Although in recent decades contemporary Asian art is like a magnet attracting interest from the international art world, "Contemporary Taiwanese Art in the Era of Contention," a spring 2004 show at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University, marks the first exhibition solely devoted to contemporary Taiwanese art in the U.S. Curated by An-Yi Pan, assistant professor of Chinese art at Cornell, the exhibition’s aim is to "examine contemporary Taiwanese art through the lenses of cultural identity and political memory, focusing on the period since 1987, when martial law was lifted." Pan's intention to delineate a modern socio-political history of Taiwan through the visions of the contemporary Taiwanese artists exhibited in the show is made explicit in the exhibition catalogue. This informative tome (over 250 pages) includes the curator's own exhaustive essay on the current show, as well as the contributions of two other Taiwanes e art historians. Yen Chuan-yin discusses the initial introduction of western modern art to Taiwan during the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945) and Hsiao Chong-ray focuses on the re-entry of debates concerning modern art and Chinese traditional art after the KMT (Kuo-min-tang, or Nationalist Party) and Chiang Kai-shek's regime's take-over of Taiwan after WWII (1945-1983).
This approach to curating exhibitions of visual art under the single umbrella of ethnicity and national history was considered pathbreaking at one point when postcolonial theories directed the international art world's attention towards contemporary art from marginalized regions. However, this inevitably "authoritative" attitude has been looked upon with suspicion by an increasing number of artists and curators who have tried to reclaim the (admittedly) romantic autonomy of artists and of their creation. One of many reactions against this ethnocentric curatorial approach is found in a recent exhibition "Freestyle" at the Studio Museum in Harlem, curated by the Museum's director Thelma Golden. Exhibiting a group of African-American artists, Golden consciously avoids imposing any gratuitous reference relating an artist's work and his/ her ethnic origins. By doing so, she champions the radical idea of the post-black artist.
Despite Pan's deployment of each artwork as a means of illustrating a socio-political framework in his essay, the two-part exhibition of thirty-two artists shows an impressive dynamism marked by diverse forms and subject matter. It is certainly a welcome indication of his open mind in selecting pieces. The exhibition unexpectedly benefits from the seemingly "postmodern" patchwork-installation of artworks in which overtly political and Taiwan-specific works are indiscriminatingly juxtaposed with others engaged with a highly internalized, personal experience or those addressing macro-issues of cultural globalization and rapid technological developments. Although, this athematic grouping might appear disorganized, this stark contrast to many contemporary ethnocentric exhibitions fortuitously allows each work to directly address the audience on its own terms without burdening the work with a forced relationship to its surrounding works.
Upon entering the I. M. Pei-designed museum at Cornell, several idiosyncratic installations immediately confront the viewer. Dangling from the high-rise ceiling is Mei Dean-E's "Don't Rush, Be Patient" (1998), a gigantic beaded curtain of money that, according to the artist, alludes indirectly to the "Iron Curtain" of the Soviet Union and the "Bamboo Curtain" of communist China. Like many of Mei's works, this piece also employs a Dadaist collage of cross-referencing images and texts. While the curtain appears as a simulation of a NT $ 1000 bill, Mei has transfigured the bill's original design by juxtaposing the now distorted image of a winking Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese text "Don't Rush, Be Patient," a slogan made popular in the mid-1990s by the first Taiwanese-elected president Lee Teng-hui, to admonish the hasty flux of Taiwanese money into Chinese markets. In doing this, Mei ridicules both Taiwan's p roblematic materialism resulting from the explosive economic boom in the 1990s, as well as the agonizing cross-strait political tension between Taiwan and China.
Flanking the museum entrance is Shy Gong's "God Serial No. 228" (1999), which is a two wooden assembly with flickering neon lights in the form similar to a conventional pinball machine. Like Mei, Shy Gong also refers to particular events in Taiwan's history, in this case, the 2/28 Incident in 1947, the tragic massacre of native Taiwanese, sparked by the unintentional killing of an aged Taiwanese woman by newly arrived soldiers from the Chinese mainland for allegedly selling cigarettes on the street illegally. The island-wide campaign against the new KMT regime, led by Taiwanese intellectuals, was followed by severe governmental suppressions and the subsequent implementation of the "White Terror" campaign for over forty years. Taking this historical incident as a point of departure, Shy Gong's "God Serial No. 228," itself a kitsch potpourri of commercial images and goods, historical figures from Taiwan and printed texts, is in fact a contemporary response to a Taiwanese society radically transformed by the unrestrained freedom released after the removal of martial law in 1987.
