- Tiling Over the Modern Pathos:Memory, Crisis, and the Emergence of a Taiwanese Surface
Prefabricating a Horizon
From the interior spaces of floors, kitchens, bathrooms, and toilets, to the exterior façades of high-rises, campus buildings, and tombstones, a ceramic glaze of tile covers much of the built environment of the tropical island of Taiwan. Tiles grow like a film or membrane, visible from the streets and inside rooms, at times shining like glamorous pixels in geometric grids, at times peeling off surfaces abraded by cracks and mold. The ubiquitous existence of tile-cladding in Taiwan evokes a certain sense of anachronism and displacement. Anachronistic, as the material history of ceramic tile-cladding on the island was initially informed by an aspiration for a hygienic modernity beginning with the advent of Japanese colonial urban plan, yet belied by the reality of its decay into banal eyesores in postwar development. Displaced, as the repetitive use of decorative tiles collapses the distinction between inside and outside, private and public, intimacy and indifference. The anonymous rhythms of tile cladding disorient both viewers and dwellers, disaggregating space into frames, grids, and panels, tantalizing them with a vague feeling of being modern. Re-fabricating surfaces of tile in relation to Taiwan’s struggle over the crisis of colonial control and neoliberal impasse, this essay seeks to retrace certain social affects that have long been excluded, suspended, and deemed peripheral to the island’s collective memory. The surface of tile, in this sense, is both a technical surface and aesthetic interface mediating among forms of life, modes of production, and styles of representation.
In what follows, I embark upon a trans-medial reading of various emotive and discursive articulations of tile across architecture, planning discourses, and cinematic representations. With a focus on colonial urban infrastructure during the period from the 1920s to the 1940s and the speculative investment in material science and ceramic commodities during the 1960s and 1970s, I [End Page 187] highlight an affective undercurrent that can be delineated in the technical development of tiles in Taiwan and the specific forms of expressivity fabricated by their material glamour and weathering. As material objects, ceramic tiles witness the island’s changing mode of industrialization and mechanization. As lines, grids, and frames, they create a specific form of “tiling,” modulating patterns of communication and representation. Banal ceramic cladding, in this case, plays a role as a medium able to excite, seduce, annoy, bore, and embarrass at the juncture of different historical crises. Juxtaposing these two historical periods across different mediums, I hope to conjure up tiles/tiling as a moving horizon upon which a specific affectively charged form of subject is made legible in the technical milieu of Taiwan.1
The link between affective form and technical form is made possible by the influential concept of “affordance” coined and developed by gestalt psychologist James J. Gibson. Affordance designates a realm of potential action or performance that the substance or surface in the environment can “afford” to the user as a subject. For instance, a knob affords the action of twisting and a chair affords the action of sitting. The notion therefore entails a dynamic movement between a living organism as a potential actor and a perceived site for potential action.2 Gibson further argues that a user perceives affordances of objects before recognizing and classifying their specific qualities. This implies that an affordance is constituted by various separate modes of sensoria synthetized into one by certain primordial affects that have already bridged the gaps among different senses. The notion of affordance, therefore, presupposes a certain degree of affective automaticity underlining the cognition and action of users.
In this case, tile as a physical object in use and tiling as an abstract form perceived as a potentially useful system echoes the ambivalence of grid as the “infrastructure of vision” discussed by art historian Rosalind Krauss. On the one hand, the grid is a technique through which concrete reality is filtered and turned into conceptual forms that are “antinatural, antimimetic, antireal” (Krauss 2016, 10). On the other hand, the grid directs us back to the texture of grid-surface itself, bringing to...