Shu Lea Cheang has been selected to represent Taiwan at the 2019 Venice Biennale in a solo exhibition curated by Spanish transgender philosopher Paul B. Preciado.
Taiwan, where Cheang was born in 1964, is the most progressive country in the region and was the first country in Asia to legalise same sex marriage. Cheang is the first female artist to represent Taiwan since it began showing solo exhibitions. Her selection is significant in many ways: as a queer female artist, Cheang’s selection leads the way for more diverse and challenging programming throughout East Asia.
Cheang herself is keen to emphasise that these significances are themselves problematic: “My nationality, my gender preference and my being female are not things that I take seriously. But unfortunately, it is necessary to say I am the first woman to represent Taiwan in order to show how this society has improved. I have the same problem with queerness. I am queer-identified but I don’t call myself a queer artist. I don’t like any kind of stereotype”
-Shu Lea Cheang in an interview with SMCP
For the Biennale, the work Cheang will present will directly confront issues relating to digital privacy and queer identity at one of the world’s most well-attended art shows.
Shu Lea Cheang’s work creates open, fluid networks which facilitate bio-hacking and viral love. She is renowned for being the first net artist to be commissioned by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum with her work BRANDON (1998-1999), which addressed the murder of Brandon Teena, the young trans male star of the 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry. At the Venice Biennale Cheang will revisit themes from the work, which was restored in 2017 complete with vintage interfaces and graphics, by expanding on one section of it, titled ‘Panopticon’. The choice of the section is significant - at the time of BRANDON’s creation cyberspace was an escape from mainstream society, while today it is heavily monitored. Fittingly, her work will partly be shown in a former prison. Issues of privacy and of sexuality explored in the work are extremely pressing in today’s cultural and political climate, and BRANDON’s jarring old-school graphics bring different nuances to these issues than more recent works, as well as reminding us of how much and how little things have changed.
Cheang’s works often take the form of interactive, networked installations which invite visitors to connect with and play within experimental networks. Game play, cyberpunk and science fiction are regular influences on her work and she creates cinematic genres as part of her practice: most recently her 2017 feature film Fluidø created the genre of sci-fi cypherpunk. Her work addresses the potential of computation as a catalyst for the dismantling of established boundaries: of gender, of sexuality, of nationality, of where the body begins and ends. As such it is significant that her work will be plugged in to the Venice Biennale, one of the cornerstones of the art industry, which is tied in many ways to prestige, luxury and tradition.
Cheang said of the decision: “Since my net art work BRANDON (1998-1999), a trajectory charged with detours and deviations has teleported me to Palazzo delle Prigioni, Venice, where crimes and punishment are revisited in a 16th century prison setting. To be representing Taiwan in its current complex state is a tremendous task, and I am grateful to be accompanied on this venture by the visionary curator Paul B. Preciado and the dedicated Venice Biennale team at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.”
The 2019 Venice Biennale opens on 11 May and runs until 24 Nov 2019.