Thoughts on Displacement and Uprooting
Some thoughts about the uprooting phenomenon and its possible origins, following the exhibition “Boundaries on the Move: A Cross-Cultural Dialogue” currently featured at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art
Artists from Israel and Taiwan feature works about uprooting at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. A headline topic these days, it assumes a different aspect each time. Migrant workers arrive in the country with a permit, stay for years, and give birth to children who are educated as Israelis; since they are not Jewish; however, they are ultimately deported and thus sentenced forced uprooting. Israel has no policy of providing asylum for refugees or infiltrators who flee countries suffering war or hunger. No one considers allowing a possible quota of refugees in keeping with the country’s demography, or caring for asylum seekers and their subsistence until a solution to their condition is found. On the contrary, the Israeli Minister of Interior has even informed mayors that hiring foreigners to work for local authorities is prohibited, thereby necessarily dooming the latter to a life of wretchedness and crime. Children of migrant workers, found to be in danger and removed from their homes, are now (following the deportation decision) returned to family units that jeopardize them, and are subject to emotional and possibly even physical harm.
One would have expected the Jews, who were murdered on account of their ethnic origins, to act differently and be tolerant toward outsiders, but this, alas, is not the case. Under the pretext of guarding Judaism, Israeli society is utterly intolerant of foreigners, and deeds are performed which attest that the victim of the past has become the victimizer of the present.
This essay sets out to introduce a conceptual alternative which may help overcome the basic paradox at the core of the crawling racist phenomenon in Israel.
Xenophobia has been integral to human nature since time immemorial. This may be due to a psychological archetype characterizing mankind on the whole, as manifested in various myths throughout history, always pitting the ethnic group to which the individual belongs against another group. This principle resonates in the structure of most religions: a benevolent, creating, resuscitating God versus a destructive, death-bringing evil god. In monotheism, both aspects—the life-bringing and the death-inflicting—are usually embodied by one ruling god, but the evil or Satan figure plays a significant role as seducer.
Confrontation of different affiliation units is common in nature, probably stemming from the instinct to survive. Every infant—the human infant in particular—is dependent on his affiliation unit for physical survival. That unit becomes a pyramid-like habitat. It is founded on strata of a nuclear family, extended family, immediate surroundings, religion, ethnicity, nationality, and even continent. The physical dependence gradually transforms into emotional, mental, and energetic dependence. The infant grows into a given cultural setting, which leaves its imprint on his beliefs, ideas, and way of life. Even if he rebels against that setting, his reference to his place of origin will remain intact, if only by negation.
Affiliation units in human and animal nature, for the most part, are based on a largely hierarchical social structure. Attempts to change that structure made by various socialist groups have failed. The hierarchy remained unchanged, in one way or another, taking the toll of many victims under ephemeral slogans. Socialist and other movements have fallen into the false pit of affiliation units. The mutual killing does not cease, only the causes change.
The Principle of Affiliation Units: Three Characteristics
Three principles characterize affiliation units: clinging to absolute truth, generalization, and polarization.
- Clinging to Absolute Truth
Comparison between religions in the course of history shows us that the gods and goddesses in the various Creation myths shed and assume forms, but they all share a common denominator which goes beyond a given space or time, reflecting a deep-seated psychological archetype: the desire to hold onto a single, unique and exclusive truth.
A single truth purports to provide unequivocal answers to a large, mostly obscure universe whose nature is revealed piece by piece. Every discovery, scientific or other, is a transient launching ground for the ensuing discovery. The universe is dynamic whirlpools of phenomena which are spawned, sustained, and ultimately dissolves. It is impossible to fix a changing entity by means of finite definitions. Instead of being swept by unequivocal solutions, one may enhance one’s contemplative ability, the ability to wonder and contain, and strive for the creation of infinite contexts.
The further away we shift our consciousness from the search for absolute truths according to existing thought patterns, the greater our freedom to observe, discover, and be discovered.
Clinging to an absolute truth necessarily results in generalizations. Every institutionalized religion is based on ritual and worship, on a given set of commandments and prohibitions. Every political, economic, or educational institution determines criteria to ensure proper management.
Criteria based on generalization, intended to facilitate order and apt institutional conduct, are obviously positive if they do not become an end in and of themselves. Absolute rules and regulations which become a guideline for life are akin to prison cells which sustain stagnation, preventing the entrance of any fresh air.
Generalization, by definition, is typified by preferences between what is deemed good and worthy, and that which is disqualified and negligible. Preferences ranging on a hierarchical axis between good and evil, desirable and undesirable, inevitably refer to the preference holder, who is always dependent on an ethnic and cultural affiliation unit.
The only alternative is to avoid polarization spawned by affiliation cell preferences, and to develop, instead, the ability to identify dynamic “presences” and “absences” in a changing world. To this end, one’s consciousness must be on alert to keep abreast, and not fall behind the dynamic of becoming, behind life.
From Affiliation Units to the Water Course or Path of Formation
Three ideas may contribute to the Water Course experience: forgoing a single truth; adopting the culture of quandary instead of generalization; and flowing within the here-and-now as gradual replacement of conceptual polarization.
