Re-Orienting Taiwan: The China Factor in Contemporary Art from Taiwan

Sophie McIntyre explores the implications of Taiwan's closer relationship with China upon the visual arts field.


In the current news headlines Taiwan’s President, Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), announces Taiwan and China have reached an “historic juncture.”1 Given that only a decade ago mainland China was considered Taiwan’s arch political rival from which this “renegade province” sought independence, today the future of this island is being aligned and re-defined by the increasingly close relationship forged between Taiwan and China. As Taiwan’s government steps up its campaign, promoting cross-Strait cooperation and exchange with mainland China, certain questions arise: what are the implications of this closer relationship on Taiwan’s visual arts field; and to what extent will it impact on the political and cultural freedoms and sense of local identity consciousness which artists in Taiwan have come to cherish?

Just over a decade ago, prior to the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, such questions of identity were at the forefront of cultural discourse in Hong Kong. As David Clarke and Ackbar Abbas discuss, during the lead-up to the handover local artists and curators gave visual expression to local concerns about Hong Kong’s future, and the potential loss of political autonomy and cultural identity under China’s regime.2 This was clearly reflected in a series of exhibitions including Being China (Being Hong Kong) (1996) and the Hong Kong Culture Series (1991), both of which were curated by Oscar Ho and that explored local themes relating to Hong Kong’s identity. Months prior to the handover, artist Kith Tsang, a co-founder of Para Site Art Space in Hong Kong, presented a sequence of ten exhibitions entitled Hello? Hong Kong. In these exhibitions the artist created a series of installations that brought together an assortment of personal belongings and local found objects in an exploration of the relationship between identity and living memory. According to the artist, this series was partly inspired by a visit to Taiwan where he says, “artists were using local materials in a sophisticated way to explore identity issues” which provoked him to “find out what Hong Kong’s indigenous materials are” and how they might reflect “Hong Kong’s identity and my own life experiences.”3

These questions of identity are re-surfacing in Taiwan, where many local artists feel overshadowed and threatened by China’s increasingly dominant regional and global presence. While some artists and gallerists from Taiwan have already been lured across the Straits by China’s thriving economy and art market, those who remain in Taiwan are facing an increasingly uncertain future. Will art from Taiwan be absorbed and assimilated into the Greater China cultural paradigm against which they have struggled to resist for the past two decades or more; or will artists be able to negotiate a path through this volatile and highly competitive global art industry, and retain their sense of “Taiwanese” as distinct from “Chinese” identity? These questions, which reflect upon broader geo-political and identity issues, and on notions of cultural citizenship and self-determination, are too complex to explain in depth here, but they do provide a platform for an initial discussion of recent developments in Taiwan’s contemporary art field and its possible future directions.


In November 2009, a major exhibition by the internationally acclaimed artist Cai Guo-Qiang (蔡國強) entitled Hanging Out in the Museum (蔡國強泡美術館) opened at Taiwan’s premier art museum, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM).4 An exhibition primarily sourced from the Guggenheim Museum’s 2008 artist retrospective, this was one of the largest and most costly solo exhibitions held to date at the TFAM.  The exhibition, featuring three new works, and seven existing large-scale installations, along with his gunpowder drawings and video projections, filled the cavernous spaces of the museum whose grey foyer was lit up by his spectacular series of exploding suspended cars. In Taipei’s dense urban metropolis Hanging Out in the Museum was extensively publicised and the sense of anticipation prior to the opening was followed by high audience attendance. Over a 13-week period this exhibition attracted more than 22,000 people, representing one of the highest attendances at a contemporary art exhibition in Taiwan.

In the local visual arts field, however, the response to this exhibition was less than enthusiastic. Hanging Out in the Museum became a target of significant criticism levelled at the TFAM and centred on the politics and commercial interests invested in the exhibition. These criticisms attracted media attention and were comprehensively scoped in a report published in the Taipei Times. Firstly, issues of conflict of interest arose regarding the exhibition’s key sponsor, Eslite Corporation, a retail group which owns a high profile commercial gallery in Taipei which represents Cai Guo-Qiang. Secondly, a controversy erupted about the alleged relationship between the artist and the incumbent pro-China Nationalist (KMT) Party President, Ma Ying-Jeou, whose two daughters were employed as assistants to the artist.5 

