The Liverpool Biennial is one of the significant exhibitions of contemporary art in the United Kingdom. Eleng Luluan, an artist of the Rukai tribe living in Taitung, Taiwan, became the first Taiwanese artist to participate in the exhibition through commissioned works. Drawing inspiration from Rukai legends, she presented her latest installation art series, "Ali sa be sa be / Rugged Rock Cliffs" with the newest creation titled "Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth." The artworks were showcased at Princes Dock in Liverpool from June 10 to September 17, 2023.
The "Ali sa be sa be / Rugged Rock Cliffs" series originates from the impact of Eleng Luluan's return to her native homeland, Kucapungane, Pingtung, after an 11-year absence. She described how the road to the tribe had completely changed due to destructive landslides, leaving the geological strata exposed and transforming the appearance of the ridges. When Typhoon Morakot hit in 2009, the entire Xin Kucapungane tribe was buried, and only the higher-altitude Elderly Church's roof remained visible.
"We are together." - Khanyisile Mbongwa, Liverpool Biennial curator
During the first online discussion with Khanyisile Mbongwa, the South African curator of this year's Liverpool Biennial, Eleng Luluan looked back on her past works, including "The Last Sigh Before Gone," "Dispossessions: Dadugunu Stood In Kucapungane," and "Ali sa be sa be / Rugged Rock Cliffs, I Miss Everything in The Future." These works all relate to her ancestors, deceased tribe members, and Typhoon Morakot. Eleng Luluan expressed that whenever she mentioned these works, it felt like reliving a drama, returning to the pain of creation. The memories were supposed to have settled over time, but at that moment, the emotions surged, bringing tears to her eyes.
In response to her unexpected tears, the curator gently told her, "I seem to hear certain sounds in those memories." This surprised Eleng Luluan as she had never encountered a curator responding to her works in such a way, and she was deeply moved.
Mbongwa titled the exhibition "uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things," emphasizing the significance of ancestral and indigenous knowledge, wisdom, and healing. "uMoya" comes from the Zulu language and means "soul, breath, air, climate, and wind." After officially accepting the invitation to exhibit, Eleng Luluan worked hard to internalize the curatorial concept and develop new works. She sought to use Rukai pottery as a symbol of origin and transcending the boundary between life and death, paying tribute to the ancient Rukai legends.
During her visit to Liverpool for site inspection with the curator, Eleng Luluan felt apologetic that the curator had to accompany them despite her busy schedule. However, the curator replied, "We are together."
In Mbongwa's company, Eleng Luluan felt loved and cherished, just like being among her tribe members and family.
To the Lost Myth
During one of the site inspections, as the curator and Eleng Luluan passed by Princes Dock, they saw battleships, ships, and cruise liners docked there. The scene of constantly changing ships intertwined with the day and night reminded Eleng Luluan of the sight she saw when she returned to Kucapungane. Looking out, she could see the dramatic changes in the riverbed landscape caused by landslides. Inspired by this, Eleng Luluan decided to exhibit her new work, "Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth," at this dock.
For this artwork, she used deep-sea fishing nets as the medium and combined various elements such as plants, water, coins, and different colors of threads to weave the severed fishing nets back together. "Ngialibalibade" means "happening" in the Rukai language, symbolizing the transformation of life, soul, and the changes in nature.
The dense fishing nets cover the iron pieces of a giant pottery jar, and the hollow parts resemble the boundary between yin and yang, a complex weaving process that echoes the time when indigenous people did not have written history, and their bodies were carriers of culture. Eleng Luluan deeply remembered an image of an elderly Rukai person boarding a rescue helicopter during a flood, carrying only the traditional Rukai clothing in their back basket. Young Rukai girls embroidered clothing for their beloved ones, and after marriage, they wove clothes for their families, each garment representing different stages of life, with every stitch carrying love. "The hands of Rukai girls never stop." Eleng Luluan learned weaving in the tribe, and it has become one of the metaphors in her creative career.
Finally, "Ngialibalibade to the Lost Myth" is exhibited in the form of a huge pottery jar, resembling a corridor of time, placed on the bustling dock. Before the artwork departed for the UK, Eleng Luluan held a blessing ceremony for it. On the day of the Biennial's opening, she dressed in traditional attire and held another ceremony, intending to establish a meaningful dialogue with the world through this complete process.
Eleng Luluan mentioned that although she didn't promote her artistic concepts externally, people came to view this artwork continuously for four to five days. Some viewers even said that the artwork reminded them of their family members.
The Rebel Princess
"I was a wild and rebellious child, seeking freedom."
Eleng Luluan's Rukai name "Eleng" means "high mountains" and is a name reserved for princesses, symbolizing elegance and grace. However, she possessed an untamed soul.
