The cosmos, astrophysics and extra dimensions of space. These are probably the least-expected subjects one would associate with the life of Hsieh Hsueh-hung (謝雪紅), an early Taiwanese feminist and revolutionary leader who co-founded the Taiwanese Communist Party under Japanese rule. But in the eyes of German visual artist and stage actress Anne Tismer, it makes perfect sense.
In her new mixed-media installations, Drifting Journey — Hsueh-hung Hsieh in the Lugu Lake (漂浪之旅—謝雪紅在瀘沽湖), Tismer creates an alternate life for Hsieh, who, in the world we know, led guerrilla warfare against Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) Nationalist troops in Taichung in 1947, and subsequently fled to China after the brutal crackdown on uprisings against the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) regime that began on Feb. 28 in the same year. About 20 years later, Hsieh passed away in a hospital corridor in Beijing as a result of political persecution during the Cultural Revolution.
In Tismer’s parallel universe, the Changhua-born heroine escapes persecution, travels through 60 towns and cities and arrives at the tribe of Mosuo (摩梭), a minority ethnic group living on the border of Yunnan and Sichuan. Noted for their matriarchal society — where women are the head of the house — there exists no words for love or father, says the artist.
“Hsieh’s life is much related to the communist party. I can’t say anything about it because I have never lived in a communist country and don’t really know about it,” Tismer says. “But I am interested in physics and astronomy. For me, it is very important to know what the universe looks like and where everything comes from.”
Also an award-winning performer — she’s known to local audiences for her performances in A Doll’s House by German theater director Thomas Ostermeier and Wunschkonzert, staged in Taipei in 2006 — Tismer talks about dark matter and quanta with deep knowledge for someone who hasn’t studied astronomy. One of her major influences has been Lisa Randall, a leading American theoretical physicist who gained prominence in the late 1990s for her theory on extra dimensions. Through Randall, Tismer discovered the aesthetic possibilities of multiple dimensions, which are parallel to the world we experience.
For her Taipei show, the artist creates an alternate reality to connect the two women from different worlds.
Hsieh’s political life is translated into knitted objects that hang from the ceiling. Knitted wool guns and tanks, with their round shapes and warm, pastel colors, appear rather benign. A pair of knitted lungs and a string of blood portray Hsieh’s death, caused by lung injuries that the communist leader had suffered after she was imprisoned and tortured for organizing underground operations during the Japanese colonial era.
On the other side of the gallery, a road map indicates Hsieh’s travels from Beijing to Mosuo, accompanied with small, hand-made objects and handwritten notes describing each place she visits during the journey. Finally as Hsieh arrives at Lugu Lake, or “mother lake” to the Mosuo people, Tismer sets up a small shop for her, where the former revolutionary makes and sells hats, a trade she knows by heart because her parents were poor laborers working at a hat-making factory. In front of the plastic stools and tables for customers/visitors to rest, a TV screen shows a documentary in which Tismer plays Hsieh climbing up to the alpine Lugu Lake, which in real life is a tiny stream somewhere in the hills near Taipei.
As a visual artist, Tismer makes her art by hand, using wool, metal, wood, cardboard and other natural, readily available material. The artist attributes her handmade, ecological approach to art to her lifestyle in Togo, Africa, where she has lived and worked with six other artists since 2011.
“There is no money for arts ... We have no hot water, no washing machine and no refrigerator. There aren’t many lights, and we rarely use the Internet. We are not polluting the world there,” she says.
Knitting possesses a calming, almost healing power for the artist, who says she is afraid of everything from people and new environments to walking down a dark street alone.
“I start to limit myself till I can’t do anything anymore. But I have to do something ... I remember when I was a child, I was not so afraid and I learned knitting from my grandmother. I saw what she was doing and I wanted to do the same,” the artist confesses. “I sometimes talk about them [the fears] but feel ashamed and embarrassed because I am talking about them.”