Of greater and more enduring significance, however, was the revelation that this exhibition signifies an important paradigm shift in museum exhibition policy. In line with the ruling government’s current agenda that seeks to forge closer economic, political and cultural ties between Taiwan and China, the TFAM instituted a quota system last year which stipulates that at least two invitation-based exhibitions of contemporary art from mainland China shall be presented annually by this museum. While some Western observers may question whether artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who emigrated to Japan in 1986 and now lives in New York, fits this “Chinese” criteria,6 as far as Taiwan’s government is concerned, the fact that he was born in China and has been officially endorsed by the Chinese government, as we witnessed during the Beijing Olympic Games opening, qualifies him as “Chinese”. As part of this quota system, the TFAM has invited other equally well-known Chinese artists including Fang Lijun (方力鈞), and Ai Wei Wei (艾未未) to present their works at the TFAM; and in April this year a painting exhibition co-organized by the TFAM and China’s National Art Museum opened at the TFAM.7 Although this quota system has not been affirmed officially, and is still denied by some museum staff,8 the TFAM museum director has publicly acknowledged and defended it as part of the government’s national policy on cross-Straits exchange which other museums have also adopted, including the renowned National Palace Museum in Taipei, and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung (NTMFA).

As one of Taiwan’s major contemporary art museums, in the recent years the NTMFA has presented a number of major cross-Straits exhibitions that have featured Chinese artists and travelled to China. These exhibitions have included Post Martial law vs. Post-‘89: The Contemporary Art in Taiwan and China in 2007, and Speak-Describe - 2009 Cross-Strait Contemporary Art held in 2009. This “China Fever” has also been embraced by other smaller government-funded museums, including the leading Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Taipei, where a solo exhibition by one of China’s pioneering performance artists, Zhang Huan (張洹) that was entitled Armituofo opened days prior to the closing of Cai Guo-Qiang’s exhibition at the TFAM. In Taiwan’s commercial gallery sector there has also been a conspicuous re-orientation towards China as several local commercial galleries have established bases in Beijing; in addition other galleries are more regularly presenting exhibitions of mainland Chinese art. As Taiwan’s President declared, “Taiwan’s future prosperity is inextricably linked with China’s.”9 


Within Taiwan’s local arts community, artists have been most critical of the increased presence of Chinese art in their museums, claiming it is a “fake” one-way exchange,10 and they are concerned their works will become further marginalised. Responding to this, Tsong Pu (莊普), one of Taiwan’s senior contemporary artists has, somewhat ironically named his current retrospective showing in the TFAM’s basement floor, Art from the Underground (地下藝術). He remarks: “My first exhibit was held in this space 20 years ago. It seems I haven’t improved much over that time because 20 years later I’m still…underground.”11 According to the Editor of the Taipei Times, given China’s comparatively greater financial resources it is inevitable this cross-Straits relationship is effectively a one-way exchange, and he contends that Beijing is seizing the opportunity created by Taiwan’s President to “impose a cultural template on Taiwan” and to garner acceptance of its “One China” policy in Taiwan.12

The Taipei City Deputy Mayor and Culture Affairs Department Commissioner Lee Yong-Ping (李永萍), however, defends Taiwan’s cultural re-orientation towards China as integral to the Taiwan KMT government’s new mainland policy. She remarks, “I feel that in the past, we’ve had too little of an understanding of the mainland. We’ve ignored [China] for too long. But now we need to face it.”13 Responding to this new quota system, the local curator and critic, Manray Hsu (徐文瑞), also a guest contributor to this Perspectives column, publicly objected to the “politicisation” of Taiwan’s public art museums whose “professionalism and neutrality,” he claims, is under threat.14 Hsu’s remarks raise important issues about the agency of the museum and the politics of art, identity and representation in Taiwan. It is my contention that state-funded public museums are not impartial or neutral spaces, particularly in Taiwan where the politics of identity and representation have been central to museum policy and practice. As Carol Duncan remarks in her seminal essay "Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship" public art museums have a “political usefulness” and for centuries they have played a critical ideological role in nation-building processes as “powerful identity-defining machines.”15 

Since its opening in 1983, the TFAM, as Taiwan’s de facto national art museum, has been a highly political and politicised institution. In the 1990s, when the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the seat of power in the municipal government, issues concerning Taiwan’s national self-determination were at the foreground of political and cultural debate. The TFAM played a critical role in the legitimization and advancement of this identity discourse and the TFAM Director, Chang Chen-yu (張振宇), who was directly appointed by the DPP, was a renowned advocate of Taiwan independence. During his short tenure, lasting a mere nine months (September 1995-June 1996), Chang initiated the landmark exhibition Quest for Identity (台灣藝術主體), which was the first curated Taipei Biennial of art held in 1996 and which marked a critical turning point in Taiwan’s identity discourse. In this exhibition, which featured works exclusively by artists from Taiwan, the visual image was mobilized in ways that helped to communicate and legitimize Taiwan’s search for identity which, as the title suggests, was the central curatorial rationale underpinning this exhibition. 


