Be Sampan

Rhett Tsai

Creation media and date
VR installation, plate print, 2021

Be Sampan is a reflective creation by the artist, who returned to his hometown of Fujian to conduct field research, revolving around the theme of “from the Tanka to post-humanity in the present”.
The Tanka people / water people / boat people are a special group of people – they live on the water and cannot go ashore all their lives, mostly around Asia seas. As a long-standing concern of sociologists, “Tanka” embodies complex issues of water and land, pre-modern and modern, ethnic discrimination from people on shore, and stereotypes from Westerners who came to China in about 20th century.
Being inspired by an old friend, the artist fictionalizes Ah Xin, who is a Tanka and the main element linking the VR and graphic plates, and these two parts together form an individual narrative with a humanistic perspective in a larger historical context. The VR part takes the “search for Ah Xin, a Tanka ashore in Starfish Village” as the main line with three chapters “The Buoy”, “The Black Dream” and “The Land-Sickness” to unfold the various metaphors shown by the Tanka people in the complex relationship between “water and shore”. The graphic plate part is a collection of “Deformed Bodies” showing “the transformation of the human body by the technological society” from the perspective of Ah Xin after he went ashore, in order to reverse the discriminatory term “bowlegged” and to show to the shore. “The print section is a reflection on the dilemma of human existence in the post-human era and its aberrant shaping of the human body, written from the perspective of Ah Xin ashore.
Be Sampan is also a media experiment on VR: the viewer will experience boat rides, boat crashes, and confusion between left and right eye scenes, thus traversing the imaginary world of the Tanka people. “The Land-Sickness”, the chapter 3 in VR, is typical. The Land-sickness is a symptom of dizziness caused by the confusion of water and land space perception after some water people go ashore. In this chapter, the left eye of the VR glasses is the water world and the right eye is the shore world, and the viewer will go ashore in this spatial disorder to find Ah Xin.
The use of the extremely humanistic and vernacular perspective of the Tanka as a slice to think about the current post-human dilemma is based on the artist’s consistent attitude: the discussion of technology will ultimately return to “people”, and the Tanka, a group seemingly without any element of technology, has the universality of crossing time and space and breaking through the fetter of the inherent symbols. The act of “going ashore” from water to land essentially points to the destiny of human beings who cross their own history and have to go to an unknown future.