Inter-order of Things and the Birth of the Digital Native

Patrick Flores

Chia-Wei Hsu is fascinated with the forest or mangrove of signs taken for wonder. His world-picture is lush and emerges from thickets of cross-references and transpositions. This fondness for stories and images nesting within more stories and images leads him to explore the procedure of collage, primarily to allude to the precocious mingling of persons and things, species and artifices. The effort does not stop at collage, however. He further explores, he revisits relationships that require the methods of mixing and at the same time enable a proposition of fictive integrity, not autonomy or purity, but a political quality of kinetic visual fabulation arising from intense encounters and reciprocities and, surely, idiosyncrasies. This is how the artist evokes a fantastic ecology, he does not merely represent it or capture it as a recognizable or intelligible theme. In fact, more than the desire for consistent and coherent theme of a precarious planetarity or a catastrophic anthropocene, he is keenly fixated on variations, which do not proceed from or terminate in a central motif of evolution and decline. He is rapt before the restive symptoms of intervolvement.

The collage is a pathway for Chia-Wei Hsu, it gives him the chance to build up what he calls the “internet of things” in which the digital moment and logic, time and instinct, is crucial in this constellation, although not reducible to it regardless how robust and hectic its constitution is. This is why it might be interesting to offer an equivalent name to it: an “inter-order of things” to implicate an earlier notion of taxonomy as theorized by Michel Foucault and simultaneously hinting at the (inter)net as the ascendant order in which things gather, mesh, proliferate, disperse, and accrete. This is a prolific technology that indexes the reflexes of the present as it restitutes the past and contemplates an afterlife of the postmodern contemporary— or the persistent non-modern.

Collage, thus, is enhanced by the modernist montage and the postcolonial hypermedia, it alternates between juxtaposition and seriality, agglomeration and dispersal, glut and repossession. This intersection generates an inter-order of things that exceeds the ruminations of Foucault and prompts the audience to be more intimate with the granular fragments of difficult histories, which are parsed into micro-ecologies of digital media via both printing and the internet, and sometimes within installative environments which may liaise with Google maps. It can be argued that the mixture of media in the aesthetic and ethos of the collage gives way to an interactive (multi)screen where the viewer navigates codes, links, files, and algorithms. In Chia-Wei Hsu’s peripatetic imaginarium, the visual template becomes a quick-change schema of hybrid or invented stimuli, a primordial welter coming out of disparate but very telling particulars and particulates, an incipient geontology in the theoretical parlance of Elizabeth Povinelli. It disrupts the linear progress of event, ventilates facts to subjective readings, hazards speculations, and releases information to the chance of play, error, mistranslation, unknowability in the face of adjacent, tangential, obtuse, and acute distractions and obsessions.  And one might curiously query: Is there a line between Foucault’s birth of the clinic and the origin of the digital native in what the post-structuralist philosopher describes as the “sudden vicinity of things?”

            The locus is largely Asia, particularly its southernness or southeasterness, but the orbit is extensive, touching the raw nerves of empires and the peripheries they have birthed, exceeding nations and traversing regions and hemispheres. And certain tropes surface at the outset: the mutating animal, the shapes and colors of which change, its skin strewn across time zones and consumed seemingly with avarice; the native plant made to yield fruit, sugar, and the imagination of leisure; adventurers and colonists who meet shamans; archaeology and the architecture of cyberspace. More specifically, Chia-Wei Hsu risks reinterpreting the historiography of Malaya; the allegories of elephants; and the commodity/militaristic functions of digital technology in the discrepant forms of gaming, drone, or remote sensing; the responsibilities of memory and trickster mythologies. The enigmatic scene of the exhibition is this: a carefully crafted relay of object studies of a shipwreck; video installations of lore and saga; drawings of flora and photographs of fauna; and documentaries around investigations into the totems of culture, enlivened by sound from vestiges. Here, the artist troubles the ties between ecology and epistemology, he embeds the scintillating life of technology within the binary so that it may finally ramify with alacrity and poignancy and urgency in the hostile/hospitable realm of the digital lifeworld.

            More specifically, Chia-Wei Hsu trains his ludic and forensic faculties on distinct elements, species, events, or personages. The network he engineers becomes highly charged with intricate connections.

            The event of White Terror in Taiwan history is a case in point. The artist revisits the site of archaeological remains, which became politicized and made a dissident out of an archaeologist. To reference this scenography, he probes a childhood object of the archaeologist, an inkstone chiseled from a rock. He then translates this miniature, which is also a microcosm, to digital data so that it can be reconstructed as a reprographic object, thus rendering “history” as at once political data and multiple truths, meta in many ways while remaining a figurine of clay from 3-D printing.

