Interview: Yintzu Huang | Hsinchu, Taiwan
Yintzu Huang 黃尹姿, is a video artist and photographer. She was born in Hsinchu, Taiwan in 1985, and she is now based in Brooklyn, New York. Her video 'Aphasia' was part of the exhibition 'Translations' at Reed College, Portland, OR, in January/February 2015. Here she is interviewed by Maria Maita Keppeler.
Where did you grow up and where do you live currently?
I am from Hsinchu, Taiwan, and I live in Bushwick, Brooklyn, New York.
At what point did you realize you wanted to explore the arts, and what inspired you to pursue this project?
The idea of this project originated in something that I encountered in the past three years in the United States. One day during class, a Chinese woman made a presentation about the ‘History of Chinese Arts’ and during the presentation, she used the terms ‘my culture’, ‘our history’, ‘our painters’, etc. It was confusing and annoying to me; at the time, the only thing I could feel or think was that someone had stolen my culture. Later I questioned what made me feel this way and came to the conclusion that ever since I was a kid, instead of studying about Taiwan, most of my humanities education was about “China”. Like many other people in my generation and older, we grew up in a Chinese Culture and kind of identified ourselves as part of it, even though we knew there was something wrong about that. The concept in the beginning was quite simple, “I want to make an art piece that is related to the identity crisis of the Taiwanese.” One big part of it was the relationship between language and Taiwanese people. Every generation has been through a shift between different languages, which was so intriguing and sad to me at the same time. “Turbulent” (1998), the video installation made by Shirin Neshat, influenced me in particular. In this nine-minute piece, Neshat presents the unchangeable and painful restrictions on women in Islamic society. The dark space and design of the installation made it able for me to immerse myself and created a sense of isolation, which made me feel speechless and terribly sad. With “Aphasia” I wanted to express a similar emotion, so I decided to choose an installation format for this video piece.
What draws you to the medium of video?
I think I simply just liked moving image ever since I was a kid. In my childhood, I went to movies with my parents every weekend, I watched TV everyday, I even thought TV commercials were interesting. This constant exposure of media is what made me want to go to film school. During my days in film school, I encountered video art/experimental films. It was a whole new and different world to me, and I totally fell in love with it. I decided to shift my track and began making art videos. For me, when someone is viewing a movie, their role is solely one of a consumer and the interpretation is more direct and obvious. But with video art, there is a conversation happening between the viewer and the artist, which is more interesting and challenging to me; there is more room for the viewer to digest and interpret the works according to their own experience.
What kind of conversations to you see occurring between your work Aphasia and the viewer? How do these conversations differ based on the background of the viewer? Have you had the opportunity to show your work to other individuals from Taiwan experiencing the same feelings of isolation?
Ever since I decided to make this piece, I have always been aware that the lack of Taiwanese historic knowledge might be a barrier for people to understand the messages in my videos. Therefore, during the production period, I tried very hard to make the visuals more intriguing to people, trying to see if I could keep people engaged in my installation for more than a couple minutes in the gallery, and as judging from the response, I was able to do so. For viewers not from Taiwan, we talked about the similar post-colonial experiences they have known or know from different countries, and their knowledge of the history of my motherland. For audiences from Taiwan, where this project has been exhibited in three different gallery settings, the response was that people found this piece to be “extremely funny” at the first, but that turned to sorrow towards the end of the installation. Absolutely, they also felt the same isolation that Taiwanese have felt in the past and continue to feel nowadays, at least in my direct experience. Can you tell me more about the definition of the word Aphasia and how it is connected to the subject matter of your video? “Aphasia” is a medical term for language disorders caused by brain damage. When one has aphasia, their language skills remain normal but they can’t speak or write. Sometimes, patients can sing but cannot talk. To me, the condition works as a metaphor to express how Taiwanese people have felt in the last 100 years. Taiwan’s political identity has been in constant flux, very often switching regimes and even languages. People on the island were expected to be loyal to changing regimes and nationalities. The language of education kept changing, as did what was being taught. People needed to translate themselves all the time and learn new languages, new ideas of who they were; just to be able to get their education or earn a living. Therefore, I thought “APHASIA” would be a good title for this piece, representing the facts of literal similarity and the mentality crisis due to the second-hand expressing.
This seems a very fitting metaphor. And just as with language, I expect that the translation of the ‘self’ leads to certain things and aspects of identity being lost in translation. Did you discover or recover anything about your identity through the process of making and showing your film?
Yes, the process of making this piece was undoubtedly a journey of discovering my identity, not only surrounding the researching or producing process but also the Sunflower Student Movement in Taiwan which happened while I was working on this project. To me, it seemed like an incredible coincidence. During the student movement, the new generation of Taiwanese people were awakened by various factors: first, the unequal economic treaties between Taiwan and China, and second, the pro-China attitude of our government. In the meantime, people continued to think about what the future of Taiwan would be while another powerful country continued to claim that we were a part of them, and about the real meaning of being Taiwanese. This socio-cultural psychological ambience really enabled me to get a clear idea about my identity, and also the notion that I was definitely not alone in this situation.
How did you form the identities and histories of the four characters that you play in Aphasia?
I formed these four characters base on my hometown Hsinchu, Taiwan (The nearest city to China). It is a small city located in north-west of Taiwan with the most important air base and famous for its indigenous cultures. After narrowing down the area, I started collecting stories from books and the internet, trying very hard to find the good ones that inspired me. The woman in blue (who speaks the Shanghai dialect) was the first person that I decided on, because it was close to where I grew up near a huge military dependents' village, where most people were from the new immigration after 1949. For the woman in pink kimono, I found the original story from a book, which is about the name changing system for Taiwanese people in the Japanese ruling period. For the Hakka woman, I created this character to show the mix between Chinese and indigenous peoples, a common shift in Taiwan’s cultural history. And the last one, the contemporary 1980’s woman, represents the generation right before mine and who is perhaps the most carefree character; although her role is crucial as she represents the first cultural integration happening in last 100 years. All of these different identities interact with each other to show the evolving and diverse shifts of the Taiwanese cultural landscape.
It’s very interesting that you are able to portray generations right up to the one before your own, and are able to do so with our current tools of research, such as the internet. Have you considered what a character for your generation might look like? In other words, what does it mean to be Taiwanese in 2015?
There are many different types of Taiwanese in 2015. There are people who’d rather kill themselves than become Chinese, people who think being Chinese is the only way to have a better future for this country or…people who only care about posting pictures on Facebook of their lunch or what awesome coffee shop they have been to. Actually, there have always been different kinds of people in every generation, but for this, the most contemporary one, I would like to invite every single Taiwanese viewer to imagine what the fifth character should look like. I have my own clear idea of that character in my mind, obviously, but I believe it’s our collective job to define it.