The Strangers from beyond the Mountain and the Sea
The ‘stranger’ in the title of the exhibition is inspired by the ancient Japanese word marebito, which the Japanese folklorist Orikuchi Shinobu (1887–1953) described as supernatural beings that come from afar with gifts. These visitations usually occur during special occasions, and an encounter with such an otherworldly entity is always uncanny. However, if responded to in the appropriate way – with rituals and festivals, the marebito would bestow gifts of knowledge and wisdom.
We use the term “stranger” as an extension of the marebito, to refer to many “others”. Not only spirits and gods, but also shamans, foreign merchants, immigrants, minorities, colonists, smugglers, partisans, spies, traitors - the stranger is a medium, through which another world may be communicated. Through encounters with strangers, we might confront the outlines of ourselves, the borders of our society or even the boundaries of our species. This is the stranger’s gift. And some gifts are not easy to receive.
For the “mountain” and the “sea” of our title, we had “Zomia” and the “Sulu Sea” in mind. The American anthropologist James C. Scott (1936-) describes Zomia as a broad, elevated region stretching from the highlands of central Vietnam to northeastern India at 300 meters or more above sea level. Zomia’s high altitudes and rugged terrain form a natural barrier, making it difficult for the low-lying states surrounding it to govern. Thus, it has become a sanctuary for a variety of fugitives such as partisan fighters of forgotten wars, drug traffickers and ethnic minorities and other fugitives escaping the reach of the nation state. The Sulu Sea is a marginal sea between the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea, bordering Borneo to the south and the complex Philippine archipelago to the north. In addition to rich maritime trade, the Sulu Sea has also long been rife with slave raiding and piracy, and today has become a stage for regional terrorist organizations.
The highlands of Zomia and the low-lying Sulu Sea constitute a vertical axis, pulling at the foundations of flatland empires. To imagine how such a force field might look like, we created a diagram that gradually became something of a blueprint for this exhibition.
Another vertical axis in the diagram stretches from “Clouds” in the earth’s troposphere to “Minerals” beneath the earth’s surface, but we also had in mind, the digital cloud enabled by rare earth elements extracted from the ground. To view human histories against the horizon of clouds and minerals is to open these narratives up to the roles of non-human elements and non-human scales of time. Thinking of this intertwining of the human and non-human has led to one of our central questions while preparing for this exhibition: How can the unfinished project of Asian decolonization be rethought through these entanglements?
For now, we have tentatively named the space in the center of the diagram as “The Void.” Concepts of nothingness or emptiness recall the foundations of some of Asia’s great thought systems, but we have seen how their malleable nature has made them vulnerable to political (mis)appropriation. Today, at a time of great geopolitical shifts, incessant technological revolutions and an ecological crisis on a planetary scale, we seem to be entering a void of a different kind, where existing ethical and political coordinates no longer seem to guide us. At moments like this, it might be useful to recall how in certain Asian thought systems, the Void is not only regarded as a lack or an absence, but also a space of emergent possibilities. Which brings about the next question: How can we think creatively of the Void, and in the Void?
The diagram is neither a theoretical model nor a storyline. It is a tool we made in order that we can make a stage to be inhabited, and activated by the works, thoughts and presences of artists, thinkers and collaborators. This exhibition unfolds in four interconnected chapters. On the ground floor, the first (Gallery 102) and second (Gallery 103 to 108) chapters bring together artworks that embody the complex entanglement of human histories with stories of mountains and seas, clouds and minerals. On the second floor, the third chapter (Gallery 202) features a cast of human subjects propelled by immense, often non-human, forces to positions beyond the pale of national identities, and the forth chapter (Gallery 203 to 205) is dedicated to visions of human and material transformations. Woven across the four chapters are four “Footnotes”, a gathering of notes and thoughts that not only provide possible contexts and subtexts for the artworks, but also suggest interesting detours, or offer little openings to other lines of thought.
If we are unable to provide answers for the many pressing questions Asia is facing now, we hope that we are able to reframe some of these questions, to widen the outline of interpretation with new chains of relations, and thus expand the possibilities of response.
Text by HSU Chia-Wei and HO Tzu-Nyen