Island to Island: A graphic exchange between Taiwan & New Zealand. Taiwan: Dala Publishing, 2016.
Recently, while attending the Auckland launch of, the rather wonderful Three Words anthology, I gave Rae Fenton a copy of parts 1 & 2 of my scratchy little, photocopied comic, The Talion Maker. She expressed some delight to see it and, from the large bag hanging from her shoulder, promptly pulled this beautiful book, handed it to me, and said something to the effect of “let’s swap”! What she gave me was this utterly delightful collection of comics made by Sean Chuang, 61Chi, Ahn Zhe, Tim Gibson, Ant Sang, and herself as part of an artistic and cultural exchange between creators from Taiwan and New Zealand. The book, which is a visual delight as we move through very distinct graphic styles is the result of trips to each other’s countries where the artists became acquainted and shared ideas, beliefs, opinions and everyday rituals, with each contributor writing a story for those people making the visit. As the Editor-in-Chief of Dala Publishing puts it in the introduction, this was an exchange in which ‘six graphic novelists created eighteen gifts with interlocking narratives’. And I am fortunate enough to have been gifted the fantastic record of that exchange.
So, the book is all about gifting, giving, exchanging. It is also about finding the means to communicate or finding a common language where there doesn’t appear to be one. For the the six artists whose work is collected here, that language became a mix of gestures and images as they found a way to converse. In the two ‘gifts’ presented above, Chi for Rae and Tim for Ahn, we find both fascination with difference–Chi’s interest in the way Rae continually changed her hairstyle over the course of the trip–or the recognition of similarity–Tim’s homage to the the drive and determination he sees in both himself and Ahn. Alternatively, we have moments of transformation, as in Ahn’s gift to Rae (below). As an artist that records the everyday world around him he offers these pictures as mementos for Rae to take home with her, knowing that through her eyes they will become ‘song after song of beautiful and touching poetry’. When Ant gifts something to Ahn it is an account of his own childhood belief that he needed to physically transform himself based on other people’s opinions about his skinny body. This story is motivated by a conversation Ant had with Ahn on the first day of their meeting and is wonderful testimony to the intimacy of strangers.
In Sean’s gift to Ant we find a fascinating point of communication through the global image of Bruce Lee. Sean introduces his piece for Ant by explaining how despite Ant’s Chinese heritage he doesn’t speak any Chinese. He learned that Ant had once briefly lived in Hong Kong as a boy and uses his own memory of alienation at middle school to draw a connection to what he imagines was Ant’s own curious mix of belonging and detachment. For both of them, the kung fu films of Bruce Lee represented a valuable means of escape. In Rae’s third piece–Rae for Sean–we find another connection to childhood that shows how the exchange not only connected people separated by space but also required each artist to draw on their own past experiences in the process of cultural translation and engagement. Time and personal history are also absolutely critical to the project. In this piece Rae records a visit to the National Palace Museum and recounts how the ceramic displays conjoured memories of her own creative practice with clay as a child. Rae’s pages wonderfully weave together the mix of space and time that is a fitting end to this collection.
Ultimately, this book is the perfect expression of the communication process, that ability to secure identity and understanding across radical differences, but it is also a really great statement about the munus that hides in the word communicate. Munus means to share. It is what’s open to the public, as in the English word municipal. It is that which transcends and overcomes the enclosed interiors of private space. In the idiom of the book’s title it is what enables the passage from island to island in this archipelago of visual gifts. In the end, though, what this book really shows us is that no matter how different all the islands might look, or how far away in the distance they might appear, beneath the sea they are all joined by the same rock. This is the abiding theme of this lovely book.