Asia Art Archive in America presented a screening of Student Bodies by the artist and writer Ho Rui An. First presented in 2019, Student Bodies is a work of pedagogical horror that approaches the fraught history of capitalist modernity and radical culture in East and Southeast Asia through the figure of the student body. Beginning with the students of Satsuma and Chōshū from Bakumatsu-era Japan, who in the 1860s were the first students from the country to study in the West, the work considers the student body as both collective and singular, both metaphor and flesh, standing in for the body politic of the region across the successive periods of “miraculous” economic development, crisis, and recovery through to the present day.
In Ho’s work, the “star capitalist pupil” of the United States—as political scientist Chalmers Johnson described Japan in the post-World War II period—becomes, later on in the film, the dead student protester on the streets, with each reincarnation breaking established analytical frameworks based on class, culture, and the nation-state. In the work, these monstrous transformations undergone by the student body throughout history are given voice by unseen “ghosts” whose utterances are only comprehensible through reading the subtitles. This is combined with contemporary footage and archival material that together draw out the complex interplay of historical forces that has produced the student as both the embodiment of the education system and its contradiction.
The screening was followed by a discussion with Ho and writer and curator Murtaza Vali.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Well, I think on that note we can now open up for a few questions. Thank you very much Rui An and Murtaza. I agree. The U.S. China’s relationship is on a lot of people’s minds these days. One of the texts in your film talked about how Americans, Caucasians were hysterical about the rise of Japan. Well, I think we have a certain amount of hysteria about the rise of China going on right now.
Murtaza Vali (MV): Those are the analogies I see. The way in which China is discussed is very much the way in which Japan was discussed in the 80s and the 90s. If anybody has comments, questions, or reflections….
Audience Member 1 (AM1): Actually, my question is about feelings. Because saturating the entire trajectory of what the student body is, are feelings. First, nationalism and then horror, but then in the middle there was a section, a particular quote about (how) a student used to be something that was from an elite position and it’s now somebody who got into a school that your son did not, so resentment is also a very strong feeling. I actually would be really interested in hearing you talk about the structures of feeling that accompany these kinds of (notions), feelings of patronage, feelings of competition, feelings of, in a sense, nationalism; which to my mind have evolved in a very interesting way, and I’ll leave it at that.
Ho Rui An (HRA): I guess it really depends on which particular context we are talking about. One of the things I also wanted to capture was the idea that many of these student movements or at least some of them were very short lived. I think the most pertinent example that I talk about in the film would be the movement in Thailand.
You see these monuments to the massacre in 1976. That massacre happened in 1976, but actually three years before, 1973, was a very successful student uprising in Thailand that managed to dismantle the dictatorship. And of course, all of these countries were ruled by dictators, military or otherwise, or an authoritarian leader at some level. Many of the student movements were protesting that or trying to dismantle that for a more egalitarian system.
The structure of feeling in Thailand was almost schizophrenic. You had this very successful student movement that came up in 1973 that overthrew the dictator. Then, all the democratic gains made just within the three-year period between the years 1973 and 1976, were overturned overnight in 1976 with the massacre. What was very troubling about that particular massacre was that the main aggressors were not the state, but economically disgruntled citizens at that time, who were part of more conservative factions within society. They were the ones who started attacking the students. I think it was a very horrific event because within Thailand they are unable to understand how it was that people can turn against students. Most of the casualties came not from direct state violence, but from the citizens themselves. I mean there’s a very complicated history of why that happened, but if you look at 1976, one of the key factors was really the American withdrawal from Vietnam. The Vietnam War was a key event that allowed the American military presence to underwrite a lot of the economic growth in the region. Thailand, for example, would be where you had a lot of military bases, and with the withdrawal from Vietnam, the economy started dismantling and crumbling. For sure, there is an economic narrative here when you have (the question) where does this anger come from. When you talk about feelings, these were very complicated feelings that I think even today, people are still finding it hard to understand what exactly happened, how a nation turned against itself.
