Hsu Chia-Wei

Hsu Chia-Wei talks about his work in the Biennale of Sydney

Hsu Chia-Wei, Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes 30 seconds.

Hsu Chia-Wei weaves together complex narratives of geography, history, and myth through storytelling in his films and installations. Based in Taipei, he has traveled to various locations in Asia for his work, often foraging for stories in the aftermath of war. In addition to his art practice, Hsu is a member of Open-Contemporary Art Center, an artist-run space founded in Taipei in 2001. Hsu’s art will be included in this year’s Gwangju Biennale. He is also currently participating in the Biennale of Sydney. Here, he talks about his film Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau, 2015, and the related maps and diagrams he is presenting as part of the exhibition that are currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia until June 11, 2018.

FOLLOWING THE CHINESE CIVIL WAR IN 1950, a troop from the Nationalist army retreated to the border between Thailand and Myanmar. After the war and a change in the state of affairs, it was impossible for the troop to follow General Chiang Kai-Shek to Taiwan or to return to China. This lone troop remained in Thailand, neither here nor there, with no national identity. In his novel Yi-yu (異域), which translates literally as “Foreign Territory,” Bo Yang discusses the troop. A Thai artist-friend had also told me about a Mandarin-speaking population in northern Thailand.

Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau is a film produced by Le Fresnoy that grew out of my 2012 project Huai Mo Village, in which children from a local orphanage formed an audience and film crew that interviewed the pastor and founder of the orphanage—the drug trade in the area has led to a large number of orphans—who reveals that he was among those in the lone troop and was also an intelligence officer for the CIA during the Cold War. The pastor expands on his story in Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau, juxtaposing his narrative against a puppet performance and the legend of the monkey god General Hanuman.

Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau opens with a shot of the sky and the sounds of insects and birds, while a voice-over discusses the importance of telling stories of the past that have yet to be told. The film then shifts to the legend of Hanuman and him moving mountains to save his troops from their enemies, while a puppet of the monkey god appears against the sky. The camera slowly zooms out to reveal three masked puppeteers dancing in unison. The sounds of drums and a masked ensemble ensue as the legend unfolds; the puppeteers become Hanuman, seamless in their motions.

The film then cuts to a man in a recording studio—revealing the identity of the narrator to be the pastor—as he continues to tell his own story. Framed in the studio with the video projection of Hanuman in the background, the pastor alternates between his own narrative and the tale of Hanuman’s search for medicinal herbs to save his army and lessen their pain. Then the camera pans across a group of armed young men in uniform to a group of masked older men—veterans, all sixty to eighty years old—while they watch the puppet performance before them. The pastor discloses the various transitions of power and authority that have occurred on this site: we are on the former site of an intelligence bureau, now a plateau of concrete. I imagine my work as a stage, distinct from the cuts and takes of a film. The pastor, Hanuman, the soldiers, and the veterans—they all perform and collide with one another on this stage.

I am interested in the production of narratives and storytelling as an action, as well as an event. When you look at history textbooks, though masked under the veil of objectivity, the past is in fact a construction, embodying the agenda of those in power through constructed narratives that appeal to their perception. My work is therefore about subjective experience, in that you are consciously aware of the system surrounding the story, through the scenes of the set and the recording studio, and in that process of production we create a new reality: an event, an action.

I understand the urgency of the subjects I explore, but I appreciate the vantage point and frame of reference a span of a decade or two can provide. By calling attention to the construction of these real events and actions in my work, I hope to suggest the possibility of other realities and narratives, and untold histories.