Between Waves

Curator Alice, Nien-Pu Ko in conversation
with Franziska Lamprecht

Between Waves, Part 8 in The Brooklyn Rail’s Singing in Unison series, is a group exhibition that focuses on the South Pacific region, an archipelago containing some 25,000 islands, islets, and atolls. Installed at a former Brooklyn post office where not so long ago, tens of thousands of letters and parcels were collected and sorted through in order to be distributed all over the world, this show—bringing together and simultaneously decentralizing the artworks of 17 artists, filmmakers, poets, photographers, musicians, and thinkers from Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, Borneo, Jeju Island, The Hawaiian Islands, Samoa, and New Zealand—uses the bare-stripped location in related ways.

Due to the number of large video projections, walking through the darkened space—looking at fishing vessels, funeral possessions, tropical rain forests, earthquake aftermath, abandoned seaside hotels, weathered faces of elderly women, people with burning torches in dripping caves and slow motion underwater screams of divers—feels like being immersed in a journey, in which the humming, haunting, moving, and mourning complexities can be sensed directly but not immediately grasped.

Like vessels on the ocean, half submerged and half above the surface, the exhibition engages a vast variety of oceanic histories, traumas, rituals, survival techniques, and myths, and lets them be seen and experienced in new configurations and exchanges, depending on the vantage point and the timelines of the observer.

Earlier this month, artist and writer Franziska Lamprecht spoke with Alice, Nien-Pu Ko, the curator of Between Waves, about geography, oceanic culture and thought, and connecting across distances.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

Franziska Lamprecht:

Eduard Glissant, a writer, poet, philosopher and literary critic from Martinique, coined the term “archipelagic thought,” a way of thinking marked by ambiguity, unpredictability and multiplicity-in-oneness. When you conceptualized this exhibition, did you think in any manner of a geographical formation?

Alice, Nien-Pu Ko:

Yes, I did. Islands are an important perspective of the show, and there are many ways to think about the islands in philosophical or geopolitical ways. This exhibition looks into the Asia Pacific region and how this vast, living body of water contains a vibrant, strong cultural presence that’s perpetually resilient in light of colonialism, world war, the Cold War, nuclear threat, and ecological disasters. The initial thought involved experience from my homeland Taiwan, which depicts a state of identity that is hard to define.

One of the questions this exhibition tries to raise is whose imaginaries and sentiments are we are delineating, articulating, and theorizing? How can we locate the varied approaches to collective action among different areas, in the in-between of different histories, experiences of the Cold War, and individual and collective perceptions?

The artists in this exhibition have developed a way to navigate the historical struggles, memory, and identity that are not defined by nation-states and territories but from a life of experience that has been nourished by the island and their unique culture. In re-evaluating the past and present, perhaps we can discover a new ethos that would allow for a structural overhaul, yielding a history that goes beyond the dynamics of country-to-country discourse.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Offering - Coil Embrace (installation view), 2023. Photo by Alice Nien-Pu Ko
Yuki Kihara, A Night to Remember, 2022. Photo print and dolls. Photo by Franziska Lamprecht

Franziska:

I read that the land controlled by Taiwan actually consists of many islands. 

Alice:

I haven’t looked into that part.

Franziska:

Do you want to guess how many islands make up Taiwan?

Alice:

Ten?

Franziska:

168.

Alice:

No way. That must include really small islands where nobody lives.

Franziska:

That’s right. 99 percent of the area is occupied by the main Island, which we call Taiwan, but then there are still 167 other ones. 

Alice:

This exhibition took inspiration from thinkers and writers from the Pacific region. One of them is the Tao writer Syaman Rapongan. He developed a unique perspective of the ocean, which comes from the cosmology of Tao culture. It is repeatedly told by ancestors in memory. It is also an ocean that people experience and perceive with their bodies after relearning their own culture and accumulating rich local knowledge.

