‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ : Socially engaged practice in Asia – defying categorization

On 05/11/2013 by CFCCA Administrator

Socially engaged practice can be a problematic term regardless of language. In a western context it seems we are too easily driven to label artists with ‘social and community’, and often backlashed with negative connotations around miss use or token involvement of the public / community groups to create new art work. A recent trip to Taiwan, however, has only highlighted that this miss understanding around what we consider socially engaged practice is an international debate or in the case of Taiwan, a healthy conversation.

Artists working collaboratively with the public or specific community groups should be looking to emphasise the power of participation, challenging the role of authorship within contemporary arts practice and supporting the argument that arts can ‘do’ not just ‘say’ something about our everyday lives.

Finding myself up a narrow flight of stairs in the north district of Taipei, I wonder up to the Cube Project space. A modest gallery space, which on this particular day took the form of a contemporary office/ library space – consisting of a refreshingly curated project ‘Living as Form’. Curator Amy Cheng was able to show me through the post-Cold War era of art projects which lend themselves to this type of arts practice alongside new commissions which focused on new approaches to encourage participation, ‘providing a glimpse of the energy that surrounds this work’ (Nato Thompson – chief curator, Creative Time).

Along with some well known names, Ai Weiwei’s ‘Fairytale: 1001 Chinese Visitors’ being one such unsurprising example, there was various reading ephemera and video links taking over the upstairs space, in a semi-ordered yet journalist style (and therefore chaotic and investigative) set up of information about each project.

The curation of the space reflected the genuine challenge of how one presents projects where the process of working with others is the focus, not necessarily the end result or shiny finished piece of tangible art. It felt like stepping into an archive of community led, or residency focused art projects, but somehow this presentation felt right.

Two projects which struck me with a sense of true collaborative focus were Hong-Kai Wang’s ‘The Composer’ and ‘REM Sleep’ by Jao Chia-En. Both projects were part of the newly curated commissions aptly subtitled ‘Re-envisioning Society’. Jao’s ‘REM Sleep’ project focuses on a government initiative from 1994, The ‘Go South Policy’ where immigrants from Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Indonesia were allowed to move into Taiwan for short term labour work, as a method of reducing local industry costs which were starting to become heavily affected by mass production in mainland China. Documentary style videos of migrant workers sleeping; dreaming with voice over stories of their migration to a new foreign land act as a representation of how the individual nomad is affected in a changed environment.

REM SleepWang’s ‘The Composer composes the future so that the composition leaves the traces of the future which the future won’t leave’, is an exhibition built up various investigative performances, videos, sound recordings and interviews with Taisugar’s Huwei based Sugar Plant factory and groups of its retired factory workers. Working hand in hand with the retired workers and new visitors to recapture sounds from the factory environment, along with responsive new compositions by fellow artists and musicians, the project looked to address issues of social class, labour force and how we readdress the balance of giving individuals a voice in society through the power of ‘collective listening’ (Amy Cheng).


Collectively the two projects discuss and focus on the individual in today’s society, and how their condition is affected by shifting global economies. In this sense the collaboration is present for socially engaged practice and the power is there to offer individuals a voice about their own society. Essentially however, whether this is what we mean by socially engaged art or not, the artists and engaged public involved in these projects demonstrate positive and creative approaches to that ‘elusive goal of social justice’ and are powerful art projects in their own right (Nato Thompson).

Liz Wewiora



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