The Taiwan Incident

A Statement by monochrom

The São Paolo Biennial is known to be one of the most important and biggest art exhibitions in the southern hemisphere, forming the counterpart to the geographical concentration of art in the context of the west. The worldwide hegemony of western art is still maintained through art history (even when it started to perceive non-European art, like Carl Einstein’s book "The Negro Sculpture" from 1915), aesthetic theory as well as the practical side of its presentation (e.g. documenta) and discourse (from categorical universalism to concrete media presence).
Nevertheless, we, monochrom, were pleased, if only as the national representatives of a racist mini state, to participate in such an event.
The situation there, however, showed the disappointing image of the usual criteria of exclusion under the curatorship of German Alfons Hug, who participated in crude discussions about the exhibition theme, Metropolitan Iconographies, from the window of the platform of higher individuals down to the wild-romantic and violent „urban energies“ under globalized living conditions.
From the plethora of scandals we want to focus on one incident, which concerned us, because it took place in the immediate vicinity of our space: Chien-Chi Chang was invited as the representative of Taiwan, but the country’s name was removed from his room over night and replaced by "Museum of Fine Arts Taipei." As we found out later on, China had threatened to retreat from the biennial and to cause massive diplomatic problems. Chien-Chi’s open letter remained unanswered. Then, Georg Paul Thomann, our art avatar, invited artists from several countries to a solidarity action to take down letters from their countries’ names and hand them over to Chien-Chi that he could remount ”Taiwan“ outside his room. That was taken down again over night, though being the product of an artistic action.
With this statement we do not want to weep over "our work of art," but demonstrate which border the directors of the biennial were willing to cross in order to support those states in power.
It was not a question of which kind of imperialism to prefer; the western-economical as represented by Taiwan, or that of the old-Stalinist China. (Some orthodox leftists already criticized us for that.)
On the following day, a solidarity dance performance by Georg Paul Thomann ("We meet here a 4 o’clock to have a radical dance performance, we dance the world 'Taiwan'") was thwarted by several security officers. They had to stand the remaining two months of this mega exhibition in front of Chien-Chi’s white cube every day in order to stop possible critical interventions.
We wanted to show solidarity with Chien-Chi and that artists do not necessarily have to internalize the fragmentation and isolation, which is imposed by the structure of the art market, the exhibition scene and the respective economy as a society-controlling imperative. These or other artists were pulled out of their self-referentiality and closedness of their national cubes of representation, which also signifies their commodity function. The biennial building itself, which proves to be static despite the modernist architecture phantasm, was inscribed with psycho-geographical patterns of movement. Thus, artists maniacally ran through the corridors.
Reclaim the streets!

[Annotation: Many Taiwanese and Chinese newspapers reported on the incident. We got several headlines like "Austrian Artist Georg Paul Thomann Saves 'Taiwan'"]

An brief comment by Andreas L. Findeisen

Why does the Austrian artist Georg Paul Thomann happen to be one of the protagonists of Taipei TIMES, in a highly politicized context, which is close to war? As far as the author is informed, Thomann never appeared on the international scene of the powerful, not even as someone whose presence could have been neglected. He simply didn’t stand out, which would be necessary in case of emergency. Born in 1945 in Bödele, Vorarlberg, the artist already supplied the public with various forms of action during his high school years, but what he produced in terms of rumors or speculations was only good for the streets or his regular’s table, and finally found its place in art history.

Then the situation changed, and this should give us a reason to think: In 2001, when the Austrian federal chancellery was looking for the right person to represent the country at the prestigious São Paulo Biennial in Brazil, the process started its course, which, in retrospect, could easily be misinterpreted as a chain reaction. Due to obvious advantages, the responsible curator turned out to be the director of Moderna Galeria in Ljubljana, Zdenka Badovinac. After some research in Vienna and vicinity, she chose Georg Paul Thomann, by that time 56 years old. For him, the honorable invitation came too late anyhow, and he not only wanted to be celebrated as a big artist but also take the role of a benefactor for young talents. Thus, he declared himself co-curator, and, after consultation with Ms. Badovinac, took the painter Richard Wientzek, the media- and bricolage collective, monochrom, the concept art troop 320x200 and the A/V-artist Tonki Gebauer with him into the transatlantic boat.
However, his cleverness should not be ignored. He stylized himself into the absolute middle of the Austrian pavilion, to the conditio sine qua non for his offspring with the installation “Self-portrait as Austria’s highest mountain - I am winning my religion" – the four young groups simultaneously became tourist centers grouped around this nature-strong art throne. They played the cryptical and really evil games with devote passion and, why not, the own market value in mind. After all, the São Paulo biennial is not just something, but since fifty years the most important overall art exhibition of the southern hemisphere.

