A self-styled digital drifter, Taiwan-born artist Cheang Shu-lea (鄭淑麗) is a figure of mystery in the international contemporary art scene. From her queer and sexual politics-orientated feature films like Fresh Kill (1993) and IKU (2000), conceptual installation pieces like Bowling Alley (1995) and Brandon (1998), to popular art projects such as Baby Love, which is on display at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (國立台灣美術館) until today, Cheang is a cultural seer who easily reads the pulse of contemporary times and expresses her findings in provocative and enthralling art.
After graduating from National Taiwan University's history department, Cheang moved to New York to study filmmaking, and called the Big Apple home for over 20 years. A filmmaker and visual artist since the beginning of the 1980s, Cheang's early film works were informed by the East Coast art scene's avant-garde approach to multicultural and multi-sexual issues. "Be it sexual politics or ethnic exploration, I start from my own life experiences as an outsider in the country. But I never make the works a personal expression. I look back from a critical distance," Cheang said.
In the late 1980s, Cheang was a member of the Paper Tiger Television collective in New York, a movement that drove media activism, and in the early 1990s she embraced the Internet for its infinite possibilities of artistic expression.
In 1995, Cheang created the Bowling Alley at the Walker Art Center in the US, in which she examined the interaction between virtual and real spaces by connecting a bowling alley, the museum and a Web site. Through integrating the transition of information from social spaces onto the private monitor, the artist debunked the question of whether the Internet is a public or a private domain.
In 1998, the Guggenheim Museum, New York, chose Cheang to make its first commissioned digital art work, the Brandon project, a Web site and interactive installation completed with the help of programmers and designers. The work tackles issues of gender and identity on the Internet and looks at the erosion of the distinction between a real body and a virtual body.
"In my digital works, you can see the network's culture evolve with time," Cheang said of her Net art.
Though Cheang works mostly with museums that she believes have greater access to the general public, the subversive and provocative nature of her work often sends bureaucratic art institutions into a panic.
"I always run into censorship problems. The Bowling Alley project was asked to bear a warning by the museum saying, "This site contains mature subject matter. Discretion is advised." And the sex channel project MILK [currently on display at IT Park (
In Cheang's view, whatever is displayed on the Internet is part and parcel of the network's culture and that includes sexual imagery. "Have we not been bombarded ... with sexual images in daily life?" she quipped.
Sex is the perennial theme in Cheang's art. Her Japanese sci-fi pornographic film IKU grabbed the attention of the local art scene and was subject to intense publicity in Japan. Screened in Paris for a year, IKU made Cheang a welcome heroine for liberal activists. "I don't need to pay at all in all the sex clubs in Paris," Cheang laughed.