Interview with Ting-Ting Cheng
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Interview with Ting-Ting Cheng

Ting-Ting Cheng’s project & profile
https://tb2020.jp/en/project-en/the-nights-of-chiyoda-en/

What changes have you noticed in your works from your early days to the recent? What are the common themes that you work on?

I would like to believe that my works are growing deeper as I gained more experiences. I hope this is how they are perceived as well. By ‘experience’, I don’t only mean the experiences of being an artist, but also the experiences of being a human. Looking back at some of the works I made as a student 11 years ago, I still like them, but I feel the conversations stayed on the surface. However, you can find a continuous thread of things I care about in the works. As a Taiwanese, also as an immigrant in Europe, I have been interested in all forms of immigration and diaspora, the dislocation and transformation of culture, languages, nationhood and identity. One of my first works, exhibited in my degree show in 2009, was about international students in London, the language barrier and their relationship with the UK. One of my latest works “A turning away from debates that have not been concluded”, made during my artist in residency at CFCCA, Manchester, re-staged a debate that happened at a conference held by the organization in 1998. It was to challenge the definition of the word ‘Chinese’ in cultural contexts. And for the project I proposed for the Tokyo Biennale, “The Nights of Chiyoda”, I will be visiting the history of Taiwanese Japanese soldiers during WWII, and Zainichi, the Koreans born in Japan. They are also about the colonization history, nationhood, immigrants and identity. I hope the conversations raised by the recent works are deeper than the works I made 10 years ago.

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A turning away from debates that have not been concluded (2019), performed at CFCCA, Manchester, documented by Joe Smith

The project you will be presenting this time, "The Nights of Chiyoda," includes tours of Tokyo's historical sites, guided by audio. I visited your website and found some of your works in this format in the past. When did you start creating your artwork in this format? Please tell us about the attractiveness of experiencing it. I find the experience of actively discovering a story through physical activity, insead of reading it through books, more theatrical and very interesting.

I believe that I’ve always been interested in ‘experiencing’ artworks. I think it’s important for artists to consider the factors, even as small as the seats prepared for the audience to view videos. Are they comfortable? Are they inviting? Those are the factors which would influence how the audience perceives the artworks. So, if every artwork is an ‘experience’ for the audience to ‘experience’, what would be the best ways for me to tell the stories? Sometimes, I would like to tell the story through videos, sometimes texts, sometimes images, sometimes voices, sometimes physical walking, and sometimes all together. For all of my projects, I’ve been trying to find out what are the most effective / appropriate ways to tell the particular stories of the projects. I believe my first ‘tour-like’ project was “On the Desert Island” made during my artist in residency at Iniva, London. I created an audio map / walk, interweaving the conversation from the BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs with professor Stuart Hall and presenter Sue Lawley, along with a narrator as the voice inside the audiences' heads, giving direction while creating an imagination of the library as an island, where the audiences are being cast away. I really love it. I feel that physically moving yourself from one place to another, noticing the details, and finding surprises on the ways, create a ‘different’ experience of storytelling. Not only you ‘listen’ or ‘read’ the stories, but you also ‘experience’ the stories. I can’t say it’s better than other media, but it’s definitely unique. Personally, I find it ‘easier’ to involve the audience in this way, because it requires their participation to ‘complete’ the works. The audience becomes a part of the work.

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On the Desert Island (2017), exhibited at Iniva, London, documented by George Torode

Why did you choose nights as your theme? And why did you choose Chiyoda Ward as the theme for your story?

When I was doing the research for the Tokyo Biennale, I looked into all the wards listed. In the initial research, I was mostly surprised by the gap between the day-time population and the night-time population of Chiyoda (more than 20 times difference). I started to wonder, why, and how? After further research, I started to know the neighbourhood a bit better, like it has a large percentage of public institutions, offices, touristic sites, where people flock in during the day, and leave in the evenings. Then I thought, “It must be fun to visit at night. It must be like a ghost town.” This is how the original sketch of the proposal came. Furthermore, I found more and more interesting facts, for example, Yasukini Shrine is in the area. As a Taiwanese, Yasukuni Shrine has always been controversial. I remember all the fights about the shrine between politicians since I was kid. And like I mentioned before, national identity is one of the topics that I have always been interested in. I found the arbitrariness fascinating. Who can decide if they (or even we) are Japanese, or Taiwanese? And Zainichi is another topic I would like to discuss for a long time. I’ve never believed in the so-called “Jus sanguinis” (血統 in Chinese). I believe that there are nationality and where the people feel they belong to. The fact that Zainichi is not considered Japanese (at least by some) surprised me. Sorry, I realised that I am going too far. So, yes, I found Chiyoda itself and the history happened within the ward fascinating.


You are participating in a program called "social dive", in which you will dive into the city of Tokyo. What is your image of Tokyo, or current Japan?

I have to be honest, I don’t think I am very familiar with Tokyo. My last visit to Tokyo was around 20 years ago when I was a teenager. I remember that the only thing I cared about as a teenage girl was shopping, and, of course, I had a good time. I still have some of the clothes I bought from the trip. And my last trip to Japan was to Osaka, in 2016, when I visited for an exhibition of mine. I had a chance to visit Tokyo in 2015, because I won the Asian Creative Award, but I was in the UK waiting for my visa (another long story), so I had to give up the trip. I guess like most of the people, Tokyo in my mind is flashy, busy, trendy, futuristic, filled with colours, symbols, and food, but also distant. I am extremely excited about my stay in Tokyo. I am hoping to see the sides of the city that are different from the images I have.

