Preface: a point of departure
How should I write about an exhibition I haven’t seen? This is a common problem for curators or critics or anyone else writing for exhibition catalogues. Inevitably the essay needs to be written before the doors of the gallery open, before the private view, and usually before the works have been delivered, or even, in some cases, confirmed. That is if the catalogue is to be ready at the opening.
Of course, there are ways around this. Delaying the publication is the most expedient and most usual. After all, according to Boris Groys’s typically pointed analysis, most art writing at that time was not meant to be read but ‘consists, it is thought, in preparing … protective text-clothes for works of art. These are, from the start, texts not necessarily written to be read.’
If truth be told, the problems were more pragmatic, time-based. As the curatorial team in this material world would be absorbed with more pressing matters (said confirmation of works and their shipping, for instance), time would be short to sit down and reflect, draft and edit in response to the art. Another strategy is not to talk about the works so much as the curatorial idea. This may contextualise the work (whether art or other objects) historically or culturally, it might be scholarly or of a more open form then still in the process of being identified as ‘curatorial’, which was such a popular genre of the time. Regardless of the approach, the reader (even the imaginary one) would expect some evidence rather than mere opinion. The catalogue essay would have to be the outcome of some degree of research and, on that basis, to be complete, and to some degree authoritative.
When last summer Yu-Chen Wang asked me to write an essay for her exhibition Nostalgia for the Future: An Introspective Retrospective, I had some reservations on both these counts. How could I be authoritative about a practice when I know the person better than I do the artist? And, to be honest, I have little interest in producing criticism per se. I’ve become too solipsistic of late simply to write about the art of others. And if I were to examine the exhibition itself, then how could I do more than speculate?
What I did know was that the exhibition would be a survey show of sorts, curated in a genuine sense by the artist herself as a way to both show and appraise her work. I knew that it would involve a community of people in Taiwan (a community in which I am embedded) to think through her work from perspectives other than her own. Furthermore, I knew that all her drawings, stories, videos, sculptures, and performances have at least a passing relationship with science fiction.
With this in mind I suggested a more creative approach to examining the show over time, which seemed in keeping with the artist’s own motives. Envisaging the exhibition as an island, over four chapters I would use science fiction tropes and other generic devices to represent the show. Their contents are a fictional narrative, rather than a curatorial or critical one. And these chapters would be written over the course of the exhibition, each looking at different aspects of the life of the island.
As with any fiction, the chapters are fed by the ideas of others drawn from art, history, literature, science, and philosophy; references are bound together by flights of fancy rather than lines of argument. And, as with any fiction or art, to dissect the text and lay out its own internal logic reveals its lapses of reason and leaves it a mere cadaver. However, in presenting the full text here with annotations and marginalia I intend to expose how a fictional narrative can mirror the construction of a curatorial narrative and its basis in research – literally revealing a truth – that is closely aligned with the transformation of early modern into contemporary patterns of thought. But this is some way off over the horizon.
So, as a point of departure, this exposition follows the chapters to build a landscape of ideas rather than a linear argument to contextualise the narrative. Fiction, after all cannot be explained in full. Supporting texts give a survey of each chapter’s aims, landmark references, and further field notes and illustrations. The exposition can be followed here. However, to read the narrative without the exposition, a PDF is also available. For further reference, Yu-Chen Wang’s webpage related to the exhibition can be found here.
 Boris Groys, ‘Critical Reflections’ in The State of Art Criticism, ed. by James Elkins and Michael Newman (New York: Routledge, 2008), p. 61.