Upon arrival in Venice in the afternoon, I took ferry from airport to the islands. As the boat swang gently upon glittering waves, my heart also swang in happy anticipation. I descended in front of Piazza San Marco with luggage, submerged into surging waves of touristic crowd, until I finally reappeared before Palazzo delle Prigioni, beside the subdued banner of Tehching Hsieh: Doing Time at the elevated porch gate. The floor plan I’ve previously seen began to realize itself before my eyes one by one.
I recalled the intensive three-day workshop back in late March, and how all participants made as much as possible of the short training session to clear all questions they might have and absorb the information received on site. Even with a general knowledge of the exhibition, there are considerable differences between attending the workshop and arriving the actual exhibiting venue, and the gap must be bridged. In the following days, apart from the various things to be occupied with during the preview week, we took the opportunity to inquire details about the works, taking advantage of the presence of the artist himself and the curator Adrian Heathfield. They were also very kind to feed us with valuable extra information, fearing they might omit or forget something.
During the previewweek, to be actually involved in interacting with artists, curators and audiences from around the world made me realize, all the much better, the important role of an exhibition docent as mediator of the artworks. Not far from what I envisioned when I first participated in the project, that communication and conveyance of ideas would be the most important mission of this journey I have embarked on. Within the short span of two months, I have met and conversed with different people, accumulated thoughts meditating upon the works and upon life itself—they would all become priceless treasure offered through my participation during this time.
I thus familiarized myself with working in the exhibition halls and found my role to be closer to an observer than a docent there. Most people would be overwhelmed with the plenitude of large or smaller scales of ongoing exhibitions in the city of Venice that they could only give limited time to glimpse at one, and rush on to another. A guided tour lasting ten to twenty minutes would often seem to be cumbersome to them. Judging from the actual situations of the exhibiting venue, I mostly just observed silently and provided answers to those who might have questions, and more information to those who might be interested, thus offering my service in a more opportune way. The full-length presentation we had practiced in the workshop was reserved for group tours, which I found to be more useful to them. Over and over again, I practiced and polished my skills to accost a visitor at good timing and learned when to stop. Furthermore, I adjusted my way of presentation, its content and length in accordance with different visitors, and I also adjust the mode of interaction according to their reaction.
A lot of artists, curators, art workers and students came to the exhibition: usually they had a firmer look, and some had tears gleaming in their eyes to this pilgrimage. The moment they walked in, they went directly to read curatorial presentation or straight towards the works to examine closely. However, as Prigioni was located near the busy San Marco district, many curious tourists also stopped by. It was quite interesting to observe the tourists: some stepped into the entrance, seemed at a loss, and turned away immediately; some made a hurried visit and left; yet some were willing to stay longer and attempted to get a better grasp of the exhibition.
The crowd came and went. I’ve always wondered, how many people would take the artworks seriously, received possible messages conveyed through them and formed their own interpretation as well as feeling connected with them? In spite of the fact that Hsieh’s works approached such universal themes concerning the dimensions of human existence in general, the extremity of the one-year performances might not be, perchance, easy for people to comprehend? To my surprise, a lot of visitors who took the initiative to give their compliments about the exhibition and share with me their viewpoints about the works, did not know Tehching Hsieh or his art previously. But to think about it, such an extreme enforcement and regulation as Hsieh’s on physical behavior would readily impress people and push them to associate the works with their own bodily experience, even if the motivation which drove the artist to create the works remained unknown to them.
The process of conversing with the audience and sharing their feelings and opinions was most valuable. Even though I had already read articles about Hsieh and his works and attempted to interpret the works in different ways, I always gained new perspective interacting with the audience. Getting out of textual and scholarly analysis and coming into the actual exhibition ground to interact with the public—from very basic questions such as “What is this” or “Why is he doing this”—I was thus able to go through a series of conversational and discursive progress. Everyone comes from different background and view things from different angles, yet it is already remarkable when we open a discussion, get ourselves understood and understand another. It’s not necessary to reach a consensus, totally accept or identity with others.
As Hsieh once said in an interview, “A work requires your own experience--the kind of experience not to ‘see the work,’ but to judge with what you’ve accumulated in your life experience what is going on here.” Everyone uses their own life experience to “see the work” and there are myriads of ways to interpret—no interpretation shall be deemed absolutely correct or not. The self-imposed practice resembling an ascetic monk, the training of will power, the level of self-discipline only possible to Asian artists, the obstinacy to prove the being of self, setting the rules of the game for self and observing these rules should be considered a kind of freedom, avoiding rules set up by others so as to observe ruthless rules by self to satirize institutionalization, etc. Interpretations and opinions as such circulated in the exhibition halls each and every day. Yet documents and works retained their silence, only to provide clues for the audience to find their own answers.
Many have praised this exhibition to be the best of all mounted in the Taiwan Pavilion. There are also disagreements, and some consider it more favorable to select an artist with more “Taiwanese flavor.” This impression should not come as a surprise in such a political arena as Venice Biennale where it is often thought appropriate to represent national characters and reflect national situations. In a time when nation is often applied to distinguish self from other, I think it particularly moving to present an artist who does not define his works with nationality, refuses to be classified or limited with regional signs, and communicates with his art the universal problems faced by humanity regarding existence. I feel honored to serve in the very first guided tour project, to be mediator of the exhibition, and to trigger as much as possible fruitful conversation apart from my explanation and presentation. I hope this training project will continue to promote more effective communication and help the exhibition to better reach the audience. We may also get more feedbacks as curatorial references for future exhibitions.
Yu-mei Sung | B.A, Foreign Language and Literature, National Taiwan University