It is remarkable to think that, only a decade ago, Taiwan was internationally known as one of Asia’s “Four Little Dragons.” It was the home of the “Economic Miracle” and the producer of the world-famous brand “Made in Taiwan” and its contemporary art market was flourishing. Around the time of the Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing in 1989, when many mainland Chinese artists went overseas including Cai Guo-Qiang, Gu Wenda (谷文達), Huang Yong-ping (黄永砯) and Xu Bing (徐冰), across the Straits in Taiwan artists Wu Mali (吳瑪悧), Mei Ding-Yen (梅丁衍) and Lien Teh-Cheng (連德誠) amongst others were returning home from their studies abroad to take advantage of the new political and cultural freedoms afforded to them after the lifting of martial law in 1987. After experiencing decades of political and cultural repression when Taiwan was defined as part of “Cultural China,” many local artists, including Yang Mao-Lin (楊茂林), Wu Tien-Chang (吳天章), Huang Jin-He (黃進河), Mei Ding-Yen, Wu Mali and Yao Jui-Chung (姚瑞中) turned their attention to the re-discovery and re-definition of Taiwan’s identity. This sense of Taiwanese or “native consciousness” became more pronounced when Taiwanese visited the mainland, many for the first time, after travel restrictions were lifted following the termination of martial law. After his first visit to the mainland in 1996, artist Yao Jui-Chung recalls “it was like I was a tourist,” despite the fact his father, a KMT soldier, came from China. He says, “I travelled everywhere [in China], but I never touched the ground.”16

During the 1990s, this small island, located on the geopolitical periphery of China, was embraced by the West as a bastion of capitalism, democracy and cultural freedom. For many Westerners, Taiwan was a gateway to China, and during this period exposure of contemporary art from Taiwan internationally increased dramatically. In Australia alone, contemporary art from Taiwan exclusively featured in exhibitions including Art Taiwan (1995) and Face to Face: Contemporary Art from Taiwan (1999);17 and for the first time in 1996 artists from Taiwan featured in the Asia Pacific Triennial (APT), albeit under the name “Taipei” in that exhibition. At the Venice Biennale in 1995 Taiwan had its inaugural representation, and it was controversially granted its own national pavilion, which it subsequently relinquished in 2001 after objections were made by the Chinese government on the basis of its "One China" policy. “To title is to entitle”18 and the politics of Taiwan’s national representation and naming continues to be a bone of contention between Taiwan and China.

With the impact of globalization and digital technology, conceptions and representations of nationhood have become increasingly blurred and fragmented. For Taiwan’s younger generation of artists, identity is defined not in terms of the nation-state or the collective, but in relation to the individual. Artists including Wang Ya-Hui (王雅慧), Kuo I-Chen (郭奕臣), Tseng Yu-Ching (曾御欽) and Huang Po-Chih (黃博志), whose works recently featured in Penumbra: Contemporary Art from Taiwan,19 are amongst many new media artists of this generation who are gaining international acclaim for their multi-media installations which transcend notions of memory, time and place as distinctions between real and virtual worlds are collapsing. Having faced the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and now the global economic downturn, this generation of enterprising young artists are venturing outside official and/or more conventional exhibition frameworks to take advantage of the ever-expanding global media and market networks.

So what is the future of the visual arts in Taiwan? In his fascinating account of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty and the politics of culture, Ackbar Abbas explores the spatial, political and cultural dynamics of “disappearance”.20 Drawing upon Hong Kong’s unique experience of decolonisation, Abbas asks us to reflect upon the meaning of identity, memory and place which he considers are becoming increasingly elusive in this “globalizing space”. While economic imperatives are helping to erase national borderlines and perceptions of cultural difference, the desire in Taiwan to protect and promote its political and cultural values remain strong. Whether Taiwan’s artists are able to transcend or at least circumvent these deeply rooted ideological differences without being absorbed into the Greater China paradigm is yet to be seen.


