Research Log | Flourishing Alternatives in the Old Capital

August 2004

The South-Eastern city of Tainan was Taiwan's capital until its governmental functions were transferred to Taipei at the end of the nineteenth century. It is a beautiful city, mixing temples and antiquities with contemporary faces.

In mid-May Howard Chen (formerly of the Taipei Artist Village) wrote to me about a one-year outdoor installation art project, Beautiful New Horizon - Art Involved Planning Hai-An Road, Another Imagery, Another Possibility. He was one of the invited artists to the first phase of the project, and is now working as curatorial staff for the second phase. The images of the works he sent were interesting enough for me to begin considering a trip to Tainan before too long.

The opportunity came in early July when a round-table discussion for the project was held. I travelled the four hours from Taipei with artist, Yao Jui-chung, who had been invited as one of the speakers. On arriving in Tainan we first met with performance artist, Rebecca Yeh Tzu-chi, since Jui-chung wanted to see her for his new book about Taiwanese performance art. He's currently working on three publications, this and two others - a art historical one based on his fieldwork, and a guidebook to cultural and art sites artist think interesting to visit.

The round-table was held in the evening on the pavement in front of Liou Kuo-chan's work. Nine speakers were invited, including Michael Lee, director of the Department of Urban Development of Tainan City Government, Huang Te-cheng, Chairman of a local organisation promoting development of the area, Chiu Li-li, a city council member who grew up in the neighbourhood, Wu Chao-ming, a China Times journalist, who has been covering the increasing issues accompanying the urban development of the city, Yao Jui-chung, Du Chao-hsien, the curator of the project, and participating artists. To my surprise, I found my name on the speakers list, as they were interested to hear ideas and examples from Japan. The easy attitude of Southern Taiwan made me happy to participate in what was, I later found out, a closed meeting held to discuss practical issues, different from earlier, open meetings that attracted quite a few residents.

The residents around Hai-an Road, one of the oldest cultural streets in the city, have suffered from rampant urban development, begun ten years ago by the then mayor. Oddly enough, in this spacious city, the plan to build an underground shopping mall was passed by the city assembly. But building stopped, due to budget problems, leaving a big concrete ditch and walls of the demolished houses. With the mall in limbo the Bureau of Urban Development started exploring how to landscape the road and pavements. After several trials and errors, this project Beautiful New Horizon seems to be gaining residents' supports.

The curator Du Chao-hsien, a strongly-motivated woman with a long experience in art administration, invited nine artists, mostly from Southern Taiwan for the project. A tile painting by Lee Mingtse, a big photograph by Kuo Ying-sheng and Howard Chen's drawing-pin installation were spectacular enough, but to me the work by architect Liou Kuo-chan was outstanding, in terms of getting to the heart of the overall project. He drew in the wall lines, outlining the original functions of the space and made some pieces of furniture on the bare wall, painted dark blue, letting the audience imagine the lost time and space of the site.

After the discussion, Jui-chung, Howard and I visited Liou Kuo-chan's office in a back street, which reminded me of some friends' homes in Kyoto where I lived for ten years. Tainan actually resembles Japan's old capital in many ways. The citizens of both have witnessed transitions of power over a long time and have naturally grown ironical to the authorities, but are responsible, confident and spontaneous in their own culture. They take a certain distance from the large capital, which represses people. Beautiful New Horizon doesn't have a huge budget, but it seems much more successful in actually engaging the public than many big-budget public art projects.

Tainan's independent nature in cultural practices is evident in its many non-governmental alternative art spaces. The city doesn't have a public art museum, though the second best art school in the country - Tainan National College of the Arts - is situated nearby.

I visited 4 alternative spaces in Tainan, guided by Jui-chung and Howard: 'Taiwan New Arts Union', 'Prototype Art', '136 Art Space' and 'Paint House'. The remains of a recent temporary public art project, also curated by Du Chao-hsien, were visible on the same street as TNAU. TNAU was started by nine local artists in 2003, to explore the subjectivity of Taiwan contemporary art.

'Prototype Art,' the oldest alternative space in Tainan, was set up in 1998. Run by three directors, the space has changed venue three times to date. To my regret, they plan to close their current space next year and move near the art school, where they will have only an office for art projects. They have not only supported many local artists, but also quite a few artists from outside the city like Taipei and Kaohsiung. It is a real shame that the most professional art space in the city will soon disappear.

Located in front of the oldest Kongzimiao (Confucius Temple) in Taiwan, '136 Community Art Gallery' is a small gallery which opened this year, with a cute bicycle coffee shop in the front tiny garden. As no one besides the coffee shop owner was there that day, sipping the tasty coffee dripped with a paper filter, I decided to leave it to the next opportunity.

The last space 'Paint House' has this year stopped holding 10-14 exhibitions a year, as it has, since opening in 2000. Instead they are renting studios to artists for 2-3 months. There is a studio, a small room to sleep and another space for discussions and casual exhibitions. Designed by a local architect, who participated in this year's Venice Architectural Biennial as one of Taiwan's representatives, this building partly renovated on the basis of a wooden house somehow looks organic. Despite my acrophobia, I dared to climb up on to the top of the roof, where a metal seat is fixed. While I am sure that a number of people would enjoy reading books on the roof, with the spectacular view, this was not somewhere for me.

Tainan has more projects happening, including a cultural complex on Anping Road recently built in a huge abandoned house covered by big trees with aerial roots. Designed by Liou Kuo-chan, the architect who did the attractive installation for Hai An Road, it is as if our childhood dream tree house has come true. It will be an absolutely great space for art and culture events, although the mosquitoes must be driven off, otherwise people may find they need to scratch all evening while events take place.

Taiwan New Arts Union
Prototype Art



Mio IWAKIRI, 岩切みお

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