In Moving, One Discovers the Cultural Veins beneath the Video Art of Taiwanese Artist Yuan Goang-ming

By Iris Shu-Ping Huang for Yuan Goang-Ming (袁廣鳴)

Yuan Goang-ming is a ground-breaking video artist from Taiwan. Throughout his career to date, Yuan’s visual art has been framing his critical thinking on Dasein with a perpetual condition of anxiety. He always takes inspiration from everyday experiences, the kind that activates human intuition and instinct, or simply focuses on the phenomenological. Yuan favours the juxtaposition of an extraordinary vision on ordinary, mundane elements. His techniques of expressing and manipulating inner states of mind often involve speed, which embodies a tension in his connection with the external world. In Yuan’s early works from the 90s, Fish on Dish (1992) and The Reason for Running (1998), the artist exploited moving images to convey an inner state of fatigue that nonetheless persisted in a constant, forward movement: the fish swimming incessantly in the restricted space of a round dish, or nonstop running with no beginning – both indicated the artist’s state of mind of that period, as well as the contemporaneous Zeitgeist desperately in search of a raison d'être.

Disappearing Landscape: Passing II was created by Yuan in 2011. In this recent piece, since the narrative had been reconstructed to centre around ‘home’, the artist’s anxiety and restlessness seemed to have found a reason for passing through/experiencing being, or, Dasein. In his past works, e.g. City Disqualified (2002-2004), Disappearing Landscape – October, November, December (2007), Yuan Goang-ming focused largely on his own inward states and often disrupted the potential of the everyday, the visible traces of which were regularly edited out through post-production. The extremely compressed imagery exposed the everyday Dasein in vacuous solitude. The artist had antagonised the uncanny of the everyday through a subversive lens, but now, in Passing II, this infinitely disrupted state of compression/suppression has undergone a significant transformation.  

Disappearing Landscape: Passing II engages ‘home’ as its central imagery. In continuation of the 2007 Disappearing Landscape: Passing I, all of the features – the father, wife and daughter, the newly constructed family house in the midst of ruins, as well as the sea that embraces all of these beings – allow Yuan Goang-ming to frame an even more complete picture of his cultural context, a kind of Sorge close to his own heart. The artist chose to move from inner-city Taipei to the estuarial Tamhai New Town, where numerous crumbling villas in his neighbourhood had been built with concrete contaminated by marine sand; compared to the over-developed Taipei City, this new area torn between the ill-conceived and hasty developments apparently bears, to the artist, a poetics of decadence as well as a spatial quality of contradiction that belongs to its locality. Through the disappearing landscape – the ruins – Yuan Goang-ming illustrated a space betrayed by history, a wound awaiting cure. The symbolic image of “hole”, as depicted in one of Tsai Ming-liang’s films, is an outlet of desire, an escape from alienation; in Yuan’s work, the hole is a metaphor for the abandoned homes riddled with hurt. It is also a window through which the artist forever glimpses the unknown and anxious future; the hole is a penetration into the subconscious. 

The video Passing II opens with a state of drifting, as if buoyant near the surface of the water; it then dives into the deep darkness of the ocean, where the image of home slowly emerges. Next, an underground culvert appears, where the running water directs our vision from the cavernous interior to the external world. Flowing through the artist’s reminiscence of the past and the present house, we are again confronted with the imagery of the sea. The symbolisms of the sea and flowing water are undoubtedly key to the context of this work. The representation of the sea is not only the nightmare that haunts the artist for many years (‘I have a recurring dream that goes like this: On a late, cold and moonlit night I gradually become aware of a body floating on a boundless sea’), but also the origin of his art – the anxiety for the endlessly drifting Dasein, as well as the artist’s struggle and resistance against this condition, like the dinghy, in Yuan’s work Floating(2000), relentlessly shaken by the rolling waves, or, the bucket stubbornly hanging onto the capsized dinghy only by a thin rope.

The imagery and meaning of the sea has come to light in a clearer fashion in Passing II. It is where the artist’s origin (yuan in Chinese, which could also mean ‘circle’, ‘completeness’, ‘contentment’) lies, and it also resonates with the connotation of ‘home’ as Taiwan, a home that undergoes a never-ending series of change in the rolling waves of history. From the artist’s father, Japanese wife and new-born daughter, to the new home built with the artist’s own hands, as well as the surrounding empty houses deserted after the failed urban regeneration, the meaning of ‘home’ has been represented in various, complex and contrary ways. To the artist’s aged father, the diaspora, caused by the Chinese Civil War, means that ‘home’ only exists in memory. In 2009, Yuan experience both the joy of his daughter’s birth and mourning for his father, who, once appearing in Disappearing Landscape in 2007, had sadly passed away. The image of disappearance, in Disappearing Landscape: Passing II, became a passage from Silang’s Visit to his Mother, a singing voice reverberating where the memory lies. When the camera glided over the father’s vacant bed, which represented the home/origin of the past, there resounded a tune from the celebrated Peking opera, a forlorn hope for return to the hometown and reunion with the mother. At the same time, it echoed with the father’s nostalgia for the hometown in mainland China, and the artist’s dear memories of his father.

From The Cage (1995) and Disappearing Landscape we can see the father’s influence on Yuan’s work. In memory of his father, Yuan created Passing II. Father is a metaphor for the home/origin of the artist. After his passing, the father induced in Yuan a longing for home, a ‘home’ that can only be reconstructed through the emptiness of being. In the bed, where the memory of the father lingers, where his silhouette is absent, now rest peacefully the artist’s wife and daughter; this is now the new home/origin. In the new home Yuan Goang-ming built on the ruins, he experienced the nature of disappearance and rediscovered the veins of his identity. French urban theorist Henri Lefèbvre once remarked, ‘if space is produced, if there is a productive process, then we are dealing with history’. The imagery of home created by Yuan Goang-ming, either the new-built home or the representation of his father’s house from memory, or even the work Passing II itself, have indeed dealt with Taiwan’s tangled history through the ‘disappearance’ and ‘passing’ of time. Passing II interlaced the natural qualities, regionalism and social dimensions of space in a temporal and spatial matrix, creating a new cultural landscape slowly reborn in the gaping wound of decay; it is a self-generating context that belongs to Yuan Goang-ming.

If we interpret the headlong tracking shots in Passing II as an ideological passing-through, as well as a thoroughfare/penetration to the meanings of home and Dasein, an opening/window is necessary as the current of time in passing riddles the home with all the breaks and breaches. Through these penetrating passages, through the flows of sea water, we may find an origin to our never-ending state of drifting.