Certain creatures and their body parts are prominent in the artist’s bestiary. The Malay tapir is almost like a phantasm, pig-like in appearance but is kin to the rhinoceros and the horse. It is an assemblage in and of itself, transpiring in myriad guises as an extinct organism though retaining a unique genetic makeup. The skin of the deer exposes the fetish of the samurai culture of the Japanese Edo period, which would later drag Taiwan and Cambodia into the ravenous supply chain.  Substances are crucial, too, in the reflexive matrix, such as copper that is traced to the mines and inexorably to the mining industry, and then reformatted as a game; and a sunken ship, its copious provisions buried and feasted upon by the inhabitants of an island who had forgotten how to farm because of the unexpected windfall of food, that may well be conversing with Magritte. Finally, a literary text like the Malay Hikayat Abdullah is reenacted, as it were, in a ritual that includes as one of its characters the panoptical, almost invasive, drone and invites viewers of this wired century to partake of the wild of another climate as they key in some words to animate a transfiguring digital ambience and population.

Two new works based on Chia-Wei Hsu’s collaboration with archaeologists and musical artists are presented in this exhibition. The locality of Performance in the Church is an excavation initiative at Heping Island in the northern part of Taiwan involving tombs and the foundation of the All-Saints Church from the seventeenth century. The latter testifies to a Spanish presence in Taiwan and may thread the island through Malacca, Cambodia, Japan, and Singapore. This video installation stages how relics, 3-D-printed to meld with similar objects become instruments, produce sound and become part of an ensemble within a ceremony, a performance, a commemoration, and a documentation. To hint at an archaeological continuum, the piece begins with the unmoving musicians captured as if in a frieze, before they begin their composition that permeates the atmosphere with agitated melancholy of sonic clusters and atonalities; soon enough, artifacts float on the screen wondrously but also incidentally. The musical groundwork, or grave, is a Gregorian chant that is slowed down, delayed, in other words, perhaps in sympathy with ancient time, and entities, being aroused by medieval melody.  The line “in and amongst us all” becomes some kind of a drone, haunting the listener with an intrinsic and universal memory. Two screens provide the density of discourse via the conversation between the composer Tak Cheung Hui and the archaeologist Ellen Hsieh and the gritty registration of the unearthing of remnants, most prominently the corpses of people shorn of skin and tissue, dramatically coming to life as a future necropolis.

The other work is a compendium of the artist’s project mapping installations titled Work Paths Until 2021. It brings together his previous inquiries, which have become meditations on eccentric affinities. By turns, they interweave, slip away, and impressively converge in fragmented cells of a moving image projected onto the large wall of the gallery. They look like hard-edge sherds, reminiscent of archaeological finds but may seem to be aspects of abstraction, too. Again, we are drawn to a cinematic collage of facets containing the corpora of research; or splinters from a plane of glass containing excerpts from an oeuvre. The composed sound from the Heping Island project is the immersive sonic landscape. And this is significant not only because of the compelling music that derives from the stuff and means themselves of the artist’s work. But also because the setting of this venture is storied, home to Fort North Holland (formerly known as Fort San Salvador) that was put up again in 1642. Moreover, Chia-Wei Hsu relates the Malacca Governor's Mansion built by the Dutch East India Company in 1641 with the Cambodian-Dutch War in 1643 in light of this archaeological allusion, as his trail spreads across other archaeological scenes, including the underwater archaeology of Green Island on the east coast of Taiwan and the Stone coffin of Hualien Shinshe.

On this breathtaking horizon of history-in-the-making and giddy decoding and encrypting, Chia-Wei Hsu proposes a “period eye,” to borrow a phrase from the art historian Michael Baxandall, who cobbles together the term to describe the optical temperament of a certain visual milieu. The theorist of visuality Jonathan Crary might call it the “technique of the observer.” This eye and this technique are trajectories into an observation of an era, an awareness, or an attentiveness, of the colonial and the interspecies in which the human and non-human cohabit a compromised picturesque terrain. It is one that revives the trauma of civilization and announces the beginning of extinction and the longue durée of extraction— all whirling or caroming in a digital universe that is not free from its own mongrel colonialisms.  For the artist, the flake or the sliver of an archaeological find is akin to a digital pixel, their minuteness becoming a cosmos of data or lattices of ties.  Their mere-ness thrives in a vivid but also dissembling world, the many worlds within it, rethought, unknowable, dug up, laid bare, juxtaposed, and scattered like parts of an elusive though inevitable totality.