At Mumok, Vienna, the artist uses the elephant as a symbol for the human cost of the textile industry in Taiwan
The second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45) produced a strange hero – an Indian elephant named Lin Wang, who fought with the Chinese Expeditionary Force against the Japanese. This beast of burden was later taken to Taipei by then-President Chiang Kai-Shek, where it became, for a time, the most famous animal in Taiwan. In the 1960s, the Taiwanese government again used the image of an elephant as a propaganda symbol for the hard work needed to transform the country from an agrarian society into an industrial one. Drawing on his own family’s experience of this eventful time, Taiwanese artist Huang Po-Chih’s current exhibition at Mumok also uses the metaphor of this mammal to unpack historical constructs of national identity in the context of contemporary global capitalism.
Titled ‘Blue Elephant’, the show centres around the artist’s essay ‘Blue Skin: Mama’s Story’ (2011–13), which is presented in a set of denim-backed volumes on a single white shelf within the exhibition space. Although the original text – based on extensive interviews with the artist’s mother – is written in Mandarin, excerpts have been translated into English and German and placed around the gallery in poster stacks à la Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Describing her working life in the textile industry – from factories to alteration shops – it’s a story of long hours and physical hardship peppered with black humour. An extended version of the text in the exhibition catalogue documents tales of stinging eyes and dye-stained skin, of surviving, changing and losing jobs. A collaborative comment on the human fallout of industrialization, this longer extract makes painfully clear how global economic changes, such as ‘the financial tsunami, bonds, layoffs, unemployment rates, severance packages, supplements, benefits’, impact ordinary people’s daily lives.
Alongside these text-based works are large-scale monochrome framed photographs of the artist’s mother, aunt and Master Cheung – a market worker Po-Chih encountered in Hong Kong. The faces in these haunting images are covered or turned away, depicting layers of play and concealed pain. His subjects also contort their arms and legs into elephantine shapes. In Blue Elephant (2018), for instance, Po-Chih’s aunt puts her head and arms into the legs of a pair of trousers to resemble an elephant’s trunk. As in his essay, the artist’s focus is on the physical impact of industry, here referring to how those who sit working at a sewing machine all day often describe themselves as elephants due to their inertia.
Unsurprisingly, textiles also have a strong presence in the exhibition. At the centre of the space, for instance, a row of handmade denim shirts hangs on a rail, made by the artist as editioned works in his mother’s size (Production Line-Denim Shirt, 2014). At the end of the room is a large protest banner from a textile market in Hong Kong that is currently fighting for its survival, which reads: ‘40 years of social economic productivity could be destroyed. Demand the government to be humane’. Behind this screens an accompanying film, Seven People Crossing the Sea (2019–21), which documents the market as a victim of gentrification, but also a producer of an immense amount of waste. In one striking moment, the artist, clad only in his underwear, is depicted climbing a mountain of bagged used clothes.
Denim is the perfect commodity with which to encapsulate the story of global capitalism. Billions of pairs of jeans are made every year, creating an industry worth billions of dollars. Yet, what this exhibition sensitively highlights is how these everyday objects are not anonymous: they emerge from a network of politics, economics and human effort.
Huang Po-Chih, ‘Blue Elephant’ is on view at Mumok, Vienna, until 27 February 2022.
Main image: Huang Po-Chih, ‘Blue Elephant’, 2021–22, exhibition view, Mumok, Vienna. Courtesy: the artist and Mumok, Vienna
Francesca Gavin is a writer, curator and Contributing Editor for Kaleidoscope and Twin, based in London, UK.
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