Notes: ‘A Monk From Tang’

In 2015, an exhibit at MoNTUE 北師美術館(Museum of National Taipei University of Education) included the “The Monk from Tang” (玄奘) directed by Tsai Ming-liang. During the performance three individuals slowly drew webs that enveloped the monk in the middle. After this performance, all the pieces of the performance were exhibited in MoNTUE 北師美術館(Museum of National Taipei University of Education). Video of the performance as well as commentary from the director played alongside the exhibit.

For a course, I was promoted to find an image and ask, “why this image.” It was the complexity of the performance, exhibit, as well as the history and context surrounding the image that was particularly interesting to me. First, the director of the performance was originally a well-known filmmaker who was seen to diverge into a performance art piece. Secondly, the image is already a citation of something that has passed. In particular, the monk from Tang, Xuanzang, was a real person who wrote a history of the “western regions” (west of China) but also iconized by the fictional story by Wu Cheng-en, “Journey to the West.” What is more removed and perhaps indicates an even stronger sense of mobility is the fact that it was performed in Taiwan outside of China proper. These factors intersect directly with my own research in Sinophone Studies as that which are articulations of Chineseness at the margins of an imagined China.

Another aspect of Sinophone Studies is language, and here I very much appreciate Mitchell’s parallel of visual culture to language claiming that we need to resist the urge to say that there are only distinct visual cultures and no such thing as visual culture. Although I am wary of the attempt to universalize, it does point to the fact that certain references or common points exist, whether it is between certain cultures or between disciplines. These are also precisely the issues that are dealt with in Sinophone Studies in that the Sinophone or cultures in Taiwan or Hong Kong are not isolated from an imagined China but also refer to and challenge our ways of seeing and visualizing culture, and this leads me to the answer of why visual studies in that it offers a way to discuss visuality between cultures and among them as well.

I’m thinking of this as I reminisce about my time in Taiwan that feels so long ago yet also so close.


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