Even if Taiwan is situated in the northern part, the problems until March 2002 had been entirely different, and this won’t change for a while. To understand these problems in their hybridity, one does well in dealing with the real history along with art history. Let’s go:

In the sense of a culturally written historiography, Taiwan has existed a little bit more than 400 years. After Dutch colonizers had taken Chinese farmers from Mainland China, the latter slowly mixed with the Malayo-Polynesian aborigines, and "a new race was born: the Taiwanese". Then the famous Chinese pirate Cheng Cheng-Kung (Koxinga) took over the island (1662), himself in favor of the Ming dynasty and in flight from the Ch´ing dynasty. More and more people from Mainland China began to settle on this island, but not as representatives from Peking but as refugees due to famine. Later attempts from the Peking emperors to take control over Taiwan always led to conflicts with the ever more stubborn islanders. They are mirror one proverb, which has been handed down over the years: "Every three years an uprising, every five years a rebellion." When in 1870 Taiwanese pirates captured American, Japanese and French vessels and the respective governments sent their notes of protest to the Chinese emperor, he replied, shrugging: "Taiwan is beyond our territory." The enraged French sent their own fleet to secure the trading route, but took the power only over Northern Taiwan and this for nine years (1884/5). Because in the meantime Japan had decided to extend its influence towards the South, and the Chinese rulers over Manchu, usually no seafarers, finally discovered their interest in Taiwan through the power of mimetic rivalry (you only desire though the gaze onto the gaze of another desire). In the year 1887, Taiwan was declared a province of the Chinese empire, but only eight years later, the Japanese won the "Sino-Japanese War." The "contract of Shimonoseki" (1895) transferred this claim for possession to Japan forever (and not, like in the case of Hong Kong "for 99 years.")

"Alone during these eight years, Taiwan was under siege of the Chinese empire " – is what Taiwanese historians say today. Chinese communists, however, rather follow those historians, who say that occupation always existed.

For the moment, it is not the respective Chinese central government, which disputed the insulated Taiwanese right for self-government. Back then they tried to fight the violent incorporation by Japan: With the help of a dissident Manchu officer, Taiwan was declared the first Asian republic ever on May 25, 1895, and a separated flag was designed. Only four days later, this movement was beaten by a 12.000-men strong Japanese invasion, which ruled exactly 50 years, until the Japanese defeat at the end of WW II, leveling the country’s industry, infrastructure and education with one’s own standards. In 1930, during the time of Japanese dominion, leader Mao Tse-Tung, who was himself involved in fights for power with the nationalist Kuomintang by Chiang Kai Chek, told the American journalist Edgar Snow the following sentence as a note: "...we will extend them (the Koreans) our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies for Taiwan."

However, the tradition of the Chinese imperialist thoughts was soon meant to occupy the official status of Taiwan, i.e. the recognition of its own identity, in an even more persistent form: In 1943, during the second world war, Chiang Kai Chek demanded (without the presence of Taiwanese representatives) from the allied forces that "Taiwan had to be handed over to the (nationalist, not communist, A.F.) China." This was agreed upon in the Cairo Declaration, and in 1945 Chiang‘s troops were allowed to temporarily occupy Taiwan according to the orders of the allied forces. This agreement was settled „on a sleepy afternoon under the hot Cairo sun“ (Taiwanese historians) and should have serious consequences for the self-conscious islanders during the following decades, also beyond Georg P. Thomann‘s intervention.

