Revealing Sexuality and Surveillance in Shu Lea Cheang’s Epic Exhibition

Art reviews

Shu Lea Cheang’s 3x3x6 Installation: A Transformative Experience at Venice Biennale

Taiwan Pavilion and interpretation of sexual orgies across the globe, time and culture is a good subtitle for the Taiwanese Pavilion at Venice Biennale in 2019. The Biennale is the oldest art event in Europe dating back to 1903 and taking place every two years.

A large number of countries from all over the world send their best artists and artworks to represent their country at Venice in Italy for six months. Hundreds of thousands of people visit each pavilion. For the last twenty years, Pallazo delle Prigioni was such a place for Taiwan.

This year the opportunity was given to Taiwanese-born artist Shu Lea Cheang who built up a project together with curator Paul B. Precadio. The installation is a new site-specific commission based on the historical use of the building as a prison.

The titlele of the project is 3x3x6 referring to a modern-day prison cell, three meters long, three meters wide, and monitored by six cameras.

Venice Biennale 2019

The concept of the exhibition initiated a story of one of the most famous prisoners, Giacomo Casanova. He was held in prison not only for openly copulating outside of a wedlock and probably serious debts but he did also actively advocate using protection while having intercourse.

Something very mundane today but it was unforgivable heresy in the 18th Century and an excellent reason to be sent to prison.

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Beyond Bars: Shu Lea Cheang’s Insightful Exploration of Imprisonment Issues

As Cheang dived deeper and deeper into the issues of imprisonment for sexual offenses by actually visiting many prison sites in person all over the world. Cheang uncovered more and more intriguing stories which significantly shaped the concept of the installation. Moreover, the research brought up another crucial question of confiding in order to control.

The spectator had to climb a staircase equipped with facial recognition cameras collecting visitors´ data to reach the location of the exhibition. The data were later digitally transformed into the faces of sexual convicts and projected on life-size screens in the first room of the exhibition.

The consignment for sharing personal data is acknowledged by entering the staircase.

Visual Transformation: Shu Lea Cheang’s Life-Size Screens Experience

The first room soaked in dark, contained ten life-size screens distributed in a circle to conjure the illusion of a ring of cells. In the middle was a projector spinning around a pole to evoke a picture of a centralized observation tower as it is common in the prison setting of today.

The sequence of images projected on each screen started with an image of one of the sexual convicts gradually altered into a linear sketch of a dancing person and rounded up into unrecognizable facial features of the visitors.

Before the opening of the exhibition people were encouraged to share their videos of dancing to express support for an Iranian girl. The teenage girl was arrested for posting a short video of her dancing on social media.

By using the multichannel projection and mixture of the dancing people, each visitor have not only had a chance to become an inseparable part of the exhibition but also they were situated into the skin of the sexual convicts.

Plasma Perspectives: Diverse Sexual Convict Tales Unfold in Rooms Two and Three

The second and third rooms introduced ten stories of ten sexual convicts starting from Casanova, Marquis de Sade, Michael Foucault to a German cannibal who set up a blind date via social network, slaughtered and ate a man who was very well aware of what was going happen to him.

Another story was about a Muslim university professor being accused of sodomy or a transgender person who did not reveal personal gender status before engaging in sex with a woman. The additional stories could have been watched on plasma screens on a floor with headphones.

All of the stories were connected with each other. The individual characters entered the stories of others and interacted with the main character.

For example the story about the German cannibal who instead of killing and consuming a real person, he dismantled and ate a machine. While he was enjoying his dinner a woman, who was jailed for chopping off her husband´s genitals, entered the story and sat by the table. When the cannibal asked her why she did not eat, the woman replied that she could eat only what she enjoys but she hated her husband.

Neurological Nexus: Exploring AI Governance in Shu Lea Cheang’s Installation

The last fourth room was a giant tilted cube made of glass and full of flickering lights. The giant cube was actually the brain of the installation. It was the neurological center where all the willingly uploaded images and data collected by the facial recognition cameras were transformed and mixed into the images of the first room.

By placing this neurological center in plain sight, the visitor is confronted with the actual mechanism in charge. Such a device is usually located behind the scene but Cheang did not hide anything from the visitor and raised the question of how much of our life is governed by artificial intelligence.

Provocative Reflections: Shu Lea Cheang’s Artistic Inquiry into Modern Issues

Taking into consideration the artistic background of the artist it is no wonder that Cheang has posted such a question. Cheang as a multimedia artist focused on net-based installations, film has frequently challenged ethnic stereotypes, social media, governmental intrusion, race and sexual relationships within her art practise.

In 1994 Cheang shot a film called Fresh Kill practice where the word Kill is Dutch for Stream. It was a fictional story about a lesbian couple who was caught up in a global scandal about the exchange of industrial waste via sushi.

In 1998 Cheang gained a commission from Guggenheim Museum in New York for the first web-based project lasting for 12 months. The project was titled Brandon and it introduced the true story of a transgender man who was raped and killed in Nebraska in 1993.

Cheang has recently presented her cyberpunk sci-fi film called Fluido at the film festival in Berlin, Berlinale. The film originally started as ten paged scenario years and years ago. Later on, the scenario was transformed into an installation and performance and finally in 2017 it turned into a film.

The narrative involves sex, drugs, virus and a conspiracy set in the post-AIDS future of 2060. In this future, the virus muted into a gene giving birth to new gender-fluid humans called ZeroGen. Their fluid ejaculation is the hyper narcotics of the 21st Century and of course, various agencies want to hunt down these ZeroGen humans for their own malicious gains.

Provoking Questions: Cheang & Precadio’s Exhibition on Crime and Confinement

Spending decades working on issues of criminalizing and decriminalizing the sexuality of individuals Cheang teamed up with Precadio who has very personal and direct experience with many subjects of Cheang´s research as he was born as a woman nearly 50 years ago.

Precadio holds Ph.D. in Philosophy and Architecture from Princeton University and his mentor was Jacques Derrida. He has been friends with Cheang since 2000 and started his transition in 2004. Precadio´s field of research are sexuality, identity, gender, love, biopower and porn. He was a curator of public program at Documenta 14.

Overall the exhibition brought up very serious questions regarding what is the actual confinement, evolution of sexual norms including crime and punishment. The most intriguing part of the exhibition was how the local topics were transferred in to a global scale for people from all over the countries across the globe.

All the characters were taken out of the European centralized context and recontextualized by Asian characters in order to make us think about how much moral norms of certain places shape our understanding of crime and punishment.

The high level of understanding of those topics was caused by the nomadic way of life of Shu Lea Cheang, dedicated research and careful choice of co-workers such as Precadio and others in order to share insightful thoughts.

What is the actual confinement? Is it simply a cell 3x3x6 of constant surveillance via digital technology or is it the social norms we take for granted?

How do we contribute to this confinement? Is the fear that our behavior does not correspond with given social norms in a given time and place or even worse is it our blind willingness to share personal data with third parties?

By using the multichannel projection each visitor has become an inseparable part of the exhibition situated into the skin of the sexual convicts. How do you recognize a criminal in a crowd or on social media? Is it a dancing girl or a blind date?