What do you expect of the Tokyo Biennale as an event? What makes the Tokyo Biennale different from other art festivals you have participated in?

I really like the theme, Social Dive. I believe that art should be at least in some ways connected to the society, as we, artists, as human beings, are. I think it’s great that all the artists will be making the projects in Tokyo, where the exhibitions happen. I think it’s important to have a connection with the local community. I expect it would be exciting, sincere, participatory, and meaningful. I hope it can be something lingering among the communities, even after the show ends.


What is the current situation of the artwork you are planning to present? What kind of work do you think it will be?

Like briefly mentioned above, “The Nights of Chiyoda” will include three audio walks around Yasukuni Shrine, Chongryon, and Kasumigaseki Station. They will each have a starting point where the audience can download the audio guides from their phones, before following the instruction to start the journey. They are planned to be around 30 minutes each. The voices you would be listening to will be the voices of the ghosts, lingering around the area. This might be the place they left us, the place means something to them, or the place they moved to after deaths. They are Taiwanese Japanese soldiers who died in WWII, Zainichi born and raised in Japan, and a passenger who died in the sarin attack in 1995. All the stories deserve to be heard.

Because of the COVID-19 situation, I can’t visit Tokyo for physical planning of the routes and field studies. So currently, I am reading all the second hand materials I can access to from Taiwan, including books of the interviews of Taiwanese Japanese soldiers, 還我祖霊―台湾原住民族と靖国神社 by 中島光孝, 靖国問題 by 高橋哲哉, Underground by Haruki Murakami, and movies A and A2 by Tatsuya Mori, Yakiniku Dragon by Wui-Sin Chong, Our Homeland and Dear Pyongyang by Yang Yong-hi, and many other articles and videos I found. It helped me a lot in building the knowledge of the subjects. After the research, I started writing the scripts. At the same time, I also used Google Street View to roughly plan the routes of the walks, which is actually surprisingly helpful. Of course, I expect to have a lot of changes once I am in Tokyo, when I can redesign the routes based on the things I encounter in the neighbourhoods, and rewrite the scripts after more interviews...etc. I hope it will be the kind of work that can touch people, and stay with them.

I think it's an inconvenience now that COVID-19 is raging around the world. What did you think about in response to it?

Yes, I agree it’s inconvenient. I, for one, really miss travelling. However, at the same time, I also think it’s a good opportunity for us to try to live in a different way, to reconsider everything we used to take for granted, to revision how the world will be in the future, and furthermore, how we like our world to be.

It's been said that mobility of people will be difficult since coronavirus's outbreak. What impact do you think it will have on your artwork? Also, what do you plan in response to it?

I actually thought about it. Two of the three walks are planned to be walking on the streets, which means outdoors. I personally think walking would be an appropriate format in the time of COVID-19, because the audience can operate everything on their own without close contact to others, from downloading the audio from their phones, to walking the routes. Wearing masks would not influence the experience as well. One of the three walks is planned to happen in the underground. The starting point will be at one of the exits. The audience would enter the station and take the metro from one station to another, and then back to the same station. In this case, the severity of COVID-19 at the time might decide whether the work would function or not. However, as long as the metro is working, the work can exist. Furthermore, I actually think the situation of COVID-19, in some ways, adds another layer to the work. I feel that wearing masks and the fear of contracting COVID-19 create a certain invisible (or visible, in cases of masks) membrane between people. For me, the format of audio tours actually builds upon this isolation. It’s important for me that the audience would experience the audio tour individually, hence the headphones instead of speakers, even when the works were exhibited indoors for my previous projects. I want to create this feeling of “It is talking to you, not anyone else, just you. All those people physically around you have no idea what is happening to you, now, at this moment.” It’s a bit surreal, but also extremely intimate. I think the isolation and the distance between people somehow makes the work more interesting.

On the other hand, I think it would also be interesting to develop a VR version, or a video version, where the audience can experience the walk from home, as a backup plan. However, it would be quite different from the physical walk for me, interesting in a different way.


What kind of impact do you think you can have on society through your artwork? Also, what kind of power do you think art has?

Wow. This is a great question but also a difficult one. I would like to believe that artists, or art, have a tremendous power to change the society as we wish, but there are times when I am not so optimistic. At the exhibition at Iniva, London, where I exhibited the project mentioned above, “On the Desert Island”, the curator of the institution was very emotional while experiencing the work, and we had a conversation afterwards. She told me that, as an immigrant in London herself, the work made her think about the reasons she’s here, as if her story was told / heard. In 2019, I had a residency at Taitung Art Museum in Taiwan. Over there, I made the project “The City Where No One Walks” about religion and mental health in relation to my father’s death. In the videos, I used my own experiences of seeing therapists as a thread to connect other elements. We only had a one night screening. We didn’t attract many people. Only around 15 people showed up. It was a three-channeled video installation, 1 hour long. I could see the tears from the audience during the screening. Afterwards, we had the Q&A, and it developed into a discussion, a support group. People started to share their experiences of seeing therapists, asking advice from each other. One of them was working as a therapist. There were teenagers who were interested in the subjects, families who wanted a night out. Those were the moments that made me feel optimistic about what art can do, when people feel their stories were told, when the issues I want to raise are discussed, when we can talk to each other and share, and feel supported. The world is a horrible place with hostility, discrimination, capitalism, injustice, and I can go on forever. I don’t know if art can change that. But at least there are things art can do, and at least we can try.

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The City Where No One Walks (2019), screened at Taitung Art Museum

Ting-Ting Cheng’s project & profile
https://tb2020.jp/en/project-en/the-nights-of-chiyoda-en/


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