letters were written ). In the resulting video work, Nanyang Express: Trans-drifting and South Sea Crossing, documentary footage of present-day Bangka goes hand in hand with an audio track comprising voices reading out the family letters and Lin’s own oral communication with her distant relatives. As in Lo Yi-chun’s Deer Rug, which is in fact made of sun-dried banana skins ( an important Taiwan export immediately after the Second World War ) stitched together by the artist into a faux deerskin ( an important export of Dutch Formosa in the seventeenth century ), different time periods overlap, intertwine and finally collapse into each other, to form a multilayered and malleable temporality.
In another bid to engage with the lived realities of grandparents, Maharani Mancanagara’s project began when she was given a box of diaries by the grandfather that she never knew. She later found out that he was actually a victim in Gerakan 30 September, a coup d’état organised by Suharto and his aides in 1965, which was followed by a mass extermination of everyone suspected to be communist. The incident was the preface to Suharto’s New Order Government, and discourses about it were tightly controlled by the Indonesian state for many years. Memories about it became taboo and gave rise to transgenerational trauma in many families such as Mancanagara’s. Interestingly, the artist did not choose to represent the traumatic event or her grandfather’s experience after her archival and field research. Instead, she opted for the form of the children’s folk tale and created Tale of Wanatentrem Chronicle #2, in which the story of oppression and resistance are told through the imagined animal characters of mouse-deers and frigatebirds fighting against pirates. The mouse-deer also appears in Zhang-xu’s Tale of Animal AT58, for which he reimagines Chinese and Indonesian folk tales and creates the new cross-bred half-fox and half-mouse-deer figure. Their choice of engaging with history through animal characters and children’s folk tales is curious, in that it signals a kind of regression, which is at once a common response to trauma and a therapeutic strategy for dealing with trauma.
Contrary to the letter, the callus symbolises a completely different form of memory: one that does not register with the conscious mind. A callus is by definition an area of thickened skin that forms in response to repeated friction or pressure, and as such it is an apt analogy for phylogenetic memory, which results from an experience that repeatedly etches a neurological trace from being periodically recalled, until the trace becomes a permanent pathway that can be inherited by offspring. Analogies aside, the callus is the material manifestation of the body as a site of memory. Meicy Sitorus’s images of comfort women – young girls and women forced into sexual slavery under Japan’s military rule across Asia – in the project Nana Djawa focus in turn on the elderly women’s faces, gaze, hands, feet, hair and their still or moving bodies while engaging in everyday activities. These coloured photographs are placed opposite a new series resulting from Sitorus’s residency in Taiwan. For this project, she photographed sites where ‘comfort stations’ ( a euphemism for Japanese military brothels ) used to be located. The spots have variously become a nursery, a city park, disused plots of land and more. In the two photographic series, she constructs a topography of violence and suffering by documenting both bodies and geographical locations, not only as sites of extreme wartime brutality, but also of ongoing afflictions caused by collective silence and amnesia in the name of the forward-looking project of nation-building.
A temporal violence to the material and bodily heterochronicity is to be found in these works. As it erupts, it implodes normative linear time and sabotages the perimeters of memory and history imposed by various regimes and their ideologies. In this transmuted temporality, the undead bodies of repressed spectres are finally brought back to the present, where they complicate and problematise the question of historical trauma from the colonial and postcolonial pasts of Taiwan and Indonesia, which can no longer be reduced to a linear and unidirectional causality. Sitorus’s project most palpably evokes the work of Hélène Cixous, who posits that the physicality of the female body is closely connected to female authorship, to the ability of women to write and utter their truths. However, I also consider the general privileging of the heterochronic in the show as a form of Écriture féminine, for Cixous also remarks in her essay ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ ( 1975/6 ) that ‘in woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history’. In Letter. Callus. Post-War the artists, alongside curator Chen Hsiang-wen, manage to ‘un-think the unifying, regulating history that homogenises’ by implementing heterochronicity as a tactic for interfering with history writing. The space and temporality that they carve out for heterogeneous remembering and writing will serve as fertile ground for the mutation of memory and history in times to come.
译 / 梁霄
在这个幽冥萦绕的地方，受压抑的灵魂从被遗忘的过去被召唤出来：郎弗安斯，一位受雇于荷属东印度公司的博物学家，他默默无闻鲜为人知，据说其研究在死后被更为声名卓越的卡尔客林奈（Linnaeus）窃取（刘玗《失明的造物者》）；在梅西客西托鲁斯（Meicy Sitorus）镜头中出现的印度尼西亚的慰安妇们，当中的一些人在与艺术家见面之后就去世了；马哈拉妮客马羌那嘎拉（Maharani Mancanagara）的祖父，他留下了一盒日记，和一个所有的家庭成员至今也不愿讲述的人生故事；当然还有欧洲人丽卡（Rika），第二次世界大战期间她与一名中国男子在泗水相识，于二十七年后的1969年写了一封信给他（区秀诒、陈侑汝《当我们都不在了，记忆如何存在而不过渡于寂静之中》）。依据中国社会的普遍信仰，这些人的灵魂被困在生死之间，因为他们怀有尚未实现的愿望。用德里达的话来说，“幽灵”既不是活的也不是死的，既非在场亦非缺席。不过通常而言，我们可以声称鬼魂自过去浮现于此刻；但在上述案例中，他们实际上却并未曾停留在那些过去的地方，因为他们是从历史书写的缝隙中跌落的残留。
在这些呈现于展览中的作品身上，我们能够发现一种针对物质和身体的异时性的时间性暴力。当它爆发时，规范的、线性的时间将会受到扰乱，而各种政权及其意识形态强加给我们的记忆和历史的边界也会遭到破坏。在这种转化的时间中，受压抑的幽灵的“不死之身”最终被带回当下，使台湾和印度尼西亚在殖民和后殖民时代的历史创伤问题变得复杂，不再能够被归结为线性和单向的因果关系。梅西客西托鲁斯的作品或许可以令我们想起爱莲客西苏（Hélène Cixous），她认为女性身体的物质性与女性作者的身份密切相关，也与女性书写和诉说自身真相的能力密切相关。然而，我认为展览对异时性的普遍强调也是一种形式的“阴性书写”（écriture féminine），因为爱莲客西苏在《美杜莎的笑》（The Laugh of the Medusa,1975/1976）里说过：“在女人这里，一个女人的历史和所有女人的历史，以及国家和世界的历史都融合在一起。”在展览“情书客手茧客后战争”中，与策展人陈湘汶一道的艺术家们试图通过异时性的历史书写策略来“反思统一的、规范的与均质化的历史”。他们为异质性的回溯和书写所开辟的时空，会在将来成为记忆与历史异变的沃土。