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3th TIVA websiteDreams and Calamities: Is This the Future for Which We Have Struggled?

In the End, It’s about People and the World

Amy Cheng


Taiwanese writer Lai He, when recalling his experience of progress brought to Taiwan by Japanese colonizers, once noted, “An era's progress and the well being of its people are, after all, two different things.”


A goal of Melancholy in Progress was to provide a means for rethinking personal experiences of history, specifically encounters with modernity resulting from historical quests for progress and modernization. Although presented as a video art exhibition, Melancholy in Progress set out to do more than consider video from a simple perspective of art forms or aesthetic categories; it also focused on the essence of images and their production. By using a twofold strategy of looking back on history through image as a narrative and documentary form, and exploring image production and its modern implications, the exhibition developed philosophical and historical considerations of progress, as well as mounted an analysis of aesthetic attitudes related to these considerations. The exhibition presented video, narrative, concepts of time and documentary examining modern notions of progress, and the significance that these notions have produced in contemporary life. These goals inevitably raise deep and complicated, yet foundational questions regarding our conception of modernity. When those of us living in a non-western regions look back on our path to modernity, we realize the climb has been steep and sometimes the light blinding, and our sense of cultural identity and existential awareness has long been entwined with western modernity's guiding concepts of progress based in instrumental rationality.


Melancholy in Progress offered an alternative vision for examining the process of modernization, addressing complex relationships between modernization and colonial history, and investigating the influence that western rationalism has wielded around the world. Colonialism here does not just indicate the expansion of sovereign colonies during the western Age of Imperialism, but also refers to today's promotion and pursuit of capitalism under globalization, which, through the deployment and acceptance of instrumental rationality, technology, power/knowledge, social systems and other methods of organization, has shaped many of today's increasingly compact, violent and invisible authoritarian relationships. This describes the political and economic relationships underpinning our use of the term “modern,” which echoes the statement by Anthony Giddens, “The emergence of modernity is first of all the creation of a modern economic order, that is, a capitalistic economic order.” (96) Drawing connections between history and contemporary society, the exhibition attempts to excavate these increasingly invisible relationships and their underlying causes. This suggests a deeper analysis of optimistic notions of progress, and the never doubted and omnipresent mythical modern spectacle hidden in our everyday lives.


The word “melancholy” in the exhibition title, the starting point for Melancholy in Progress, indicates the collective spirit of a capitalist society transitioning from an industrial to post-industrial phase. While this word may seem somewhat somber or even discomforting to some, its use here is not merely rhetorical, as creating a feeling of discomfort was necessary to make viewers reflect upon the issues described above and retrace the threads of their human desire and existential awareness. The melancholy we speak of comes primarily from western modernity's notions of linear time, progress, competition and material development. As non-westerners, it seems we are always placed on the margins of this vast and daunting system, or left behind by an ever accelerating group of more advanced nations. From where we stand, divided from the utopia of progress by a river of time, we cannot help but long for what seems distant and unreachable, and this longing forms relationships between western and non-western modernity. On this road that we have been made to travel by ideologies of progress and modernization, we see few leaders or pioneering producers from non-western regions, but rather many passive consumers and low-level suppliers in global production systems. Indian scholar Partha Chatterjee, who is associated with Subaltern Studies, has made the following incisive observation, “We must remember that in the world arena of modernity, we are outcasts, untouchables. Modernity for us is like a supermarket of foreign goods, displayed on the shelves: pay up and take away what you like. No one there believes that we could be producers of modernity.” (20)


Looking back at this experience raises some important issues regarding our future direction, such as how we might reverse our fate of being consumers or being dominated while still being driven by the desire for progress; how we can rethink progress in a way that suggests more than one trajectory or a standard that is not universal; or whether we should pursue different possibilities for the future instead of copying western notions of time and progress which have left us always lagging behind.


The exhibition provides a variety of visual experiences related to the framework outlined above, and includes more than thirty video art works, documentaries and documents by twenty-five artists or art groups. The works discuss development and other phenomenon in contemporary capitalist, industrial societies, presenting means of survival and specific realities faced by people in different regions, geopolitical settings and phases of history. Together the works unmask the complex and unjust oppression that lurks beneath the questionable notion that “the world is flat.” In light of a universal desire for progress, which has its sole manifestation in consumerism, these videos turn one’s gaze back upon our modern world to promote dialectical observations and awareness. Walter Benjamin's “Angel of History,” which he described in 1940 on the eve of World War II, still has the power to startle today:


“His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (257-8)


The imagery in Benjamin's allegory provides a means for revisiting the past, and precisely because we see “the pile of debris before [us] grow[ing] skyward,” it feels like melancholy. But because of the feedback provided by this “debris,” this melancholy does not suggest utter hopelessness. The discomfort of melancholy is sufficient to provoke a reaction or even a turning point, and so if we are willing to face rather than flee from melancholy, it may prompt another kind of desire and pursuit. Looking back is much like what scholar Wu Chieh-Hsiang calls “contemporariness;” she has said, “When we talk about contemporariness we are actually talking about synchronicity and by that I mean, we reflexively look back and forward at the same time. It is necessary to turn to look back and also to turn one's attention to what is happening at the moment, such that one simultaneously revises and advances, or rectifies every step forward.” This passage perfectly echoes Benjamin's “Angel of History,” who turns his back to the future and looks at the past, hoping to bridge the displacement between the past and future, between the modern and traditional. Situated in different cultural and historical contexts, the artists presented in the exhibition make significant connections between their experiences of past and present.


