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Issue 239

For Daniel Shieh, Play Is Pedagogy

At The Arts Center at Governors Island, New York, the artist presents installations that induce an embodied reflection on immigration and national identity

BY Jasmine Liu in Exhibition Reviews | 22 AUG 23

As information about pressing issues such as global inequality and climate change mounts to the point that it overwhelms more than it informs, artists have increasingly taken up pedagogical duties through affective means. Tania Bruguera’s 10,148,451 (2018) at Tate Modern, for instance, attempted to stimulate empathy for migrants through, among other measures, a tear-inducing compound. Fresh among these practitioners is Daniel Shieh, a Taiwanese-born installation artist who probes themes of immigration and national identity. His multimedia exhibition at The Arts Center at Governors Island, ‘Where Time Runs Backwards’, examines, as stated in the press release, ‘what becoming American entails’, and evinces some of the promises and challenges that come with making art of this kind.

A grey concrete half round structure with a person in it
Daniel Shieh, Sheltered Sky, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and LMCC; photograph: Martin Seck

Strongest among Shieh’s five, site-specific works is Sheltered Sky (2023), a cement tunnel, slightly above one metre in height, with a rectangular skylight carved out of its arched ceiling. Invited to crawl inside, gallery-goers find themselves crouching as a shaft of light ascends and descends, while the faint drone of a siren induces a minor sense of emergency. Overlaying the muscle memory of schoolyard play is the dystopian, real-world referent – per the wall label – of Shieh’s blissfully naïve childhood experience of Taiwanese air-raid drills against potential aggression from China in shelters built during Japanese occupation (1895–1945).

An olive green large-scale periscope on a tilt
Daniel Shieh, Power Play, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and LMCC; photograph: Martin Seck

Visitors might find their experience mirrors that of the artist as a child: initial excitement at entering a confined space, followed by a dawning sense of remote catastrophe, concluding with an intellectual examination of the work – an experience occurring only in maturity by the artist, and prompted by the wall text for the reader. As such, Sheltered Sky recalls philosopher Timothy Morton’s ideal of ‘playful seriousness’ from Being Ecological (2018), wherein an attitude of levity toward monumental problems is more successful to achieving understanding and, possibly, change than one proportionate to their severity.

A golden disk set above debris
Daniel Shieh, Wishing you a peaceful future, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and LMCC; photograph: Martin Seck

Wishing you a peaceful future (2023) presents a re-creation of the Voyager Golden Record – a sampling of images and sounds representing human life sent into space in 1977 – displayed on the gallery floor amidst asteroid debris. Here, Shieh draws on an interesting artifact of nation-building, but it’s unclear how its material representation furthers his investigation. Power Play (2023), meanwhile, is a periscope reminiscent of a giant, olive-green Tetris block on a tilt. While the piece delightfully deranges the viewer’s perspective, it is only notionally linked to the show’s themes of interrogating entrenched power relations. More broadly, the provocation of Shieh’s work is to suggest that personal and familial histories of migration and Americanization can be abstracted into universal and teachable affective registers. I am prepared to believe this, though I am not fully convinced by this exhibition.

Textile works of figures in foreground and background
Chia-Lun Chang, Daniel Shieh and Arleene Correa Valencia, ‘When Time Runs Backwards’, 2023, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artists and LMCC; photograph: Martin Seck

Artworks that encourage viewers to reflect on phenomenological experience to deepen rational understanding are necessarily inchoate, prioritizing generativity and dialogue to complete the link between viewers’ sensations and analysis. To this end, Shieh’s practice relies on textual explanations, which represent beginnings rather than destinations in exploring topics as complex as American imperialism. His choice, then, to showcase his work alongside that of collaborators including Chia-Lun Chang, whose poetry alludes to displacement and memories of the homeland, and Arleene Correa Valencia, who makes textile work inflected by the complexities of undocumented migration, is productive. As the Brazilian writer and educator Paulo Freire wrote in a 1979 treatise, ‘The dialogue of education [is] the practice of freedom.’ More, perhaps, could have been done to draw out the implications of the show within the context of Governors Island, a long-time military post. Such details aside, however, the success of Shieh’s work hinges on how far he can carry the conversation forward.

Daniel Shieh, ‘Where Time Runs Backwards’, is on view at The Arts Center at Governors Island until 1 October. 

Main image: Daniel Shieh, Mother's Anthem, 2023, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and LMCC; photograph: Martin Seck

Jasmine Liu is a writer from the Bay Area based in Brooklyn.