And fitting myself through those doorways
GOING BENEATH TREASURE HILL WITH SOPHIA WANG.
When I finally catch up with multidisciplinary artist, writer and dancer, Sophia Wang, it’s in a bunker, somewhere beneath the Treasure Hill Artist Village in Taipei. Sophia is five weeks into creating and installing a piece in the bunker called, “Made in Place,” as part of an artist residency at Treasure Hill.
Now is maybe a good time to say, I guess before we get too far along—I’m not actually in the bunker with her. When we talk, I’m sitting in the kitchen/living room of my basement apartment, at a table piled with library books, balled up gym clothes, and bills I am afraid to really look too closely at. It’s about five p.m. my time and though it’s still light out in the world, down in my basement/kitchen/living room/bunker/den, it’s been dark for hours.
In Taipei, it’s nine a.m. the next day, and Sophia is just getting going. She’s actually not technically inside her bunker either when we talk—what’s even real at this point?—but she’s been spending a lot of time there. And she’ll be going down after our call to work on her installation, which will open at the end of the week.
The bunker is completely underground. It is all concrete and brick, with a low ceiling. No one even knew it was there until about ten years ago, she tells me—when someone demolished a house—and there it was. “It has that time capsule quality,” she tells me. “It’s just this blank space that’s resonant and empty.”
Sophia has been spending time wandering Treasure Hill collecting plants to fill up some of the emptiness. To bring life into the space. She tells me she’s not a visual artist, necessarily, but she wanted to make that. An installation of plants. “It’s a hard space,” she says. “And the air is weird.” So she’s been collecting plants, and working with fellow residents to create a light-filled home “where the plants will be happy,” tucked away in the back of the bunker space. “It has kind of this post-apocalyptic quality to it.” she says. “Like, you’re in this bunker, underground—how do you keep life going?”
Besides spending time in a dusty bunker beneath a semi-abandoned military installation, Sophia has been visiting an abandoned family home, where her father grew up, about two and a half hours south of Treasure Hill. She’s been going there, doing movement research, making videos and collecting plants there too.. Spongeing up the space, and filling in unknown family histories.
Sophia’s work is focused on “thinking with and as bodies.” She has created movement pieces on her own, and in collaboration with other artists, including Brontez Purnell (as a founding member of the Brontez Purnell Dance Company), and as a co-creator of the Heavy Breathing series of radical workout workshops. Much of the work Sophia is creating is navigating history and space, and seeking ways to make that physical, to transmit some sense of the physical experience of big concepts like history and identity.
“Even if I can never really access what happened there, or know what it was actually like, there’s a material reality to being there,” she tells me, “and fitting myself through those doorways, or walking down the long hallway, or taking the paces around the room, or seeing what corners I can fit into.”
And she’s been inhaling a lot of dust in the process. “It’s not that bad,” she assures me. “I am way more allergic to the Bay Area than I am in Taiwan. It’s in my constitution.”
This all will translate into a film installation, a live performance and storytelling component in the bunker. “I’m not here to tell my entire family history—to make this all explicit,” she says. “But I want people to have a similar experience I had going down into that space. Like, really you take in the strangeness of this space and thinking about why is it there, who put it there, and the juxtaposition of the movement and materials that I’m bringing into that space. Basically, it’s giving people a material experience that is specific to that site and to the video and movement that I’ve prepared.”
“It is really about specificity of place and time—like not necessarily trying to transport people to a different place, like story-land, but actually trying to ground people where we are. And that’s a specific power of performance, because it’s your body in space in that time and your audience is sharing that time with you, with their bodies as well.”
And so each day, Sophia has been wandering Treasure Hill, taking in the layers of history, settling into the practice of consistent art making. Like so many people I know, she doesn’t have a studio (who can possibly afford it?) and she tells me she doesn’t really have a consistent daily practice, so the space of this long residency is bringing a lot up.
“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t challenging,” she says. “It’s absolutely challenging. When all your days are meant to be for you to do your own practice and your research, it really brings out the question—Well, what is my practice?”
Part of the residency is holding open studios. Opening her space to tourists and curious visitors who come to Treasure Hill—a semi-legal settlement, originally an army barracks, built by the Japanese, and later inhabited by retired KMT soldiers, migrants from the south coming to Taipei for work, transients, and artists.
“I had someone come into an open studio,” Sophia tells me. “An older man was watching my video, and he asked, ‘Do you think that you’re a tree?’”
She paused. She wasn’t sure exactly what he meant. Maybe it was a misunderstanding—she is not a fluent Taiwanese speaker, and the visitor’s English was also spotty. “No,” she said.
The older man thought for a moment, then asked, “What are you doing?’”
“I’m dancing.” —Justin Carder