The theorist of photography Ariella Azoulay writes, insisting on seeing past violences resound in the present, the distant “there” in the immediate “here,” is to counter the imperialist structure that relegates its violences to a remote past (Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, 2015). Her argument concentrates on the violence of colonialization, yet I find it echoing in the artistic efforts manifested both in Mark Teh/Five Arts Centre’s A NOTIONAL HISTORY (Malaysia) and in The Party Theater Group’s WHITE STORYTELLER (Taiwan). The former counters the country’s narrative of independence through “peaceful negotiations” with the British colonial power, erasing the bloodshed during the Malayan Emergency in 1951; the latter reveals the atrocities of arrest and torture during the postwar White Terror which spanned for four decades (1949-1987) underneath Taiwan’s alleged peaceful transformation to democracy.
War is messy and history is full of gaps and blacks. Although both works employ completely different approaches—one with documentary materials, the other with a drama of a family secret, adapted from real events— they are comrades in terms of fighting for an unjust forgetting. In both scenarios the Communist became the target of demonization in society and excuse of state violence, shaping understanding not only of history but of identity until now. The Malaysian Communists’ fight against the colonial power was removed from history textbook, and a curriculum reform is vehemently rejected. In Taiwan, though official compensation began already in the 1990s, for a long time, it focused only on the so-called “innocent” victims, those who do not have a political inclination or involvement in any socialist engagement. The acknowledgement and reassessment of White Terror victims, being politically “incorrect”, were only possible in the recent years.
This is also what the two works stand out, both of them address the elusive nature of memory and the heterogeneity of victimhood. Perhaps that’s why both artists value the aspect of personal projections, in songs, ghost stories and puppetry of Robinhood-like adventure sagas. That is where the gaps and blacks in history have their stage. Historical circumstances are entangled and contingent, but the artists do their work exactly because of, and not despite of these entanglement and changes.
As one performer says in A NOTIONAL HISTORY, “History does things to people, but not always in ways that are causal, sequential, logical.” In showing us these processes, the past is brought to the present, which also determines our future.