Although Chiang finished Japanese foreign dominion (which was counted in days anyhow), he also abducted the most important art works and artifacts of ancient China from the almost communist Peking (to protect them from the barbarian, tradition-hostile Sino communists) and from this stage claimed nothing less than the overall diplomatic representation of mainland China with his resting regime in Taiwan, he also thought to protect the true Chinese archive in Taiwanese exile for better times. A revolt by the Taiwanese in the year 1947 was bloodily defeated by his Kuomintang (today KMT), "18.000 to 28.000" inhabitants were killed and the "white terror" started: the prosecution of all intellectuals and Taiwanese leading figures over years. Thereafter, on February 28 that year, the day of the rebellion, became the founding symbol of the strive for independence of many Taiwanese ("2.28"). 15% of today’s population, however, who fled the island with Chiang – in 1949 war in mainland China was completely lost – ruled over the rest of the inhabitants by controlling the media, the infrastructure, education, and an own secret service apparatus: 40 years under martial law began.

On an economic level, the Kuomintang managed to successfully improve Taiwan’s capacities until 1971, but the sole diplomatic representation was more and more degraded by real politics and the international banquet of the powerful to a wish dream, which, in retrospect, it had been from the beginning. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger wanted an "opening towards China" and not an exile government. Kuomintang’s seat at the United Nations was transferred to Peking and the Chinese occupants of Taiwan were at the mercy of world politics, while sitting on their Chinese culture archive and having to watch helplessly the recognition of representation as a ticket to dance on a banquet, which they had lost. In 1972, Henry Kissinger signed the Shanghai Communiqué after a delicious dinner with "Maotai and Peking duck," this document later formed the basis for a "One China" politics of the US. Here, Taiwanese historians also remind of the "Rand Corporation Report of 1985," in which Kissinger is cited with the sentence: "After a dinner with Maotai and Peking duck I will sign everything."

Hence, the forced dominance of the Chinese nationalists Kuomintang (KMT) over Taiwan had obviously been selected. In 1979, it was attacked by the "Tangwai"-movement ("outside-the-party") first on its most imaginary side, the claim to still represent the whole of China. Until 1986, this resulted in the development of the Democratic Progressive Party (DFP), the first opposition party, whose founding was tolerated. On the anniversary of "2.28," the first public discussions were granted, in summer of 1987 martial law suspended and the first visits of relatives in China allowed (just think of the hesitating opening of western and eastern European governments in this case, or North and South Korea until the present day). Thereafter, the four-day republic of 1895 more and more developed to a democratic system of western orientation. A local Taiwanese becomes president, dissidents are released, peaceful negotiations for Taiwan’s independence are no longer punished, and with more flexible foreign politics, the sole claim for representation by the KMT is actually given up. In the nineties, there are the first free elections, foreign journalists are allowed to enter the country, the first national holiday is celebrated without military parade, and the government cautiously takes up semi-official negotiations with Peking and prepares Taiwan’s re-entry into the UN.

Nevertheless: More than 70% of the population speak the "Minnan" - dialect, today’s Taiwanese, but they come from the Chinese province Fujian, 10% from the Chinese province Guangdong (dialect: "Hakka"/"Kejia"), and only 1% are natives (Malayo-Polynesian languages), the remaining 15% consist of the above-mentioned mainland refugees and their offspring. The various Taiwanese tribes (Foklos, Hakkas and Aborigines) take their time in positioning national-insular social links above ethnical-linguistic ones. The first re-elections of the national assembly gave KMT 71,2%, and DFP 24%. (1991), the first re-election of parliament since 1948 gave KMT 53%, DFP 31% (1992). The official language is still Chinese, and there are still many valuable prey items of the thousand-year old Chinese history in the National Museum of Taipei. The distance to Mainland China (Xiamen, Prov. Fujian) is approx. 150 km. The size of the island amounts to 36.000 km2. There are almost no mineral resources, but a population of meanwhile 23 million people and also the world’s monopoly in the semiconductor industry, a technique giving superiority. Thus, the area offered a unique density to install bunkers, defense weapons and missile bases, against desires, which can easily be read from the following:

The Chinese government will undo the intrigue by the Taiwanese separatists (17.12.2001)

Mainland China has made its decision and is prepared to undo every intrigue by the Taiwanese separatists, who want to disunite the fatherland.

This is what the head of offices of the State Council for Taiwanese affairs, Chen Yunlin said on December 16 in Beijing, at a reception on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of founding the society for the relations between both sides of the Taiwan street. Chen said that the interests of the Taiwanese people would be damaged by the Taiwan authorities, if it further provoked the "One-China" principle or even planned new separatist activities to create tension and confrontation. Moreover, Chen prompted the Taiwanese authorities to look reality close into its eyes, to consider the interests of the Taiwanese people and to acknowledge the One-China principle.