As an island tightly surrounded by a fertile ocean, Taiwanese literature surprisingly lacks ocean themes, which mainly focus on the continent-centered point of view. Syaman Rapongan’s literature has brought a new perspective and depth to Taiwanese literature. It not only leads readers to dive into the ocean culture, but also experience the fluctuations of ocean tides, changes in ocean currents, and the movements of fish schools. It comes from the Tao culture and how we harmoniously coexist with nature.

He once said: “The only way to write ocean literature is to take the body, mind, and soul into the sea.” On the other hand, his thinking also provides a way of navigating through colonial history, memories of the Cold War, and how we move forward to the future. Leading us to rethink the contrast between modern civilization and traditional wisdom, and deeply reflect on the relationship between humans and nature.

Among the islands of the South Pacific, we have re-witnessed the profound connection between the Austronesian culture and the umbilical cord of the ocean. Just like Syaman’s many journeys to the islands of Tonga, the Cook Islands, and Fiji in the South Pacific. Both the once-fractured ocean world and the islanders’ cosmology have also brought us a broader worldview.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Halmang (installation view), 2023. Photo by Alice, Nien-Pu Ko

Franziska:

This outlook is what I found so interesting in the essay “Our Sea of Islands,” by the Fijian writer and anthropologist Epeli Hauʻofa, whom you mention in the introductory wall text to the show. Reading the essay, I was really amazed how Hauʻofa changed the conception of a region by changing only a few words, how he performed a paradigm shift by switching the vantage point.  Instead of calling the Pacific region, in colonizer terms, “islands in a far sea” he centered his own position and said, “Sea of Islands.” Instead of “Pacific Region,” he said “Oceania,” he used the power of language to shift the perception from small, scattered, isolated patches of land, remote from the centers of power, to a concept which evokes vastness, myth, and an enormous depth. His use of language shifted the Pacific archipelago from an implied belittlement towards an enlargement. Can you talk a bit more about that?

Alice:

I quoted Epeli Hauʻofa in this exhibition as he once reminded us not to feel inferior and despair at the territorial limitations of the island from a land-centered perspective. Therefore, this exhibition also attempts to reverse our narrow imagination of islands and oceans. The exhibition is a voyage, to humbly enter the world view of the island of history, and establish a more organic connection from the vast perspective of the ocean. The stories continue traveling through the ever-changing time.

Franziska:

Yes, as part of this same idea, Hau’ofa also talked about “people of the sea” as opposed to islanders. “People of the sea” intuitively indicates that an islander’s home is not only the patch of landmass that sticks out of the water, but that the islander’s home is the massive ocean and all its interconnections. The term “people from the sea” reminded me of the group of elderly women from Jeju Island, which the artist Jane Jin Kaisen portrayed in several video works in the show. Can you talk a bit about these women divers? 

Alice:

Jane Jin Kaisen presents two video works, Offerings (2023) and Halmang (2023). As a highlight installation in the exhibition, Offering showcases her collaboration with female divers on Jeju island with choreography. With a particular white cotton called sochang, which represents a symbol of the cycle of life and death and humans’ connection to the spirit world, her work encompasses life and lived experience, or the present moment we live in. At the same time, the memory of historical violence is reflected in the performance of the divers and part of the ritual. 

Halmang revolves around a group of eight women in their 70s and 80s. It was filmed by the coast of Jeju Island near a lava rock islet that used to serve as a shamanic shrine for the wind goddess Yongdeung Halmang. The women, who have worked and made a living together for most of their lives as sea divers, used to depart together for the sea from this very location. The film portrays the aging women’s lived experience, their community, and spirituality connected to the sea, the wind, and the island. For me, Jane Jin Kaisen magically captures a non-divisive approach to the environment, a cohabitation where nature is not an external force but a co-constitution, part of an ecosystem.

Vandy Rattana, Funeral (installation view), 2018. Photo by Alice, Nien-Pu Ko

Franziska:

What “people of the sea” also made me think about is the way continental people traditionally gather their resources by foraging in the woods or growing food by farming fields. In the case of Jeju island, which consists, in large part, of volcanic rock, this is not so easy—or even impossible. Due to this, groups of women dive into the ocean to harvest marine life, such as seaweed. They are not on a boat—they don’t hang a net into the water—they dive their bodies into the water to collect food with their hands, and as such, they embody the idea of “people of the sea” in a very particular way.