Concession of a single, ultimate truth is a significant act of “idol-shattering” since consciousness foregoes an artificial anchor, created in order to avoid being swept away into the whirlpool of countless changing phenomena which are the nature of the universe. The human psychological archetype prefers a tangible, familiar anchor over the unknown and indefinite, which eventually leads to death, to the ultimate unknown.
The profound realization that nature is transformation may lever the awareness which is capable of leading to concession of absolute truths, and subsequently—to forgoing generalizations and polarized conduct. Gradually consciousness will learn to avoid generalization, and instead reinforce the ability to wonder and to observe; not to settle for one discovery, but rather to pursue an infinite chain of discoveries…
The Water Course is the path of tolerance, for it does not adhere to a single truth, does not follow generalization, nor fall into the false web of preference. Thus, adopting the Water Course implies negation of uprooting.
The exhibition at Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art defies the act of uprooting both socially and politically.
Clinging to an Ultimate Truth
Huang Chih-Yang: Patriarchs and Matriarchs
The work is based on two prevalent Chinese traditions: On the one hand, ancestors worship, namely—worship of one’s affiliation units. In the past, married women were expected to foster the worship of the husband’s ancestors; to treat the spirits of her husband’s forefathers and foremothers with respect, awe, and courtesy, lest they become evil, harmful spirits.
The desire to live in harmony with one’s surroundings is reflected in the tradition of Taoist painting, which explores the fine equilibrium between the masculine and feminine principles in nature. Elements such as earth and sky, water and fire, flora, birds, real animals and mythical beasts all symbolize these principles and their harmonious interaction. By adopting the active masculine principle and the passive feminine principle, man endeavored to unite matter and spirit, the manmade and the natural, the earthly and the sublime.
Addressing a traditional topic—ancestors, the work is traditional in style, but its contents have metamorphosed: there is no harmony, nor awe. The giant matriarchs and patriarchs are skeletons and skulls with grotesquely enlarged sexual organs. Their sparse bodies are made of worms and weeds, rendering them either evil spirits, or grains of anxiety and psychosis.
Chang Chien-Chi: Escape from North Korea
The installation examines the gap between childness, naïveté, and helplessness, as represented by the image of a young girl in an empty classroom, and architectural monumentality, arrogance, and externalization, embodied by the ruler as a demagogic press who forces conceptual affiliation units on his subjects which chain their minds, emotions, and lifestyle, coloring them with enigma, thereby thwarting the richness of multiplicity.
Tsui Kuang-Yu: A selection of video works
A cluster of short videos creates a visual deceit, based on our tendency for generalization, shifting us from linear thought stemming from the very nature of generalizations. A couple clinking wine glasses against a glittering nocturnal urban backdrop, or the American Statue of Liberty, tie the figures abruptly with thoughts about the dream of the good life, romance, and democracy… The bubble, however, soon bursts, and the real picture is revealed: the romantic scene takes place in a school. The iconic Hollywood couple turns out to be a pair of nightly contractor workers sweeping the floors with excessive diligence. The New York Statue of Liberty has relocated, and it is now installed in Taiwan—a farcical reconstruction of democracy—with an assiduous worker obsessively cleaning the dirt at its base…
Tu Pei-Shih: The Adventures in Mount Yu V
In this work, too, the viewer is led by means of visual generalization based on cultural symbolism, to an undesired result. Mountaintop adventures are usually tied with spiritual journeys in sequestered places. Following an age-old tradition, an enchanting colorful animation of landscapes and playing children embodies an idyll view of man integrated with nature. The work’s subtitle, “From Michel Foucault to Our Glorious Future,” attests to the dream’s shattering by a military squadron which appears out of nowhere, interrupting the calm, shooting, killing and withdrawing.
Su Yu-Hsien: Borders of the Empire II
The film features an interplay between the sanctified and the shattered: a man roams inside a collapsed building. His gestures are those of a hermit: wearing a monk’s attire, walking slowly and solitarily to the sound of water drops (in this case, drops likely originating in an burst pipe), reading torn pages of holy scriptures or, possibly, secular writings. A statistic of fatal casualties generates a similar polarization in the viewer: an option of peace, tranquility and sanctity versus the fait accompli of destruction and ruination.
Wang Ya-Hui: A Work for a Building Plot: Make a Flower Arrangement for Me
The photographs conjure up the ancient Japanese tradition of floral arrangement, the Ikebana, which strives to enhance man’s sensitivity to and affinity with nature—both earthly and divine—by arranging flowers. In Ikebana one must be attentive to the choice of flowers, their combinations, the inflorescence, stem, and flower, the length and thickness, the quantity and colors, the placement in the vessel, the color of the vessel, its size and material, and the relation between the vessel and the arrangement… It is a refined practice in acquiring sensitivity to beauty and harmony.
Like the flower images prevalent in North European Baroque, here too the initial perception of beauty dissolves upon a closer look. Rotting and withering gradually creep in. The memento mori motif infiltrates the realms of Ikebana, reminding us of the universality of death, the moment which will inevitably come, yet will remain unknown. In this respect, death cannot be construed via definitions of affiliation units. Perhaps we should learn from death how to live…