18/05/2017 07:30 BST | Updated 18/05/2017 07:30 BST

Confronting Memories - An Interview With Wang Ding-Yeh

Confronting Memories is a solo exhibition by Wang Ding-Yeh that is currently being staged at VT Artsalon in Taipei, the city in which Wang was born.

Confronting Memories is a solo exhibition by Wang Ding-Yeh that is currently being staged at VT Artsalon in Taipei, the city in which Wang was born.

Confronting Memories is dedicated to Yuanfang Wang, the artist's grandfather who was murdered during White Terror. White Terror refers to the years between 1947-1987 in which thousands of Taiwanese were imprisoned, tortured, and executed for their real or supposed opposition to the Chinese Nationalist Party. This forty year period of martial law was one of the longest in history, surpassed only by Syria.

The aftershocks of the bloody trauma continue to reverberate in the modern Taiwanese psyche, and in the island nation's relationship to mainland China.

I spoke to Wang about the show, and how he conceived the artworks in it.

It has been three decades since White Terror and authoritarianism ended, and yet truth and justice remain evaded. There has been no non-partisan recognition that this terrible period of history took place: why was now the right time to create the exhibition?

I started my series 'family history' two years ago. I was invited to Penang, Malaysia, to attend DA+C Digital Art Festival, and only then did I realise that my grandmother was born there in 1920. I wanted to know about her, about her life. I asked all my relatives to write their memories of my grandmother, and during this process we started piecing these scraps of memories into something whole. It was a period of bonding and conversation for the entire family, and the process meant a lot to me. That was the starting point of this series. I like the process, the act of remembering: I gather my family together, they write down their memories: the process is instant. When the memory is fragmented or damaged, other family members will mend it. It is cathartic, and powerful.

Taiwan is still healing. What do you think is the best way for Taiwan and the Taiwanese people to confront the bloody trauma of White Terror, and heal? Does this period of history need to be faced to be resolved?

Time may be a way of healing, but it is also a way of avoiding, ignoring. The other way is to face it, talk about it, and understand it. For me, to face it with my work is the only way forward. History has taken place: all we can do is to learn from it. Taiwan is in many aspects unique in terms of its international position and identity; its history is distinctive, and its ideology is certainly influenced by the politics of being an island - this makes confronting history difficult.

Human rights abuses are globally pervasive, and those that occurred in Taiwan continue to haunt the country. What is the role of the artist in tackling issues like this?

The issue of human rights abuses is complex, and I certainly don't think I have the capacity to solve it. In this exhibition I tackle this issue head on, being aware that if I don't, it can easily become a form of file or document. My method is to trigger the life of an individual and the history of a family through flashbacks, and with poetry. The viewer can connect to their own experience's through the work, and link it to the history of Taiwan.

Many think that documents detailing civilian executions and the identities of victims have been destroyed, and proof of atrocities hidden. Text is very important in the show. Where are these textual fragments from, and how did you select them?

I use dust and red soil to create sentences about memory and affection. 'I will die twice, first my soul left, second is that I disappear from one's memory': with this sentence I try to piece my family's memories together, and make my grandfather exist again, in another form. I converted Taiwanese mother tongue into the Roman alphabet - another process of re-forming occurs.

Your previous work deals with social truths, and the present condition of contemporary society. This show delves into the past. How was the experience of working different?

There is no difference: all of my grandparent's history will eventually return to the present. The past will cycle to the present to form the future. This is why most of these works are about forming a connection between the family's ancestry and the family today. In this sense, the series does deal with the question of contemporary society.

The exhibition is very emotive, and gives body back to a lost voice. How much of what informed the show is personal, and related to your grandfather? Did you do any research into other families who had experienced similar tragedies?

It is a very personal show, and I have only understood the history in a general sense. It is, however, my hope that those who come to the exhibition will share their own experiences of White Terror. For one work I converted a video recording of my family describing their old house, and the days leading up to my grandfather being forced to leave with the government. He died three months after.

The works in the show are fragmented, or partial - what was the idea behind this?

I treat the whole exhibition as a work, and every single piece seems like a puzzle to put together, and when it comes together as one it represents my poetic side of life, my affection for my family, and the scent of history.

The concept of the ephemeral often informs your work, yet in this show we find that permanence has considerable weight. How did you balance these two things?

My method is to casually create a very strong emotional response. The media I use, sentences, dust, soil, video recording, light, all provide a very faint scent, and I let this scent accumulate in our sense. I intend to use soft movements to create internal force, and it works like qi-gong.

Confronting Memories is on at VT Artsalon until late May. VT Artsalon was founded by a guerilla art collective.

Wang Ding-Yeh, born in 1978 in Taipei, specializes in video installation and painting. His works have been exhibited in Taiwan, the United States, Israel, France, and Germany.