Alice:

Yes, it’s important to get close and not romanticize the oceanic thinking from far away, but look at the cultures that are really shaped by the oceans. Their lifestyles, their belief systems, and their thinking is very influenced by their environment. The idea of sustainability is very important to their communities, and this is part of the legacy we need to preserve. 

Franziska:

This brings me to a question, which I asked myself when we were looking at two photos by Vandy Rattana, who photographed former bomb craters in a series called Bomb Pond in Cambodia that over time filled with water and started to overgrow, and which now have become part of the landscape. How does a landscape naturalize violence and destruction, and how does the ocean embody catastrophic events? 

Alice:

In Rattana’s works, the purpose is not to simply represent the landscape, but the absence of the body in the history and trauma experienced by the people. The past and present life of the landscape allows us to have a dialogue with the past. He has been thinking about how to break free from the cycles of death, birth, and history, when we are trapped in the cycle of history.

Franziska: 

While you were talking about Bomb Pond, I was picturing a land mass, and when you described the relational concept of memory as something that cannot be tracked from A to B in a linear way, but that is always changing and fluid. I pictured that fluidity in an always-changing landscape of vegetation, waterways, and geographical formations, but I still have no clear picture of how the ocean deals with violent impacts, how the ocean embodies memories.

Alice:

When we develop the idea of islands and oceans, one important thing to consider is that this an area without any specific borders and territories which we can organize metaphorically or politically. For me, Rattana’s practice and work talks about a life without national borders and territories; he is not talking about Cambodia, but the human existence in a very universal way, and that’s the reason I wanted to include his work. Identity is not defined by nation states.

Pangrok Sulap, Flora and Fauna (installation view), 2023. Woodcut print on fabric. Photo by Alice, Nien-Pu Ko
Pangrok Sulap, Flora and Fauna (detail), 2023. Woodcut print on fabric. Photo by Franziska Lamprecht

Franziska:

I want to return to the beginning, to the title of the show, Between Waves, which made me wonder: What is a wave? In physics a wave is a propagating dynamic disturbance, a change from an equilibrium. When I think of the term waves metaphorically, it is something big, a moving energy, something unstoppable that washes over us as a society. I am thinking of fashion waves, political waves, another wave of coronavirus. The metaphorical wave can have positive or negative connotations. What is a wave for you? 

Alice:

That’s a great question. This is instinct. Even though the show is about the ocean, I never wanted to add the word ocean as a sort of keyword in the title, because to me, the movement is quite important. Even though the ocean represents a borderless openness in a very beautiful way, it does not necessarily contain the movement, which also includes the movement of the artists as they navigate between historical trauma, their own personal memories and experiences, and looking towards the future. There are so many spots where they travel, not only geographically but also in thinking, and that sort of practice inspired me. It is a state of life that is hard to define, and ambiguity is a very important theme of the show too.

Franziska:

When I visited the show in November 2023, you gave an hour-long tour, introducing us to each of the works, and when I left the darkened galleries and stepped out into the gray afternoon of Industry City in Brooklyn, it felt as if I had been on a journey, which I could not really grasp. But I wanted to learn more about this….

Alice:

…. decentralization?

Franziska:

Yes. How are practices of voyaging and sea-faring interwoven in the physical and conceptual layout of this show?

Alice:

Before I worked at an institution, I worked as an independent curator, and I was always very curious about practices that are hard to define—things that don’t fit into scientific categories or identity narratives. So in this show, the ambiguity keeps circling around, and what the show asks is: How do we define those gray zones? How do we recognize ourselves when identity is so fragile?

Franziska:

This show contains a lot of video works. Are you particularly drawn to moving image works to incorporate your ideas about movement and fluidity?

Alice:

I am particularly drawn to video because I am fascinated by how a projection’s life changes a space into an immersive and time-based environment, and how moving images respond to a space like this one. Another thing I am interested in is a younger generation of women artists in Asia who are drawn to make video works. Video for them is a very powerful medium to navigate those complicated memories. The medium becomes more like a meditation space itself; the artists are healing in these video works. In a meditation space, there is no right and wrong, and no particular timeline, so the audience can engage in a very different way.