Taiwan moved into a new phase of modernization after martial law was lifted, which corresponds with the end of the Cold War and beginning of economic globalization. During this period many fragments of history were swept aside in the transformative atmosphere of an expanding neoliberal political economy (Francis Fukuyama's The End of History, in which the author described the triumph of capitalism, also appeared at this time). In his documentaries filmed over the course of a decade, the Taiwanese film director Ming-Chuan Huang meticulously records transformations in Taiwan’s cultural setting. Opposing values regarding demolition and construction are made especially disturbing in his works, as Huang highlights the tyrannical deployment of capital, knowledge and technology in the name of progress, as well as the oppression and elimination of those who fight against this so called progress. This is not only the case in Taiwan, but also in every other country or region (China, the Middle East, Eastern Europe or Latin America) that has ever been referred to as developing and with a history of modernization. As their societies transformed from agricultural to modern and urban, the people of these areas, in the words of Zygmunt Bauman, have been reduced to “human waste, or more correctly wasted humans,” due to their perceived backwardness, irrationality or dangerousness, and then cruelly discarded. (5) The notion of fragments of history is the starting point for Kao Chung-Li's film installations which present an image-machine concept based in historical materialism. By exposing the production of images, he creates a dialectic with our modernity, and by producing images by hand, making his own projection equipment, and mechanizing projection, he allegorically establishes his own modern subjectivity (sensibility) and practices an alternative, material-based means of knowledge production. Architect Hsieh Ying-Chun suggests an alternative to the homogenization of commercial residential architecture with a revolutionary challenge to its contemporary mainstream systems. With simplified, precise, and efficient construction methods, he shifts initiative in the production of living space back onto the resident, thus addressing exploitation by modern professionals and commercialism, and their usurpation of residents' authority.


Works by invited foreign artists focus on their observations of and attitudes toward modernity in their own countries. Venezuelan artist Alexander Apóstol explores images of early modernity as seen in Latin American urban development during the 1960s and 70s, as well as capital flows behind this development and how the powerless, lowest rungs of society coped with these changes. German artist Harun Farocki discusses how the politics of technology and power are deployed in contemporary societies and individual lives. Spanish artist Antoni Muntadas observes the operation of collective fear and its relationship with national borders and geopolitics. Kyrgyz artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev focus on Central Asia’s transition from a communist society to market economy, the effect this has had its residents. From the perspective of reason’s elimination of irrationality, Indian artist Iram Ghufran takes a closer look at how a traditional society understands and accepts madness through spirituality and shelters those suffering from insanity under a rebus of dehors. Also from India, artist Meghna Haldar traces concepts of bodily and mental cleanliness and filth, and our identification and repulsion toward these concepts. In addition to these artists, others whose works were chosen from a call for entries hail from countries including Greece, Pakistan, Israel, Ireland, and Poland, and have contributed empathetic readings of modernity that seem both familiar and unfamiliar. Much difference and tradition are presented in all these works, which offer many valuable opportunities for self reflection and observing the unfolding of history.


Melancholy in Progress does not intend to completely deny the value of progress and modernity, but rather to suggest that human civilization since the time of the industrial revolution has followed a path of runaway materialism. This has resulted in many political, economic, cultural, and environmental crises, not to mention much personal discomfort. Furthermore, people have sacrificed the natural equilibrium that exists between humanity and the natural environment and become trapped in an endless cycle of competition and the wanton pursuit of material desires that has left the human spirit unmoored. As Chatterjee has noted, “Today our doubts about the claims of modernity are out in the open.” He goes on to suggest, when clarifying our attitude toward universal modernity and advocating custom definitions for ourselves, we must also remain vigilant about the fact that “there is no promised land of modernity outside the network of power,” and merely regressing to a traditional, premodern world would do little to actively address the problems we face, and “hence one cannot be for or against modernity,” but can only start out from our personal experiences to find various strategies for coping. (14, 19)


Finally, Taiwanese little theater director and critic Wang Mo-Lin has said, “Ultimately exploring our modernity is akin to exploring how to reconnect alienated modern people into a spiritually integrated world, and perhaps this is a step toward an ultimate notion or movement of progress.” This summarizes our expectations for Melancholy in Progress. Perhaps in today's world, reviving values that integrate our human lives is progress in itself. In this way we can smooth over the incompatibility between progress and happiness that Lai He lamented, and perhaps transcend our fate in the historical process of modernization.



Works Cited

Bauman, Zygmunt. Wasted Lives: Modernity and Its Outcast. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2004.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken-Random House, 1969.

Chatterjee, Partha. Our Modernity. Rotterdam/Dakar: SEPHIS CODESRIA, 1997.

Giddens, Anthony and Christopher Pierson. Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Lai, He. "wuliao de huiyi" (dreary memories). The Taiwan Minpao vols. 218-222 (weekly installments, July 22 to August 19, 1928).

Wu, Chieh-Hsiang. “Forum: Melancholy in Progress.” Melancholy in Progress. 2013.

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