Sophie McIntyre is a curator and is currently completing her Ph.D. on contemporary art and identity politics in Taiwan at the Australian National University. She has lived in China and Taiwan and she curates, lectures and has published widely on contemporary art from Taiwan.




1. Phil Chetwynd and Peter Harmsen. Taiwan and China at 'historic juncture': President Ma at H:\News reports Taiwan & Taiwan-China\AFP Taiwan and China at 'historic juncture' President Ma.mht (accessed 15/4/2010).

2. See for example, David Clarke. The Culture of a Border within: Hong Kong Art and China, Art Journal, Vol. 59, No. 2, (Summer, 2000), p91; and Ackbar Abbas. Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, (Public World series), vol. 2, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

3. Kith Tsang, Interview with the Author, Hong Kong, 2007. This research was carried out under the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Linkages International project ‘Asian cities and cultural change’. The author would like to thank the ARC, Lingnan University, and the Australian National University for the financial assistance provided to carry out this field research in Hong Kong.

4. This exhibition’s budget was estimated at NT$80 million (approx US$ 2,500,524) which is twice as much generally allocated to the TFAM’s Taipei Biennales. David Frazier. ‘Plight at the museum: Taiwan’s top two modern art museums both launched unannounced policies to hold two exhibitions by Chinese artists every year, leaving the local arts community fuming’, Taipei Times, Jan 17, 2010, p.13 at (accessed 15/4/2010).

5. Ibid.

6. Barry Schwabsky, Artforum (New York) Summer, 1997, pp. 118-21; Caroline Turner. ‘Cai-Guo-Qiang: Portrait of our times’, Imaging Identity, (conference paper), National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, 15-17 July, 2010.

7. See (accessed 26/7/2010). In Chinese.

8. See (accessed 26/7/2010). In Chinese.

9. Phil Chetwynd and Peter Harmsen. H:\News reports Taiwan & Taiwan-China\AFP Taiwan and China at 'historic juncture' President Ma.mht (accessed 15/4/2010).

10. Yao Jui-Chung in David Frazier at (accessed 15/4/2010). 

11. As reported by Noah Buchan. ‘Stirring it Up’, Taipei Times, Wed May 26, 2010, p. 15 at (accessed 26/7/2010).

12. Michael Cole. ‘Beijing sees Culture as a Weapon’, Taipei Times, Mar. 5, 2010, p.8 at

13. David Frazier at (accessed 15/4/2010).

14. Ibid.

15. Carol Duncan. ‘Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship’ in Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, eds Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, Smithsonian Institution, 1991, p 92, 101.

16. Yao Jui-chung. Interview with the Author, Taipei, 1998.

17. ‘Art Taiwan’ was co-curated by Deborah Hart and Nick Jose and presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Sydney. ‘Face to Face: Contemporary Art from Taiwan’ toured Australia and New Zealand and was curated by this author.

18. Bruce Ferguson, Reesa Greenberg and Sandy Nairn. ‘Mapping International Exhibitions’ in ‘Curating: The Contemporary Art Museum and Beyond’, Art & Design, no 52., London, 1997, p30.

19. ‘Penumbra: Contemporary Art from Taiwan’ was curated by this author and was presented in Australia in 2008. It opened at the Samstag Museum of Art, Adelaide; and a selection of works from this exhibition were presented at the Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne.

20. Ackbar Abbas. Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance, (Public World series), vol. 2, University of Minnesota Press, 1997.





Wed, 1 Sep 2010
Art Writing East Asia Diaaalogue

Relevant content

Back to the Future: Contemporary Art and the Hong Kong Handover

Back to the Future: Contemporary Art and the Hong Kong Handover

What two Hong Kong exhibitions reveal about the handover, identity, and contemporary art

Notes from Taiwan

Notes from Taiwan

Chang Tsong-zung, AAA Co-Founder and Director

Lai Hsiangling | The Merging of Art and Corporate Initiatives: The Visual Art Field in Taiwan as a Case Study

Lai Hsiangling | The Merging of Art and Corporate Initiatives: The Visual Art Field in Taiwan as a Case Study

Thu, 7 Mar 2013, 6:30 – 8 PM