In 1999 the City of Perth established a Charter of Mutual Friendship with the City Government of Taipei in Taiwan, beginning two decades of cultural exchange. PICA curator Charlotte Hickson and Taiwanese-born guest curator Ashley Yihsin Chang have assembled four artists from each city for Unfolding Acts: New Art from Taipei and Perth to mark the 20th anniversary of the charter.
Unfolding Acts places particular focus on the lives and memories of ordinary citizens as a way to measure the ‘on the ground’ effects of government policy, environmental change and shifts in cultural norms; a desirable creative counterpoint to the diplomatic activities of the charter.
A Working History: LU Chieh-Te, 2012, by Yu-Cheng Chou is a highly biographical installation which establishes the premise of subjective storytelling across the exhibition. On a broad platform patterned with the tell-tale plaid of workers’ flannelette, paperback novels are stacked. The books are copies of a memoir detailing the working life of Lu, a Taiwanese man approaching retirement, written in collaboration with the artist and a ghost author. Although materially basic, A Working History belies a lengthy interpersonal project between artist and subject in which labour, experience and personal history are exalted. Visitors glimpse a fractional view of Lu’s life as they randomly open and peruse the books.
First-person narration also underpins Chia-En Jao’s film Taxi, 2016. Camera running, the artist piles into one cab after another to film his chance-assigned driver’s commentary on the socio-political fabric of Taipei. One driver describes his youthful visits to the American Military Club, sketching a political micro-landscape in which occupying forces, journalists, collaborators and dissenters are all represented in his local neighbourhood. Mobile by trade, the drivers share a fluid, nuanced take on political history; able to find good, bad, fun and mundane aspects to each event or site.
The collaborative animation Welcome to Balardong, 2018, introduces the historically-contended landscape of York (one hour from Perth). Simple clay figurines enact the childhood memories of nine Balardong Noongar narrators as they lavish nostalgic detail onto sites like a farmer’s out-of-bounds almond tree, the first flushing campsite toilet, and the tin-can hearth where the nightly family fire was built. The tenderness of each story is shadowed by a history of curfews, constraint, child removal and disadvantage. Plucked from living memory, dark and happy feelings are interwoven, building York community’s shared memory.
Unfolding Acts is tightly focused; every artwork is a deep and significant reservoir of artistic research. Time and concentration are required to grasp the full heft of each artist’s contribution. Didactic labels provide great detail on individual artworks but little contextualising insight for the exhibition as a whole; there is no meaningful discussion of the way that globalising, capitalist, geopolitical or climactic forces have unfolded in each city, something which could have helped form relationships between works.
An exception is the artist’s statement accompanying Yi-Chun Lo’s textile work Protective Layers, 2019. Lo’s appreciation of the Aboriginal custodianship and unique ecology of Perth Country is well-articulated, engaging in the spirit of cultural exchange in a sensitive, informal way (a welcome difference from the seriousness of the other labels).
The works of Unfolding Acts are engrossing and highly individual, as good ambassadors should be. The exhibition itself is like a staged, orderly, yet earnest and worthwhile handshake.