In May 2020, a virtual state Republic of Cynic (R.O.C.) was established in Taipei, the capital of the Republic of China.
The abbreviation R.O.C. stands simultaneously for the Republic of Cynic and the Republic of China. The former emerged from the Cold War history and continues to haunt the contemporary society, acting as a parallel organization as well as a phantom, illusion or subconscious dependent on the latter. Artist Yao Jui Chung created this “state within a state” by applying the concept of parasitism, viz., “the Republic of Cynic (parasite) lives in the Republic of China (host),” aiming to untangle the political imbroglio among the United States, China and Taiwan since the Cold War, and to capture the spirit and embodiment of national identity in the new Cold War.
Conceived by Yao in 2008, Republic of Cynic is a creative project unfulfilled until now. Apart from following his consistent creative approach that spans more than three decades, i.e., examining the absurdity of human history by assembling body, behavior, painting and image into a pointed yet detached narrative style, this project further fabricates a national context to invite reflection on the national subjectivity’s subtleness, ambiguity, and occasional touch of bitter comicality.
The etymological origin of the term “cynic” can be traced back to Cynicism in Ancient Greece. This school of thought advocated leading a simple life free from all possessions and attaining goodness through ascetic practices. Scorning the nomos of society, it inevitably incurred criticism for being insulated from the secular world by living shamelessly. The Cynics conducted themselves not so much like humans as in a manner reminiscent of stray dogs, and the word “cynic” derives exactly from kynikos in Ancient Greek, meaning “dog-like.” Classical Cynicism has evolved into radical skepticism in modern times. It not only defies social ethics, custom and doctrines, but also taunts others about all their honorable intentions.
“Haters” are cynics incarnate in the contemporary world. They are out-and-out critics who seldom reveal their true colors. Depicting the world in a negative way, they treat cynical irony as their obligation and ergo bring a sense of predestination: haters gonna hate.
Unfolding his project from the portmanteau word “cynic,” Yao communicates his views about Taiwan’s politics, society and history within the imaginary context of Republic of Cynic. As far as Yao is concerned, the phantom-like regime not only epitomizes many small states under global hegemony, but also acts as a self-critical, self-mocking nation reincarnated in a new guise.
Yao belongs to the second generation of post-war Taiwanese artists. His creative career since the late 1980s has perfectly overlapped with the political emancipation and corporeal liberation after the lifting of martial law. As an expected result, his works tend to echo the history riddled with political manipulation, in which the history has not only metamorphosed into a phantom, but also heaped rigidly like zombies in the material world. Harnessing the power of artistic engagement, Yao guides us to visit relics, ruins, decorated archways, the Window on China Theme Park, the Cihu Sculpture Memorial Park, and white elephants (or the so-called “mosquito halls” in Taiwan), from which the subtle imagination of nationhood is sparked. Therefore, his consummate skill in deconstructing grand history is nothing short of necromancy and autopsy.
When it comes to history, what concerns Yao is not so much the “being” in the grand narrative as the “void” after the passion waned. How did Yao measure such void? In his earlier works, he employed the approach of field survey, such as declaring sovereignty with urine, recapturing Mainland China with a single soldier, and liberating Taiwan by pissing atop Mount Jade. In his recent works, Yao turned himself into a Moon-landing astronaut, the “Tank Man” in the Tiananmen Square Incident, and a suicide bomber in the September 11 terrorist attacks through a series of reenactment of historical images in the post-Internet era. Yao’s works in these two periods were equally fascinating in result though different in approach, since he used his body as a measuring instrument and a carrier of concepts as well.
As an artistic practice of “the state within a state,” Republic of Cynic not only introduces an imaginary national identification system (incl. national emblem, national flag, costumes and slogans), but also repurposes two buildings of the former Air Force Command Headquarters for the specific sites of this project. The Art Space V (former U.S. Aid Building) serves as the main venue and conceptually becomes the “Embassy of the Republic of Cynic in the Republic of China,” hosting four newly commissioned video installation works inspired by the historic events that affected the entangled U.S.-China-Taiwan relations, including the Moon landing, anti-American protests, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the September 11 attacks. By reference to Yao’s image system since the 1990s, this main venue also features the juxtaposition of his earlier works and massive manuscripts and archives from the “propeller man” motif and the work series of Book of Chrysanthemum to Beyond the Blue Sky and Beyond the Human Being that are eventually linked to the theme of “cynic.”
Another venue of this project—the Art Space IV (former Chung-cheng Hall)—becomes an ersatz “History Museum of the Republic of China,” where Yao’s relatively recent video/image works such as Phantom of History Series (2007), Liberating Taiwan (2007), Long Live (2011), and Long Long Live (2013) are on display. These works are meticulously embedded in the spatial design of the venue suffused with implications of nationalist politics. In his early years, Yao finished his compulsory military service in the air force. Later, he transformed this experience directly into conceptual actions. Two pieces of his work—Recover Mainland China: Preface and Recover Mainland China: Do Military-Revolutionary Document—created between 1994 and 1996 are also presented in Art Space IV, where Yao’s personal life overlaps this venue’s significance and ergo acquires new meanings.
Intersected by Yao’s creativity and the venues’ significance, Republic of Cynic is not only an art exhibition but also a site-specific event. This creative experiment unleashes the powers of the human imagination about the spaces in the former Air Force Command Headquarters. This year, in particular, Republic of Cynic will serve to celebrate the reopening of the Art Space V as a C-LAB’s exhibition venue after its preliminary renovation late last year.
The outbreak of the U.S.-China trade war and the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in 2019, the 2020 presidential election and the ensuing information warfare, as well as the political struggles intensifying with the world-reshaping coronavirus pandemic have clearly indicated that the politico-economic entanglements among the U.S., China and Taiwan are not merely a piece of history but also an objective reality. By dint of the absurd and ambiguous performativity as well as the image system frequently applied in his works, Yao created a virtual state (i.e., the Republic of Cynic) at the C-LAB as a response to the U.S.-China-Taiwan triangle.
Producer｜CHIEN Yi Chun
Supervisor｜ Ministry of Culture
Presenter｜ Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab
Collaborator｜Digital Art Foundation
Special Thanks to｜MOMA Contemporary Co. Ltd