AM1: I think that what they all have in common in positioning the student as a figure, is that they are also in formation. The student is a figure in formation. All of these different moments you have, have in common resentment. There’s always somebody that somebody is resenting. It would be very interesting to think about this as a primary structure, and how it seems to be, at the end, to me, a gateway to the idea of horror. I just think of my aunt who once said to me in the 80s that she’s never afraid of horror movies that are not Chinese, because she just doesn’t understand it. So in a sense what we are talking about in terms of horror being globalized, is a transmigration, in not just specificity, but modes of resentment. I just find that very interesting.
MV: I think that is a really great question and an interesting line of reasoning. I also then wonder whether this resentment you’ve identified is something that is specific to East and Southeast Asia. Whether it is a response to certain structures that are in place or that have been inherited from earlier structures. And I’m not going to say anything more about it because my knowledge of history is very limited. It also brought up something that is a really strong aspect of this film in the way that Rui An approaches it. You can very easily sentimentalize the student. And one thing that the film does not do is that it doesn’t do that, so that the student doesn’t become a tragic figure. I mean Godard died yesterday, so (like) the figure in Godard’s films or the political figure that emerges from 1969 around the world. It kind of resists that. It allows all these other types of emotions or sentiments around the figure of the student to come up, so it provides you with a much more enriched understanding of the figure. I think resentment is a good one of those.
Audience Member 2 (AM 2): I’m so glad I am here and I was able to watch your film, so thank you. I work on South Korean art. I am just looking at the archival document treatments that you have and the interest in the technological apparatus, and the transnational outlook onto the scope of history. I could not help but think of my friends in South Korea like Chan-Kyong Park or Heung-soon Im. But then I do have a question about the absence of women. The friends I mentioned are also male artists, and they try to pay attention to their feminist side. They also understand their shortcomings. I am writing a book on South Korean activist art during the democracy movements, so my book will be Namhee Lee’s visual arts version. It’s coming out soon from Duke. And what I realized looking at the 1980s South Korean student movement is that yes, some students became national heroes, but after the death of their sons, the mothers became lifelong activists. Their sons were activists for 18 months. The most famous figure, Lee Han-yeol died in 1987, right before the democracy movement actually was “successful”. His mother just died this year, so she’s been working tirelessly. As a specialist of the 70s and 80s, I didn’t know how to come to terms with the student being the carrier of national fate and those female figures that are left behind. Most student figures that are famous are male. Whereas there were many female students who disregarded their gender identity, in order to fit into that particular identity given to the student, at least in the case of South Korea. And so in your film, I only saw the ghost as a female figure, even the pop idols at the end were male. I don’t think they were Korean, because I couldn’t understand the language they were speaking. I don’t think it was K-pop.
HRA: It’s a Taiwanese group.
AM2: What are your thoughts on this issue? I’m sure you were thinking about it.
HRA: Yes, I was looking at the literature of that time as well. Certainly, more recent scholarship has been trying to recuperate these figures that have been marginalized from the official narratives of these movements. I’m not super familiar with the South Korean context, but you can also see this in this other context where the male student movement leaders were very prominent. And I think this is reflected in the way that the movement was memorialized. One of my points of departure was to start with these different monuments. And of course, a lot of these monuments, especially those that are more heroic, are official monuments on top of this official history. Certainly, from that perspective a lot of these protagonists would be male because that was the way that history has been written. But at the same time, some of the voices you hear are not all male, some of them are female. For me, the voices represent a multitude of positions, some of them are coming from the movement, some of them from academic scholars, some of these are economists. So, for me, this film is also not purely about the student movement itself. There’s a broader narrative, (where) you start off with this scholar bureaucrat that then becomes the student figure of resistance, then the figure of resistance becomes assimilated back into the establishment. And so, in a way it is about this assimilation back into the hegemonic system, and unfortunately, the way I see it, many of these figures tend to be male because they return back into the establishment. So that particular narrative in certain aspects tends to be very gendered as male, because it is really describing this figure of hegemony that then goes into the resistance movement and then is reassimilated back into the apparatus. I would say it is internal to the narrative that I’m trying to say, and that’s why it tends to turn out that way.
MV: I think it’s a good observation as well because it also points to something else which is that there are always racialized and gendered biases when it comes to the way in which student movements are memorialized or remembered. So, to give an example from a slightly different context, the 1960s student movement at Kent State in the U.S. coalesces around what those four did as martyrs, and erases the other voices and communities that were organizing. It erases African American political organizing around the same time because three of them were men and one of them was a woman and they were all white bodies. They get sentimentalized, they get heroized, they get memorialized, celebrated as martyrs in a way. I think what you were saying about that then being the image that appears in monuments. That’s the state authorized reinforcement of that patriarchy and biases.