J.C. Kuo's "Saint-Taiwan- Democracy" (2000) transforms the newly elected president Chen Shui-bian into a characterization reminiscent of Chinese traditional painting of young children as well as kitschy, Byzantinesque religious icons. Rendering the painting as a tribute to the fostering of Taiwan's democratization, substantiated by the successful election of the first president from any opposition party, Kuo's ambivalence towards increasing social turmoil and political bickering is evident in his use of a double-edged parodic style that sanctifies and, at the same time, desacralizes President Chen, a symbol of Taiwan's newborn democracy. Taking a more derisive stance is Yao Jui-chung's "Recovering Mainland China- Action Series" (1997). "Recover Mainland China" used to be the leading political slogan in Taiwan, but it has lost credibility following rapidly changing international realities. Born in 1969, Yao represents the last generation to have grown up "baptized" in the ideology of anti-communism and the recovery of the mainland. Using the ridicule of his own Taiwanese military service as a point of departure, Yao visited China as a gesture of "recovering" the mainland. On the trip, he visited tourist attractions and had himself photographed in front of those monuments while leaping high in the air in a posture of military attention. This action separates him from his physical presence in each location, alluding to his alien relationship to the mainland.
Although also highly sensitive to the power configuration in politics and in historiography, Chen Chieh-jen's video installation "Lingchi- Echoes of a Historical Photograph" (2002) avoids using a specific Taiwanese reference. Instead, Chen looks deep into brutality and violence as an essence present in any society. The looping video endlessly depicts a public execution of a criminal by lingchi, meaning to slowly torture to death by slicing the executed piece by piece. Inspired by a lingchi photograph taken by a French soldier in early twentieth-century Beijing, Chen's black and white video projections of extremely slow and silently moving figures weirdly "aestheticizes" the experience of viewing this inhumane scene. The extreme prolongation of time in the film transfigures one's perception of the actual relationship between time and space, to such an extent that the viewer seems to melt into the scene and becom es a collaborator in the brutality inherent in humanity.
Liu Shih-fen's video installation "Gift" tells a story of a short-lived infant girl, Wa-pao ("Precious Doll"), who was born without a brain and lived only for twenty-six hours. Mixing the footage that Liu recorded during the baby's lifespan and animation created to capture Wa-pao's mother's dream, Liu's sensitive work provides an alternative channel for rejoining art and life and, even, death. Based on her work as a gynecological nurse, Liu is able to integrate unique personal experiences with her art, and thus bring new perspectives to both fields.
This exhibition also includes a younger generation of artists who use computer technology and the Internet as a means to communicate their critique of the global economy, the colonizing of popular cultures and the dominance of the US and Japanese media industries. Using either digitally created figure-icons (Hung) or the digitally reconfigured and re-composed body of the artist (Lin), Hung Tung-lu's "Nirvana" (2002) and Eva Hsin-I Lin's "The Eighth Day Project" (2003) reiterate the ambivalent attitude of the e-generation towards boundless cyberspace and the uncontrolled development of technology. Also, using the technology of digital alteration, both Diing-wuu Walis's "Invisible Project I – Invisible People" (2001) and Yuan Goang-ming's "City Disqualified – Ximen District in Day Time" (2002) create an eerie suspension of time and space, devoid of people who were presumably present in Yuan’s busy urban district as well as in Walis's ethnographic photographs. Taking the ambiguities of the current state of virtual reality as a point of departure, both Yuan and Walis attempt to interrogate more fundamental issues, for instance the philosophical discourse concerning the "real" and the "perceived" in Yuan's case, and the exclusionary nature of historiography in Walis's case. Given Walis's mixed ethnicity of Han Chinese and Tai-ya tribe, one of the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, the challenging questions asked in his work are doubly justified in post-martial law Taiwan where pluralist values are emerging simultaneously, throwing Taiwan's society into a confusing postmodern cacophony that anticipates some form of orchestration in the near future.
After the demise of authoritarian politics in 1987, Taiwanese society has indeed experienced an unprecedented dynamism brought about by decentralization. Many formerly marginalized groups, from native Taiwanese to women, homosexuals and the indigenous peoples of Taiwan, all now appeal for equal (political) rights and social standing. Like a whirlpool, this pluralistic environment undeniably provides a fertile ground to nourish energized artists and their intensely charged artwork. One might argue that An-yi Pan's socio-politically focused lens is not wide enough to account for such a pluralism of approaches and solutions, but, in my view, his inclusion of a diversity of artists nevertheless offers an intriguing kaleidoscope of the impressive energy of contemporary Taiwanese art.
- Fri, 1 Oct 2004