The former Matsu military power plant in Taiwan has been transformed into an art installation intended to recall the Chinese bombings once suffered by this tiny archipelago which, like the rest of the territory, remains threatened by a Chinese invasion. The exhibition Your Country Needs You: Glory to Jun Hun (meaning “military spirit”) is part of the Matsu Biennale, which runs until mid-November.
The works exhibited as part of this event organized through Matsu highlight the natural beauty of this string of small rocky islands located 20 minutes by boat from the eastern Chinese coast. But some artists, like lighting designer Liu Ping-yi and his partner Annie Chu, have chosen to evoke the history of the armed conflict between China and Matsu and other small archipelagos dependent on Taiwan.
Starting in 1954, China sporadically bombed these islands and the situation lasted until 1979, when diplomatic relations were established between Washington and Beijing. “We wanted to use light to allow visitors to delve into the past so that they could better understand what soldiers and civilians lived on the island at that time,” explains Liu Ping-yi, who collaborated with a sound creator to create this exhibition within the power plant. “I hope they can imagine what Matsu was like during the war.”
This archipelago was one of the strategic military strongholds of the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces after they fled China in 1949 following their defeat in the Chinese Civil War. Due to the bombing, the Nationalists strengthened Matsu's fortifications, building underground tunnels and air raid shelters, while coastal outposts were provided with narrow openings allowing soldiers to fire towards the mainland.
Now most of these military installations are abandoned, although some tunnels have been restored and are now open to the public. As part of the biennial, an air-raid shelter plays old soundtracks, while a former military performance hall displays cut-out and assembled Chinese characters taken from letters sent to the military and residents of the islands. A wire structure, shaped like a whale, is erected on a beach, made from old ships.
Today, “Matsu is focused on tourism,” says Wang Chung-ming, a senior official in the archipelago, who objects to Matsu being called a “front line.” These islands are located just northwest of the Taiwan Strait, a 180-kilometer area separating the autonomous territory from mainland China.
Beijing, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory, held major military maneuvers around the island last year, including one in April in which planes and warships simulated an encirclement of Taiwan. For the inhabitants of Matsu, the Taiwanese territory closest to China, life often continues without interruption in the face of these military maneuvers.
Local artist Chao Kai-chih says he is not “afraid of China’s verbal threats.” “Come if you have the courage,” he joked, before quickly changing his tone by saying that if China were to invade, “you can attack a little further: attack Taiwan, don’t attack Matsu.” .
Growing up in Matsu under military rule had many restrictions, recalls Chao Kai-chih, 66, recalling a 9 p.m. curfew and a ban on going to the island's beaches. “We want peace, not war and what we can do is transform Matsu into an artistic island,” says Chao Kai-chih, who hopes that many tourists will attend this biennial, after three years of closure of the borders due to coronavirus. “We must now slowly restart negotiations on tourism and trade,” said Wang Chung-ming. Politically, we must follow Taiwan, but economically, Matsu must integrate with the mainland.”