This is where the contemporary version of the One-China principle is played, avoiding every official recognition of "Taiwan as such," Peking duck sauce still dripping on the floor of the banquet, on the other hand still to be argued beyond interests in economics and other influences. According to the press release, this doctrine lies in the interest of the Taiwanese. This is true as long as they do not sustain the pressure of such a strategy, maintaining the hope that they themselves can choose the history of the next 100 years for the first time, by creating it and writing their own archives. Representing the Chinese world cultural heritage could definitely be something to neglect, if mainland China in Peking will be broader for the autogenous re-annexation to its glorious old an non-communist history, hence a desire for nothing more and nothing less than one’s own way to a hybrid, but merited and really possible autonomy. This improbability equals the extent to which Taiwan made itself an indispensable supplier of microchips. What is created in Taiwan is a phenomenon of modernism and, thanks to the island situation, one of the most modern in Asia in general. This is also why everyone is grateful for the recognition of facts from the northern or western parts of the big globe and this is also , who knows why, when G. P. Thomann seriously comes into play:

Artists' action saves 'Taiwan'
Taiwan's protest over the issue of its name at the 25th Sao Paulo Biennial Art Exhibit in Brazil took a dramatic twist on Sunday, as six countries donated an English letter each to form the word "Taiwan" for the nation's exhibit hall. A Chinese-language newspaper reported yesterday that the innovative protest action was the brainchild of an Austrian artist, George Thomann, who took the initiative in urging other participants to take an English letter from each of their respective exhibition nameplates to donate to Taiwan. Thomann took the letter "t" from Austria's nameplate and artists from five other countries followed his lead. The report said Canada donated the letter "a," Croatia donated the letter "I," Puerto Rico donated an "o" -- which was cut into two pieces to form the letter "w," Singapore donated another "a" and Panama donated the "n."

The cooperative effort was then attached to the nameplate on Taiwan displays shortly before biennial opened. The Sao Paulo biennial is one of the world's three most important exhibits of contemporary art. The Taiwan display was originally labeled as "Chien-Chi Chang, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taiwan." Chang, a renowned photojournalist, is the only Taiwan artist whose works are being exhibited at the biennial. Three days before the opening of the show, Brazilian organizers abruptly removed the "Taiwan" from the nameplate without giving any explanation. Chang protested by closing the Taiwan display and sending a protest letter in English to the organizers. Copies of the letter were given to the 190 participating artists from around the world to solicit their support.

Thomann responded by plastering a bulletin on the closed door of the Taiwan display on the eve of the opening of the art show calling for donations of English letters.

"The generous donation made by the six countries has enabled us to reopen our exhibition hall in time to meet the raising of the curtain on the biennial show," Chang was quoted in the newspaper report as saying. „The unprecedented move has left the name plates of each of the donor nations with one letter missing from their respective national titles," Chang said. "But their missing letters have helped add an `artwork of protest´ to the dazzling array of exhibits on display here." Huang Tzai-lang, director of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, who is also in Sao Paulo, said that the new word "Taiwan" on the nameplate is a creative work of art. "We admire the artists from the six donor countries for their courage in standing up to support our protest," he said.

Thomann might be a nobody, but not an everyman. He couldn’t accept the destruction of a contemporary modernism and quickly invented a semiotic counter-recognition through an international pool of artists – totally without an institution behind – and danced polka on his own banquet. Art also derives from communication. The Chinese delegation, who managed to make the director of the São Paulo biennial act in a very distinct, unintelligent and very inelegant manner, might have wished that Thomann never existed. That their wish has been fulfilled for ages can no longer cheer them up.

Andreas L. Findeisen teaches at the department for cultural philosophy and media theory of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.

Edgar Snow, Red Star over China, Grove Press; Revised edition (March 1973), quote p. 110
George Kerr, Formosa Betrayed, Da Capo Press; Reprint edition (June 1976) Home Rule Movement
basic data on Taiwan from a Taiwanese perspective: (german) (englisch)
basic data on Taiwan from a mainland China perspective): (german)
The homepage of the Taiwanese civil rights movement: World United Formosans for Independence (Wufi)


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