Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A tale of two Taoyuan land art festivals

A land art festival in Taoyuan ignored the plight of communities facing forced eviction for an 'aerotropolis' megaproject, so residents and their supporters have created an alternative festival to raise awareness

'Moon Rabbit' sculpture at Taoyuan Land Art Festival
'Moon Rabbit' sculpture at Taoyuan Land Art Festival
On 6th September about 150,000 people flocked to see a striking , 25 metre high, cartoon-like white rabbit sculpture, so pure white in colour that it does appear to have a glow in the dark quality. It was the opening day of the Land Art Festival in Taoyuan, on the northern tip of Taiwan and this ‘Moon Rabbit’, reclining against a disused military bunker and gazing up at the sky, was the main attraction. Inspired by Asian folklore of a white rabbit living on the moon making an elixir of immortality, it was created by Florentijn Hofman, a Dutch artist famous for other giant sculptures such as a wooden hippopotamus swimming along the River Thames in London and a rubber duck floating in Hong Kong harbour. International media picked up on the spectacle and photographs of the Moon Rabbit were broadcast around the world.

A defunct military base had been converted to a public exhibition space with art installations, workshops and many kinds of performances. The English language version of the Taoyuan Land Art Festival website brimmed with blurb about how the artworks celebrate the relationship between people and the land, for example claiming to ‘Promote the interaction and dialogue among natural environment, community cultural, historical and artistic context; raise awareness of ecological and geographical environment’. These statements seemed somewhat at odds with the aim of celebrating the festival site’s ‘special military history’. And the environmental theme of several exhibits jarred with a distinctly anti-ecological focus on the ‘unique man-made aviation landscape’

But there was a deeper irony to the Taoyuan Land Art Festival. The land it purported to celebrate, and a far larger area, has been earmarked by the government, to be bulldozed for development. Along with expansion of Taoyuan Airport, with a third runway and terminal, a sprawling airport centric megaproject, the Taoyuan Aerotropolis is planned – commercial, industrial and residential urbanisation around the airport, extending in phases over a total of 4,791 hectares (a hectare is about the size of a football pitch). The government plans to compulsorily expropriate most of the land - 3,707 hectares, predominantly prime quality farmland and hosting 15,000 houses and several schools. Approximately 46,000 residents face losing their homes and farmland. If the project goes ahead as envisaged it will be the biggest land expropriation in Taiwan’s history. Land seizures for Phase 1 of the project are scheduled to commence next year. While some residents have agreed to leave, it is important that the rights of those who wish to remain are not disregarded.

Forcible land expropriation is a key human rights issue in Taiwan, sparking many protests. Professor Shih-Jung Hsu, Chair of Taiwan Rural Front and a member of steering group of Taiwan Association for Human Rights, two organisations supporting residents affected by Taoyuan Aerotropolis and other development projects, explains that the government repeatedly abuses its powers of compulsory purchase. Land acquired by the government routinely exceeds the area required for the developments, the land is undervalued so evicted people receive minimal compensation, but re-categorisation of rural land as urban land raises its value significantly.

Moon Rabbit festival protest, Photo by Coulloud, Creative Commons License

The fact that images of a whimsical sculpture of a white rabbit were beamed around the world, whilst a mega infrastructure project being met with vigorous protest from communities facing displacement goes unnoticed, shows just how tame and trivial the mainstream media has become. The media also ignored a small, but significant, act of dissent at opening of the Taoyuan Land Art Festival. A small group of protesters arrived carrying a banner to attempt to submit a petition to a Taoyuan County Commissioner. Their request was rejected and they were brutally removed by police. One woman was injured and hospitalised. Shih-Jung Hsu appealed to Hofman to support communities facing eviction and help raise awareness. He also criticised the event organisers for not inviting local artists to participate, even though over $1.2 million in public funds were spent.

Police remove protester from Taoyuan Land Art Festival, Photo by Coulloud, Creative Commons License

Woman injured by police, Photo by Coulloud, Creative Commons License

The action at the Moon Rabbit festival was the latest in a series of protests calling for fair and open hearings for the Taoyuan Aerotropolis project, to consider the views of residents who have been largely excluded from decision-making, and against forced eviction. There was a major demonstration on 22nd June 2014; 500 people – affected residents, activists and civil groups supporting them – marched through Taoyuan City Centre carrying yellow banners painted with slogans such as ‘Anti-Greed & Corrupt’, ‘ Anti-Eviction’, ‘Anti-Land Grab’, ‘Public Hearing’ and blocked traffic outside government offices.

22nd June 2014 protest, Photo by Coulloud, Creative Commons License

On 17th July 2014 a group of women who may face the prospect of forced eviction for Taoyuan Aerotropolis demonstrated outside the Construction and Planning Agency where a meeting was being held to review the project. They held up maps showing how the expansion of the airport and Aerotropolis development is encroaching on homes and farmland. Some of the women told the crowd that they had lived on the land for many generations, worked for 20 years or more to earn sufficient money to build their homes, and that the inadequate compensation offered by the government would be far too little to buy another house in the area.

Residents protest against eviction for Taoyuan Aerotropolis, Photo by Coulloud, Creative Commons License

The latest activism against forced land expropriation for the Aerotropolis is an alternative, community-based Aerotropolis Land Art Festival, running from 8th – 16th November. Created on farmland threatened with bulldozing for the Taoyuan Aerotropolis, a variety of artworks and events celebrate the land and communities threatened with obliteration. The event raises awareness of local people’s plight and helps to give them a voice, and draw attention to the threat of irrevocable loss of agricultural land and damage to ecosystems.

Buffalo sculpture, Photo by Coulloud, Creative Commons License

Lost Bear sculpture, Photo by Coulloud, Creative Commons License

The focal exhibit is the Lost Bear sculpture. Of comparable scale to the Moon Rabbit it is as tall as a three storey house. Sitting forlorn in a field, the bear represents the confusion and distress residents feel when they face being uprooted.

Opening the Aerotropolis Land Art Festival, Photo by Coulloud, Creative Commons License

Alongside artworks there is a series of events including celebrating migratory birds and the threat posed to their habitat by a planned third runway, and screening of a film about the epic protests against construction and expansion of Tokyo’s Narita Airport on farmland. The alterative, innovative land art festival, in particular the Lost Bear, has certainly succeeded in capturing the attention of Taiwanese media, and deserves the international attention that was lavished on the Moon Rabbit.

The video below shows volunteers testing a bicycle route linking the exhibits and ponds on the site, aerial shots of some of the prime quality farmland that the government intends to expropriate, and people making sculptures – of a buffalo and the now iconic Lost Bear. At the end a supporter urges people to visit and show support for human rights. You can also can show support by ‘Liking’ the Aerotropolis Land Art Festival Facebook page, where you will find lots of wonderful photos and video clips.


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