Leaving her tribe at an early age, Eleng Luluan found herself living in a foreign place, detached from the social responsibilities of her tribe. Witnessing the frequent devastation of her hometown by natural disasters, she accumulated remorse without an outlet. After becoming an artist, she recalled her childhood experiences of collecting flowers and plants in the mountains, communicating with them, and seeing the tribe's elders making accessories from discarded materials. The Rukai way of life naturally contains diverse material languages, and Eleng Luluan captures every subtle color and scene, using them as nourishment for her creations.
"I feel like I'm confessing through my art." She gradually restrained the rebelliousness of her youth and sought reconciliation through her creations.
Returning Home to OldKucapungane
In 2020, eleven years after Typhoon Morakot, Eleng Luluan returned to the old site of Tulalegele and planned to walk back to the old Kucapungane. On the way, she encountered a group of elementary school students led by a teacher exploring the old Kucapungane site. She told the teacher about her plans to conquer the huge landslide. The teacher responded, "You don't have to conquer it; the path you have traveled is the way home." This simple phrase became a powerful force, accompanying her throughout her journey.
With a thin rope in hand, Eleng Luluan climbed along the mountainside, feeling that the steep rock walls resembled the paths taken by mountain goats. When she was close to the old Kucapungane, it was already dark, and her flashlight's battery had run out. At that moment, she felt fearful, wondering if wild boars would suddenly appear! Coincidentally, a group of people dedicated to the restoration of secondary historical sites temporarily resided on the mountain, conducting investigations and repairs on the old Kucapungane stone houses. The sight of the laborers hammering and chiseling the stone slabs, with the echoes of their strikes reverberating between the crumbling rocks, resonated like an imminent cliff collapse. The moment when reconstruction and destruction coexisted intertwined the past and the present, and this scene of mixed emotions moved her deeply.
Rainy Days in Taimali
Over twenty years ago, Eleng Luluan arrived in Taitung, initially without a fixed residence. She bought a camper van and lived in it, occasionally staying at friends' homes or finding temporary studios. This allowed her to enjoy the ocean and the sky of Taitung in different places, feeling as free as a wandering bird.
"Every day in Taitung, I could see the sea and observe the interactions between people, as if I had to keep my senses open at all times. What you see and feel is the connection between you and the world, and sometimes it unintentionally triggers you."
Before moving to Taimali in 2022, Eleng Luluan had moved a total of seven times in Taitung, always living in simple and rudimentary places. When she lived in Dulan, she stayed under a roof made of tin without a door, and all her belongings were placed outside and covered with windproof cloth. She jokingly said, "Thieves might think I'm very poor." However, the frequent typhoons and rain caused her anxiety and fear for extended periods, making it challenging to create delicate artworks.
By chance, she found a studio in Taimali. The first time she stepped into the studio, it was raining outside, but not a single drop of water penetrated inside. She said, "I am safe, and I don't have to prepare a basin to catch the rain on rainy days anymore." Gazing at the vast Pacific Ocean like a curtain, she felt a deep sense of tranquility. On this misty day in Taimali, she decided to settle here. It was precisely because of this new place that she had the capacity to release the heavier contexts in her heart and create the artworks showcased in Liverpool.
Living in Two Worlds
"I have always lived in two worlds. When I left the tribe, my values stayed there, different from many aspects of Taiwan's mainstream."
The rapid development of technology contrasts with the traditional handiwork cherished by the tribes, creating two extremes that Eleng Luluan finds herself torn between. Returning to the native culture should soothe one's body and soul, but Eleng Luluan said, "I don't know where my body, mind, and soul belong." Regardless of whether art serves as a path of repentance for her, in this beautiful foreign land of Taitung, she can roam between two worlds, weaving her soul's journey home.
Located on the seaside of Changbin, Taitung, "The Sea Over There" was Eleng Luluan's work exhibited during the 2018 East Coast Land Arts Festival. The fish-shaped installation, composed of steel, bamboo, and wood, was created from the perspective of the Amis tribe. Eleng Luluan once worked with Amis people, riding trucks to work together. They would always say, "The sea is beautiful today!" when they saw the ocean in the morning or when they finished work in the evening. Curious, she asked, "I know the sea is beautiful, but why do you keep saying it?" It turned out that the Amis, who are good at observing the sea's conditions, say that when the sea is beautiful, it means it's a good day for fishing. "If the sea is this beautiful, it would be a waste not to go fishing!"
The work "The Sea Over There" was invited to be exhibited in Japan at the Fukuoka Rowing Course Outdoor Plaza as part of the 20th FINA World Swimming Championships Opening Installation Exchange Project. At the same time, "Ali sa be sa be / Rugged Rock Cliffs, I Miss Everything in The Future" also made its appearance at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum from July 1 to September 14, 2023.