Parallel Play and Art- Electri-city

Written by / Tzu-Chieh Jian

You see Liao Chien-Chung’s Sun Magic Cubefrom afar. The installation, placed on the slope of the northeastern end of Kaohsiung Central Park, was shaped as a magic cube with a blue surface similar to solar panels. You can roughly imagine why the artist wanted to make it look like it’s rotating. If he didn’t, it would just be an odd 3 dimensional cube-shaped object which resembles a solar machine in the park. But now as it looks rotating, we know it is a toy, or at least something looks like a toy. Then we won’t worry too much about issues like electricity leakage; and as it's quite big, it also  looks like a toy accidentally left on the green lawn by a giant.

These associative factors combined have granted a certain rationality to Sun Magic Cubebeing placed in a park: The idea of “toy” can be associated with “park”; the installation can not be used therefore it’s an artwork; and the appearance of solar energy panels can be related to the theme of the exhibition, which is electricity. Moreover, with the pleasant weather of Kaohsiung in Spring, the park is constantly filled with children running around having a good time.

But if you pay attention to how preschool children play, you will get to observe a rather fascinating pattern, “parallel play”, which refers to how children play adjacent to each other but do not try to influence one another's behavior. For children that are older and can actually interact, their ability to form power relations and to make rules is more obvious. How they form and apply the rules will then create a certain collective atmosphere that marks the differentiation among groups. 

Then we see how children in the park playing their own games, or have already immersed themselves with the card game designed by the curator even before we understood the rules.  They queue up for Chiang Chung-lung’s Atom Billards so they can roll both the huge ball and themselves, or they painstakingly try to light up Chiu Chao-Tsai’s Clockwork Inc. in the transparent tent so it shines like a micro city. We adults have hard time understanding why children can invest so much effort just to activate Tsai Pou-Ching and Wu Tsung-long’s Electricmagic and Tseng Wei-Hao’s Ride in the Rain. They use their physical energy to generate electricity and produce bubbles and rain.

It’s easier to imagine through the installations children might learn the fact that electricity doesn’t not come easy. What’s intriguing is the level of passion they express towards the installations. We can observe a form of “parallel game” here too. The word "parallel" can be very small, as small as an quiet mutual understanding, with children creating divisions in order not to interfere with each other. Yet the word can be big as well. It seems like Children are in different universes and in their own time, and just happen to appear in the same location in this park. In comparison, we adults are just trapped in another dimension of the universe we don’t understand. In spite of the fact that we don’t know each other, we are all very aware of the only kind of universe that exists beyond game, a universe of reality that is no longer as passionate as children’s play.

Of course, in this universe there are still things keeping us different from other adults, such as the unique sensibility art professionals possess. Based on this sensibility, I feel that comparing to some installations in Electri-City that are activated by the electricity generated from interactions, Liao Chien-Chung’ Sun Magic Cubeis also like something from a the parallel universe, as in this exhibition, curated by Robbie Huang and sponsored by Taiwan Power Company, Sun Magic Cube is an installation that looks electric but in fact purely visual. Just as what Wong Cheng-Shian has pointed out in another commentary for this exhibition, this is a pure signifier.

Perhaps Joyce Ho’s Balancing Actalso tends to this form of pure signifier. However the curved frame that enables the movement of this graceful grey railings still implies a certain functionality to be activated by the fountain. But how can a pure signifier be excluded from the world? After all it will be unimaginable for an ideal modernist sculpture to have a flexible pedestal. The curved frame at the bottom of Balancing Actfinally gets rid of the pedestal that is continuously drawn downwards, and connect with the surrounding through the water column fountain. This connection generated from Balancing Act, unlike the other interactive installations that rely on human power, refers not to the audience in the park but to how the artwork is contextualized in the space. There is a metonymical relationship between the signifier and the park as the field, which reminds us of what Barnett Newman said in the 1950s: “Sculpture is what youbump into when you backup to seea painting”.

This contingency intrigues me. The railings are not supposed to appear in the center of the park (Though you still see various public art versions of Richard Serra’sTilted Act). Together with the people passing through the square, the artwork has formed a classic spatial experience of modernity. As a good urban citizen, the quiet understanding we have with each other is not to disturb anyone passing by. The railings give a “Taiwanese” feeling as much as those randomly parked motorbikes.People try not to disturb each other, but still curse when getting tripped by those motorbikes. This contingency also manifests in Yao Chung-Han’s #AEM 7when it gives out a lonely yet boundaryless cold light. Here I see more of the contexts of the artists, instead of their negotiation with a particular field. I think this creative process of being true to one’s own ideas is also similar to a certain contingency. 