Franziska:

The works in this show deal a lot with traumas caused by the Cold War, which triggered a personal memory. I grew up in East Germany, and I remember a geography class when I was in fourth grade—that was in the early 80s, I guess—where the teacher pulled down a political map of the world. Our “brother countries” were all colored in red; our enemies were colored in some dark color, like dark blue or brown; then there were some green ones, the so-called neutral countries.

What I remember from this class was a sort of physical relief I felt when I saw that the “red camp,” due to the size of the Soviet Union at the time, occupied the biggest land mass. My child mind equated land mass with power, resources, and security, and I found it reassuring that my little country had attached itself to the biggest blotches of continental mass. I don’t even remember recognizing any oceans on this map; they probably were just left blank. How was Taiwan depicted on the maps you saw as a child, and how has growing up in Taiwan shaped your perception of the world? 

Alice:

In 1987, when Martial Law was suspended in Taiwan, the education system had developed more focus on understanding the history of Taiwan itself. I believe it started in the late 90s when the textbooks gradually changed the geographical understanding and imaging of the Chinese “homeland” in Taiwan’s geography education. As I received my education just during the transformation, I remember both perspectives.

Martha Atienza, Adlaw sa mga Mananagat (Fisherfolks Day) (installation view), 2022. Photo by Alice, Nien-Pu Ko

Franziska:

Where in New York do you live now?

Alice:

I live in the Lower East Side.

Franziska:

So you moved from the island of Taiwan to the island of Manhattan. How do these two islands compare?

Alice: 

I recognized Manhattan as an island only in the moment of crisis. Without crisis, you can travel easily between Manhattan and the other boroughs, but my friend reminded me that Manhattan is an island when he shared his memories from 9/11. When the crisis happened and people tried to escape, it became suddenly clear that the geographical location has certain limits. During the time I developed the show, Russia invaded Ukraine, and suddenly everyone was worried about what would happen to Taiwan. Ukraine is in a very different geographical situation; Taiwan is an island, and there is no way we can escape if war happens. So I do have another understanding of islands besides a very poetic way.

Franziska:

Fun side note: Taiwan is 600 times bigger than Manhattan.

Alice:

Really? Wow.

Franziska:

I lived for more than 20 years in New York City, and three years ago, I moved to a rural part of Upstate New York. Reading about the archipelago, and the archipelagic thought as a way of being aware of relations and interconnections made me realize that rural living also provides a much more decentralized sense of interdependence and connectedness than living in a densely populated city, like NYC, that likes to see itself as the financial and cultural power center of the world.

Alice:

After I moved to New York, the experiences and conversations I had provided me an opportunity to look back at the history of Taiwan and its connection with other countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia, and what it means within my practice at this particular time. For instance, the New Southbound Policy in 2016 has been adopted to enhance cooperation and exchange between Taiwan and countries in Southeast Asia and South Asia.

Franziska:

Thank you so much, Alice, for your time and sharing your insights and ideas.

Between Waves ran from October 7, 2023 to January 12, 2024 and featured work by Martha Atienza, En Man Chang, Yin Ju Chen, Jesse Chun, Miyagi Futoshi, Maya Jeffereis, Jane Jin Kaisen, Yuki Kihara, Jia-Jen Lin, Yu Liu, Vandy Rattana, Lisa Reihana, Tita Salina & Irwan Ahmett, Lieko Shiga, Kahurangiariki Smith, Su Yu Hsin, Pagrok Sulap, and Hong Kai Wang.

Find more of Alice, Nien-Pu Ko’s work on her website.

Learn more about Franziska Lamprecht.

Jane Jin Kaisen, Halmang (installation view), 2023. Photo by Franziska Lamprecht

All images © the artists, courtesy of Alice, Nien-Pu Ko

Header: Installation view of Leiko Shiga, When the Wind Blows, 2023. Photo by Alice Nien-Pu Ko

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