AM2: Authoritarianism within the resistance movement is such a fascinating topic, and that’s definitely related to it.
HRA: Yeah, and I didn’t go into it so much, the film presents compressed narratives. But certainly, if you look into the organizational structure within these student movements, there is also a lot to be said in terms of the forms of patriarchy, also replication of certain authoritarian modes of control within the movements themselves. That is certainly a fascinating topic that I would want to explore more.
Audience Member 3 (AM3): Thank you so much for bringing this wonderful film to us. I think besides being a film it is also an intriguing artwork. I really love your creative use of montage. My question is, for the last scene you chose the two different materials and mixed them together. I think one is from a Japanese horror movie.
HRA: Yes, The Ring.
AM3: I am from mainland China, but I think one is a clip of F4 from Taiwan. You didn’t talk about how Taiwan was affected during this whole period, but I know Taiwan was less affected at this time than some of the other Asian countries. So why did you choose the F4 pop song? Actually, crises often get melted together by the entertainment industry or maybe the pop star industry… I am curious.
HRA: Actually, the reason is quite silly. It’s because every time I’m at a karaoke with different Southeast Asians and East Asians, I realize everybody knows F4.
General Audience: [Laughter]
HRA: Which surprises me. All Thai artists, all Indonesian artists, everybody can sing songs by F4, because they were in a way the first transregional phenomenon prior to K-pop, so for me, it felt appropriate to use them, partly because I grew up on their music as well.
AM3: Yes, we saw that in your sound design, the way you let the audience hear the lyrics as text. But how did you choose this specific song or this visualization? Because F4 made a lot of songs.
MV: When we spoke yesterday, you were saying something about translation.
HRA: Yes, (what I used was) the soundtrack to Lilo and Stitch, the Disney movie. F4 got so big that they were commissioned to do the Chinese cover of the Lilo and Stitch film. Of course, this question of covers, translations, mediations is internal to the film as a whole, so I thought it was interesting to choose this particular (material). Because that was the moment that American producers also wanted to get into Asian markets and decided to produce Chinese versions of everything or whatever Asian language version of everything.
JD: Well, I think we need to conclude this great discussion, because we have run over, but thank you very much Rui An and Murtaza. This was a great film and discussion.
Ho Rui An is an artist and writer working in the intersections of contemporary art, cinema, performance and theory. Working primarily across the mediums of lecture, essay and film, he probes into the ways by which images are produced, circulate and disappear within contexts of globalism and governance. He has presented projects at the Bangkok Art Biennale; Asian Art Biennial; Gwangju Biennale; Jakarta Biennale; Sharjah Biennial; Kochi-Muziris Biennale; Kunsthalle Wien; Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore; and Para Site, Hong Kong. In 2019, he was awarded the International Film Critics’ (FIPRESCI) Prize at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany. In 2018, he was a fellow of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program.
Murtaza Vali (he/him/his) is a critic, curator, and art historian based in Sharjah and Brooklyn. His ongoing research interests include materialist art histories, ex-centric minimalisms, ghosts and other figures of liminal subjectivities and repressed histories, the weight of color and contemporary art of the Indian Ocean littoral. A recipient of a 2011 Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for Short-Form Writing, he publishes regularly in various international art periodicals and in exhibition catalogues for non-profit institutions and commercial galleries around the world. Vali is Curator-at- large of FRONT International 2022: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art and Adjunct Curator at the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, where he curated the widely acclaimed inaugural group exhibition Crude (2018), which explored the relationship between oil and modernity across South West Asia. Other current and recent curatorial projects include: Proposals for a Memorial to Partition (2022-23), Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai; (with Uzma Rizvi) Accommodations, the National Pavilion of Saudi Arabia at the 17 th Venice Architecture Biennale (2021); and Substructures: Excavating the Everyday (2020-22), a series of exhibitions about “intimate infrastructures” in the Gulf at Warehouse421 in Abu Dhabi.
Student Bodies: A Screening with Ho Rui An was made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature.