By Kevin Muhlen
Written for The Heard and the Unheard The Heard and the Unheard- Soundscape Taiwan, Taiwan Pavilion, 54th Venice Biennale
Published by Taipei Fine Arts Museum
“You can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears ”, says former steel worker Gino Pasqualoni during an interview with the artist Hong-Kai Wang about life in a workers’ housing estate.

Hong-Kai Wang, who is Taiwanese, grew up in a similar environment in Huwei, the second largest site of sugar production for the multinational Taiwan Sugar Corporation. Surrounded by this industrial landscape until her early teens, it would seem that the acoustic memory of this specific environment has never left her. Strongly affected by the impact of sound on human beings and their daily life, she has made this into her artistic practice (perhaps unconsciously). Having spent the last few years exploring the world and its most varied tonalities as an “intruder”, it was just a matter of time before she decided to return to Huwei to explore her own past and reconnect with her origins.

From the start, Hong-Kai Wang fulfilled the role of intruder intuitively and with ease, openly playing on it to make it the subject of her installations. Armed with her digital sound recorder, the artist “observes” from a distance and captures sounds. These are then arranged as a composition to be relocated in new contexts, giving them another dimension and enabling a different perception of them with regard to their original context. This displacement of “noises” may take several forms : some she emphasizes in the same place by a mere reversal of situation (eg : Listening with Dumplings, 2005), others she decontextualizes in order to establish contact between disparate universes (eg : Water Meditation, 2005) thus enabling the reformulation of sound and its reception. Public places particularly lend themselves to this aural encounter between “native” noises and “foreign” sounds. For her installation Setting up the Banquet (2008) Hong-Kai Wang pushed the exercise to the limit, simply placing a series of loudspeakers in the gallery of a Madrid cultural centre to broadcast an arrangement of sounds extracted from places representative of the Chinese community in Madrid.

The artist’s choice of places for research and the sounds which strike her are not gratuitous but are strongly linked to herself, in line with her artistic preoccupations. As a foreigner in the middle of a new context, she directs herself towards environments which are fairly familiar to her or that she might identify with. She draws on her immediate surroundings to find starting points for her research. New York City, where the artist lives, is particularly appropriate because of its multiculturalism. Thus in Elevator Music (2006), she installed a soundtrack of subway buskers in the elevator shaft of a New York warehouse mainly occupied by the Chinese community. The audiovisual installation Symphony (2006) refers to her interview to obtain a Green Card for the United States at the Citizenship and Immigration Service on Long Island.

Otherwise, a certain nostalgia pushes her to also explore her past in Taiwan and to incorporate it in other installations such as The Broken Orchestra (2007). Here, the rediscovery of a childhood recording in which she performs Bach’s Ave Maria on the piano, accompanied by her brother on violin, serves as a motif for the reinterpretation of childish clumsiness by professional musicians. The result is a battle between the deliberate mimicry of faults and virtuosity.

For Music While You Work (2010), produced during her artists’ residence at the Casino Luxembourg , she remains faithful to this modus operandi, already mentioning in her statement of intention the wish to probe a less “public” side of Luxembourg today : industry. For her, it was about attempting to re-establish a link with the working milieu she had left early on and which nevertheless had a decisive impact on her sensibility.

For several weeks she explored different industrial sites in Luxembourg to collect the words of workers along with the sounds that fill their respective work spaces. These aural elements formed the raw material for her installation. She hoped to take part in the workers’ daily lives as part of the workforce in her own right and see what she could extract for her artistic project. As she was not familiar with the local industrial landscape she had to start from scratch, approaching the few factories installed there and gaining the confidence of their managers in order to be welcomed into the heart of the team. She found that the industrial reality of Luxembourg was very different from Taiwan. Here there was no production line work and no community living in proximity to the factory. Hong-Kai Wang thus realized early on that she would not find a direct link with her memories. Added to this was the immediate impossibility of actively participating in the production in situ, a knowledge of equipment and regulations being indispensable to avoid disrupting the internal operation of the factory.

Music While You Work thus accurately echoed its title. It concerned an intrusive look at the activity of someone else, the “you” indicating her position outside the world of the workers and her wish to work in their sense of the word. She therefore decided to cast her outsider’s gaze in favour of the workers and their social position . The artist did not see this redefinition of her concept as a failure. Although her initial intention could not be carried out, this impass revealed a decisive reality to the artist : to recreate a link with her past it was necessary to confront it directly in situ, in Huwei itself.

During her research in Luxembourg she spoke with former workers of the Arbed steel company (today known as ArcelorMittal) in order to better understand the context in which she found herself. During these interviews she heard statements that related to her own experiences, or at least those related by her family. These people had also spent all their their life in proximity to their workplace, for several generations in some cases. Their era was the golden age of steel production in Luxembourg, from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s. At that time Arbed was the main employer and the numerous production sites operated 24 hours a day. This incontestably leaves traces and marks the minds of the people who witnessed this “belle époque”, whatever their age. All of them associated the sounds of the factory with particular moments and memories. This atmosphere is impregnated in their minds and will never disappear. Today’s technology and reinforced safety measures mean that life on the industrial site is very different from the past. Hong-Kai Wang could therefore not reawaken a memory through a contemporary industrial landscape.

The invitation to participate in the 54th International Art Exhibition in Venice presents the opportunity for Hong-Kai Wang to focus her new project on her native land of Taiwan and the working community in Huwei from which she came. The experiences arising from Music While You Work provided her with a solid basis to re-approach her plans which had been discarded along the way in Luxembourg.

To travel back in time and confront herself with impressions of a bygone age, Hong-Kai Wang this time approached people who had experienced the same daily life as she. Through their “aural persistence” and their memory, she submerged herself in the working universe of Huwei and the Taisugar production site . She guided things from a distance, allowing these “veterans” (workers and their loved ones) to approach the sound space of a place they knew better than any other and that was an integral part of their lives. It meant producing a cognitive sound “image” through direct testimony. Unlike a traditional documentary, in which this is done through speech while facing a camera, Hong-Kai Wang wished to provoke an encounter between memory and the present and allow those concerned to choose what they wanted to “show”. After several working sessions with the artist, they undertook their journey to the heart of the sounds of Huwei, the artist maintaining a distance to preserve the objectivity of the “testimony” and documenting the work on the ground through images. This concept of the inversion of roles and of indirect creation had recently been explored by the artist in her project Watching Dust (2010).

Music While We Work is far more than a mere quest for personal history and egotistical satisfaction in persistent nostalgia, touching as it does on socio-political issues that are important both for the population of the city of Huwei and the country in general. The production and export of sugar is a part of national heritage, the origins of which can be traced back to the Dutch occupation of Taiwan in the 17th century. This activity was perpetuated and developed by the Japanese and the Chinese during the centuries that followed, becoming a powerful worldwide industry up until the end of the 1970s. This activity was consequently a decisive socio-economic factor in the identity of Taiwan. In the era when the production of sugar was still the main market there, Huwei was a major production site for Taiwan Sugar Corporation and today remains one of the two sites to have survived the collapse of the industry in the early 1980s. Inevitably, this had an effect on the lifestyle of a population mostly employed by Taisugar.

Industrial development at the end of the 19th century gave rise to the ideology of life centralized around the workplace. Industry and work were placed at the centre of daily life and employers built workers’ housing estates around production sites in order to improve the lives of workers and their families. These estates included dwellings equiped with certain facilities and sometimes communal services available to all. Beyond this philanthropic aspect, the concept aimed, above all, at increasing their performance and being able to constantly watch them by keeping them close to the workplace. The rhythm of daily life was set by the factory. According to Gino Pasqualoni : “The noise of the factory guaranteed that life continued. ” However, the factory noise of Huwei gradually fell silent and life henceforth gravitated towards other centres of interest. The site itself only produces a small quantity of sugar during the winter months. Life there has thus radically changed since Hong-Kai Wang’s childhood and only the remnants of this prosperous period remain visible. The railway tracks installed more than a century ago by the company are still active in Huwei and remain characteristic of its local landscape. They also still operate in other cities, not to transport sugarcane but as a means of transport for picturesque sightseeing tours through sites which have been abandoned or refurbished as parks. On a wider scale, the economic transformation of Taiwan has left its traces not only on the working population mostly employed by this industry, but on the whole of Taiwanese society.

The you becomes we in the title given by Hong-Kai Wang to her project, thus endowing it with a triple reading and placing the project clearly in the context of national representation at the Venice Biennale in 2011. With this we she firstly targets herself and her close family context but, at the same time, she adds to it a far greater dimension including a social one around the city of Huwei and its inhabitants, having herself grown up with this nearby factory and the collective memory of a bygone era.

But the we also directly includes the reader of the phrase in the subject and points towards the worldwide scale of the effects of industrial globalization on national economies and the consequences of this for millions of workers like those in Huwei.