Tuesday, 28 May 2013

High Kill Shelters and Post-Modern Art in Taiwan


53317 dogs were killed at Japanese shelters in 2010 (image source)
 I just got back from a large interdisciplinary academic conference in Osaka and my mind is full on a million new ideas and projects. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the event I got to hear academics speaking about topics I never new existed, or topics I was familiar with but using an entirely different set of methodological tools. A highlight for me was a talk I ended up in completely by accident given by Tsung-huei Huang of the National Taiwan University titled Imagining the Alien Other: The Representation of Animals in Postmodern/Posthuman Art (click the title to read her abstract).

She spoke about two art exhibitions that drew attention to the huge numbers of animals killed in government shelters on the island and the issue of animal abandonment. The first exhibition she discussed was Lishan Chang's Ashen Atrocities on a Desolate Island. It features a huge mound of ashes and bone fragments of animals killed in these shelters, piled in the center of a darkened room. Chopsticks* and envelopes are provided and visitors are encouraged to write messages on the envelopes and pick out bones to place inside. The envelopes are then piled in a separate mound. As the exhibition progresses the pile to bones dwindles and the pile of envelopes grows. At the close of the exhibition the envelopes are sent to the relevant government bureaus.  Click here to see some photos. I can't share images here for copyright reasons, but take a look at the link. Even in pictures it is a powerful exhibition, I can't imagine what it must have been like in person.

The second exhibition discussed was Yu-xian Chen's Departed Ever-being. I can't find any images or even information to share with you unfortunately. When dogs are found or brought to shelters in Taiwan they are photographed and documented, with descriptions of their personality and so on, before being killed after a short holding period. Departed Ever-being was comprised of two elements. On the walls were hundreds of these "reports" with photographs and descriptions of dogs now dead. Then in the center of the space on the floor was a vast pile of empty dog collars, drawing the viewer's attention to the fact that these dogs were once part of families; they came to this fate as a result of human actions. 

What is really interesting about these two exhibitions is the different reactions. Yu-xian Chen was asked to close  Departed Ever-being early because of a large number of complaints from visitors who found the exhibition upsetting and complained to the museum. How typically human to complain to the museum for reminding them about the dead dogs, but to not complain to the government about killing them... Anyway,  Professor Huang pointed out that the difference is in the invitation for action included in Ashen Atrocities; after being made aware of the slaughter visitors are given a vehicle for their emotions and an immediate action to perform that is both symbolic yet also effective. In Departed Ever-being there is no external way to direct the negative feelings the exhibition provokes.

It was interesting to hear about these exhibitions relatively soon after seeing a Japanese film about dogs being gassed in government shelters that included online and off-line campaigns to raise awareness about shelter dog deaths. In Taiwan 97% of dogs who come into shelters are killed when their twelve days have passed. I don't know what the percentage in Japan is, but the shelter featured in the movie has a seven-day time limit. I was curious to see that Himawari to Koinu was supported by the shelter featured in the movie: the shelter and its director were not portrayed particularly sympathetically. Likewise I was curious about how the two artists obtained the ashes and capture reports used in the exhibitions discussed.

*I have no knowledge about Taiwanese culture but in Japan the family of a deceased person uses chopsticks to pick out bones from their loved one's ashes to place in an urn which is then interred in the graveyard. I am making an assumption that the use of chopsticks here is similarly intended to show respect and care towards the dead animals.
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6 comments:

  1. Wow, they sound like really excellent exhibits.
    I like (as you mentioned) how 'Ashen Atrocities' provided an avenue to to express the grief/disturbance invoked by the exhibit, and how that also became protest by sending the envelopes to officials. That really marks the difference, for me, between a simply shocking/disturbing exhibit and one that promotes change; the realisation and acknowledgement that something isn't right, then taking action to try to correct it.

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  2. Your blog never ceases to amaze me. You're informative and enlightening. The facts you give are disturbing. I want to do something.

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    1. Thank you... but I love that you have a button on your blog to help support rescues. There are no-kill shelters run by NPOs but they face restrictions on how many dogs the government shelters will let them take at a time. I'm hoping to have a chance to go and volunteer with Heart Tokushima some time. They also have an amazon wish-list you can use to help them buy food for their cats and dogs. Ultimately we need to stop animals from being in shelters at all, but in the meantime, supporting a no-kill shelter is something tangible to do.
      http://www.heart-tokushima.com/English/WELCOME.html
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RH3U_sFJGtY

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  3. Wow, can't believe I missed this entry earlier!

    I'll look up the info on Chen Yu-xian's exhibit. Doing some legwork on Taiwan dogs while I'm here, and hoping to give Professor Huang a ring.

    Saw Himawari to Koinu on the flight over. If it wasn't for your review, I might have skipped it, since they featured the Lab and not the Shiba in the preview thumbnail.

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    1. Very happy to be of service, and looking forward to your post-Taiwan thoughts :)

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