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Fifteen minutes as a wandering ghost

After several highly-acclaimed collaborations with artist Laurie Anderson, Huang Hsin-chien’s latest solo VR piece focuses on Taiwan’s past

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

Screenshots from the trailer of The Missing Body, Episode 1.

Photo courtesy of Taipei Film Festival

I wake up wedged uncomfortably between a moss-covered floor and a moldy mattress. Out of the corner of my eye I see a corpse covered in old Taiwanese newspapers lying on a mattress face down, while a swarm of insects buzz around me.

I adjust my headset, thinking there’s a glitch in the system — but as I start drifting around what looks like an abandoned prison cell, I realize that’s how this virtual reality (VR) experience is supposed to be. It turns out that I’m a wandering ghost undergoing a surreal journey through a world born from the imagination and childhood memories of artist Huang Hsin-chien (黃心健).

This year’s virtual reality (VR) portion of the Taipei Film Festival sold out fast, illustrating the growing popularity of the medium as entertainment as well as its limitations: each “screening” is limited to one person. I managed to snag one of the last tickets for Huang’s show, The Missing Body, Episode 1 (失身記), the only Taiwanese production in the program.

Known for his award-winning VR collaborations with avant-garde legend Laurie Anderson, this 15-minute “movie” is Huang’s personal project based on Martial Law-era Taiwan and the country’s rich folk traditions such as the King’s Boat Burning Ceremony (燒王船). Huang has another high-profile collaborator this time, enlisting electronic music composer Lim Giong (林強) for the score.

I’ve just learned how to manipulate the body with the VR controller when the show ends, leaving me wondering if I had missed anything or whether there were places I had yet to explore — something that would have required me to shell out an additional NT$180 for a second showing, an impossibility because all the tickets have been sold.

SURREAL JOURNEY

The ghostly dreamworld of The Missing Body is one of four works Huang brought to the Cannes Film Festival in May, three of them collaborations with Anderson. The two artists first worked together in 1995 when virtual reality was still the stuff of sci-fi movies, assembling a cutting edge multimedia CD-Rom entitled Puppet Motel. Their partnership endured changes in technology, leading to the fantastical La Camera Insabbiata (沙中房間), which won Best Virtual Reality Experience at the 2017 Venice Film Festival.

While many critics have written that The Missing Body is an exploration Taiwanese history, particularly the White Terror era, Huang says it is more of a deeply personal take on the stories his mother used to tell him.

“My mother played the role of narrator in our family, telling me many stories that happened to my family,” Huang says. “She is showing signs of dementia, so I thought why not turn her stories into a VR experience through my vision and see if she can re-remember these memories.”

Huang says his mother was followed by secret agents for almost a year after she attempted to send money to his grandfather, who remained in China following the civil war. He sees parallels between authoritarian rule and today’s technology, noting that both seem to marginalize the humanity of its subjects or users. He says that The Missing Body explores the conflict between authoritarianism and technology and the lives of everyday people and their traditions.

Huang says that he intentionally places the viewer in improbable spaces. When he was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, most people didn’t have a lot of money and often lived in cramped, dirty spaces. These childhood memories are translated into realistic claustrophobic experiences, such as when my head appears to be pressed against a table or when half my body gets stuck in a floor. Huang says these virtual experiences are a metaphor of how modern technology erodes our personal space.

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