Shu Lea Cheang

Shu Lea Cheang, 3x3x6 (detail), 2019, mixed media installation.

The Taiwan pavilion at the fifty-eighth edition of the Venice Biennale is located at the Palazzo delle Prigioni, or the Prisons’ Palace, which was the city’s primary prison from the seventeenth century to 1922. Artist Shu Lea Cheang, who is representing Taiwan this year, takes up this historical context in her exhibition “3x3x6.” The title of the show refers to the standard architectural model of contemporary prisons worldwide, and her work on view examines subjects who have been incarcerated because of their gender or sexual nonconformity, beginning with the story of writer and Venetian adventurer Giacomo Casanova. “3x3x6” runs through November 24, 2019.

THE MOST NOTORIOUS PRISONER in the long history of the Palazzo delle Prigioni was, arguably, the great European libertine Giacomo Casanova. He was most likely persecuted for promiscuity and promoting the use of condoms, which would have undoubtedly put him in conflict with Catholic values. After confirming my participation in the Taiwan pavilion, I immediately decided to invite Paul B. Preciado, whose curatorial and research work is deeply tied to issues of gender and sexuality, to curate the show. We wove a thread relating to the broader history of these issues, but I also wanted to incorporate contemporary cases, including some from Taiwan. So we invited scholars and lawyers for consultation, and from the figures they proposed (as well as several other current prisoners’ cases I found), we arrived at the final ten that comprise this work. I wanted to give each case an iconic value, which is why their names all end with the letter “X.” From such characters as Casanova X, Sade X, and Foucault X, which are based on historical figures, we extended our gaze to several ongoing cases, each dealing with a crime concerning sex or gender nonconformity.

Many of the stories we collected involved queer or transgender people, so we kept that in mind from the outset of the casting process. Whether it’s Casanova, Sade, or Foucault, their sexualities were ambiguous, and so we assigned the roles to actors of different ethnicities or who identified disparately with regard to gender. For Sade, I immediately thought of casting Liz Rosenfeld, a performance artist based in Berlin. Since I first conceived of the piece, I had imagined the three historical figures visiting their contemporary counterparts in the film (Casanova, for instance, ends up giving condoms to the subject of a Taiwanese case—a man with HIV who was imprisoned for knowingly spreading the virus). Other encounters across space and time include MW X, a cannibal, joining B X, who was imprisoned for cutting off her husband’s penis. While audiences may find that some of the conversations approach absurdity, they are not fabricated and, in fact, are taken from court transcripts.

I also wanted to take this occasion to return to questions concerning crime and punishment, which I dealt with early on in my 1990 work Brandon, by way of the architecture of the panopticon. Today, our most pressing concern is a surveillance apparatus that completely permeates society; no longer confined by physics, it has grown into a digitally modified, intangible prison. In order to weave together the four exhibition rooms, we needed a narrative. So we installed a surveillance tower–like structure in Room A. However, unlike the almighty panopticon, it offers video projections.

The projections have three image sources, the first being an introduction of the ten characters. In it, they start off by walking toward the viewer in the street, but as soon as their faces are identified, their past “crimes” are detected by the system. The second projection represents the surveillance apparatus of contemporary society. Two 3-D cameras, which scan visitors’ faces and are programmed to modify and distort the scans, are installed above the stairs at the entrance to the show. The third image is derived from an app, developed by the curatorial team, onto which visitors are free to upload videos of themselves dancing, which are then transformed into lines via motion capture. This section responds to the case of Maedeh Hojabri, a young Iranian woman who was imprisoned in July 2018 for uploading videos to Instagram showing herself dancing. Rooms B and C house ten ten-minute films representing each case, with one character per monitor. We have installed the monitors on the floor, as if they were bodies locked in cells, behind bars. Finally, in Room D, the operating system of the surveillance apparatus is installed inside a translucent cube. It is a statement of sorts, inviting visitors to hack into such systems. By exposing the tools of governance, we hope to incite discourse on the possibility of freedom amid omnipresent surveillance.

Translated from Chinese by Alvin Li.