A Short Despatch from the Garden of the Generalissimos

Matt Chun

Image of Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park taken by the author.

Riding South by motorbike into the green mountains, Taipei ends abruptly. There is no suburban boundary between the city and the forest, no slow gradation. Only a sudden threshold into dense, tropical vegetation. My destination, Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, is not easy to find. There are no other visitors, and the Park is only nominally a memorial. More correctly, it is a hidden theatre, remote and inanimate. More correctly still, it is a graveyard. Its bronze-alloy corpses, however, are not yet buried. They stand above the soil in an awkward vertical purgatory.


Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, also called The Garden of the Generalissimos, is an official repository for statues of Chiang Kai Shek, who, having lost China to the Communists in the aftermath of WW2, retreated with his army and government to Taiwan. Here, he played a leading role in the 1947 massacre of 10,000 Taiwanese people. He then imposed a long and brutal martial law, all the while waiting for the opportunity to pass back through that fragile cultural membrane stretched invisibly along the Formosa Strait, and reclaim the mainland. The opportunity never came, and Chiang died in 1975. While waiting, he persecuted his detractors, executed thousands and incarcerated 40,000 more.


Over 150 statues of Chiang Kai Shek have been donated to Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park. ‘Donation’, of course, is a euphemism. Rather, Cihu Park is the General’s second exile. In the early 2000’s, monument removal became official policy under the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Chiang statues were taken from public squares, parks and schools, and sent across the threshold, into the green mountains. Yet, to date, Cihu Park holds an insignificant fraction of an estimated 43,000 Chiangs still occupying civic space around Taiwan, an island half the size of Tasmania.


Even in Taipei City, Chiang Kai Shek may still sometimes be found, statesman-like, commanding public gardens. More often, he has been crowded by adjacent developments into unexpected corners. I glimpse a particular Chiang on horseback from a subway car. Edged against the wall of a shopping centre, he causes only minor interruption to the flow of pedestrians. Even so, a single Chiang on its original site still communicates something of its inceptive pretext. His appearance is still glossy and benignly paternal. He seems, still, to reaffirm the foundations of a once insuperable status quo.


Like plastic soldiers or ceramic bodhisattvas, sculpted representations of Chiang Kai Shek are limited to a few poses: Chiang as classical bust, Chiang with book in hand, Chiang with fist on hip or Chiang with a jaunty hat and cane. He is always larger than life size and always a monochrome; black, grey, an earthy red or a perplexing sky blue. In each manifestation Chiang’s face is identical, copied from a single, square-jawed, bald-headed, moustachioed cast; his smile grandfatherly, equivocal.


Transported to Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park, however, these very same statues undergo an immediate and astonishing conceptual transformation. Installed en-masse, the General’s gravitas is rendered absurd. Each Chiang is obliged to execute his theatre of repetition to an audience of a dozen other Chiangs in close proximity, a motionless feedback loop of prescribed authoritarian gestures.


It would be difficult to contrive a more perfect parody of the autocrat, or expose more persuasively the relationship between power and place. Although Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park is promoted as a respectful homage it is, quietly, a dissident masterpiece of consummate irony. There, in a public yet prohibitively remote garden, the multitude Generals are starved, paradoxically, of space to command. Through reiteration, they are amplified into silence. Chiang’s warm and oversized rhetoric consumes itself. In their unblemished preservation and tragicomic aggregation, these figures are laid bare as instruments of control.


It is not surprising, then, that such re-imagining and creative appropriation of political statues should be so deeply and disproportionately offensive to a regime. In Australia, the desire to promote and protect an artificial origin story has become a national institution. Precisely echoing Chiang Kai Shek’s former party, the Kuomintang, Australia’s contemporary government argues that to change the way in which a statue occupies a site would be to destroy the nation’s heritage.


Taiwan’s colonial history is arguably more complicated than Australia’s, comprising the interweaving stratum of Dutch, Han Chinese, Spanish and Japanese invasions upon its existing Aboriginal narratives. Yet, unlike Taiwan, Australia has not yet begun to reckon with its statues. On the contrary, Australia’s statues are not yet history; a newly sculpted Lachlan Macquarie — colonial Governor and mass-murderer — was erected in Sydney’s Hyde Park as recently as 2013. The thin rhetoric of ‘heritage’ is cynically employed to defend the prevailing apotheosis of White-Australian orthodoxy within public space.


In August this year, responding to an incident of anti-colonial graffiti on the plinths of Hyde Park’s Macquarie and James Cook statues, the Australian government proposed greater protection for colonial monuments, including 7 years jail time. Simultaneously, a white man was being sentenced to only 3 years for the murder of an Aboriginal child. The graffiti was removed the following morning by council employees with a splash of turpentine.


In their manifestation as ‘protected’ statues, it is the brute one-dimensionality of Cook and Macquarie — of John Batman, William Crowther, Maitland Brown, Angus Macmillan or Thomas Mitchell (to name a few more) — that renders them pervious. They need not necessarily be smashed, buried or beheaded (like as many Ukrainian Lenins). A spurt of red aerosol is enough to puncture their meaning. Turn them to face one another, and they suddenly self-identify. Cluster them unblemished in a remote garden and, as though animated by magic, they begin to speak a truth.


What becomes clear, walking through the Garden of the Generalissimos, is that political statues can never be representations of personhood. A public monument — of the kind that combines a human figure and a public space to embody state authority — must necessarily remain lifeless; bleached of interiority and stripped of human texture, deferring to a monotone insistence of its nation’s myths.


And yet, the primary apparatus of the state is its living population. While Australia, much more than Taiwan, is built upon the substratum of massacre and oppression — the killing and silencing of people — a state must also engender able-bodied subjects to command. It needs believers, it needs patriots.


These circumstances cannot be detected by the Patriot himself, a stock character who replicates in microcosm the grotesque anxiety and indignation of his polity. The Patriot is the satellite pulse of a nationalist monument and yet is, himself, more public sculpture than breathing personhood. The supreme Patriot is a supreme fiction: his duty is concealment, which is, of course, the primary function of propaganda. The Patriot has relinquished a questioning interiority to favour a narrow set of responses and prescribed gestures. Any sign of life is pure performance. He is a reverse-Pygmalion; utterly predictable and indistinguishable from stone.

Image of Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park taken by the author.

Image of Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park taken by the author.

Matt Chun is an artist and writer, working between Sydney, Taipei and Bermagui (a small fishing village on Yuin country). Through drawing, painting and installation,...

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