As opposed to this contingency, it seems I have to try harder to interpret the connection made by Yeh Cheng-Yu’s Mist and Hsiao Sheng-Chien’s Frog to the site. Instead of an obvious intervention, their approaches are comparatively gentle. However, just like the installations activated by human power, in Electri-Citythe mindset of “public first, art later” manifested by the artworks indicates a certain transition. From the relationship building between human and the environment, and the various forms of imagination about electricity, to the card game that’s super popular among children, because of the presence of Sun Magic Cube, Balancing Actand AEM #7, they all are like elusive signifiers, a transition which deviates from the theme based on the artists’ attempt to signify the theme. There are many artists famously resorting to this kind of transition in their artworks.

As to the installations I haven’t mentioned, it is more difficult to place them in the context of “signifier” I attempted to build above. In Electri-bus Su Huiyu did conduct ethnography but only left the image; In You Cheng-Da’s Revolutionary Team you can only read the artwork by scanning QR code, and in Wang Jun-Yuan’s Electri-Fortress the installation, standing at the highest point of Central Park, was established through a series of workshops. These are all projects that have tackled the signified, which is energy, and might also be the ones that manifest the intention of the curator to the greatest extent. The intention might be overshadowed by all the signifiers made of various interactions and designs. In an industrial city like Kaohsiung, electricity is like the various pipelines buried deep underground. It is not only an invisible foundation to support the city, but also critical issues and needs more attention from all. It is these issues that shape this greatness of the city and give it anunique history. In the mean time, we have never seen a public art festival that can fascinate children to this extent, and naturally include all audience. All above have constituted the publicality ofElectri-city.

Electri-city makes you wonder what is art and what is pure. Isn’t art and purity also a form of “parallel play”? It is pure when we mistaken the sound of rain for rhythms, but the rain that came with the sound might have caused a disaster in some other areas. Art has its own universe, like the universe of games that condenses time, and works become toys. By playing, children play with things and their future, pointing to a history that can only be approximated by imagination.

Giorgio Agamben once mentioned a very interesting statement in an essay. On one hand, he listed the relationship between monuments, antiques and even archives and historical objects. This relationship is not difficult to understand as they all symbolize an era, or passed down from that era. On the other hand the Italian thinker continued and mentioned “toy”: The only one that can distinguish it from other objects-is something quite singular, which can be grasped only in the temporary dimension of a ‘once upon time’ and a ‘more more’. He also made a slightly abrupt conclusion: “(Toy) is the Historical in its pure state”.[1]

My interpretation is that toys are purely signifiers when we only care about practical functions, especially when they are made as miniatures of real life objects purely for children to play. As they refer to the appearance of actual objects, the toys possess a historicality. They are not real, but through them we can imagine a beetle car that is no longer being produced. And also because they can be pushed and moved by children, there is also a temporarity in toys that belongs to the present, different from the historical time and the reality system it relies on but allows us to approach history.

Electri-cityat Central Park, Kaohsiung is by far the most interesting public art event I have seen. Through the artworks, we get to briskly encounter electricity and art simultaneously in this gloomy industrial city.

[1]Gorgio Agamben, 1978, Infancy and History: The Deconstruction of Experience, translated by Liz Heron, 1993. NY: Verso. p.71.

Written by / Tzu-Chieh Jian

Born in 1974, Tzu-Chieh Jian earned his doctoral degree in art creation and theory from Tainan National University of the Arts and teaches in the Department of Fine Arts, National Kaohsiung Normal University. He served as a nominator for the 14th and 15th Taishin Arts Award. He started his first job in an advertisement company as an account executive, and had since taught as a member of adjunct faculty at two art universities in northern Taiwan for almost a decade. During that period, he used to work concurrently as a project manager at the “Intransigent at the Beginning Studio,” a senior editorial writer of ARTCO, and an observer of 2015 Kaohsiung Awards. He also founded the artist group “Post-Eight” in 2000, since when it has participated in prestigious domestic and international exhibitions. His major curatorial works include Missing Key Piano(2017) at IT Park, Everyday Thomassons(2016) at Double Square Gallery, In the Flesh(2015) at Chine Gallery, New York Travel Program(2012) at Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Looking Up! Looking Down!(2009) at Eslite Gallery, and [Ctrl]Z(2008) at inFIDI space.