Expanding Horizons: Art from Taiwan

This article looks at the recent history of cultural exchange between Australia and Taiwan and briefly examines the background of the shifts occuring within the Taiwanese art scene from an Australian context. Furthermore it examines some of the continuities and changes in the late 1990s with a particular emphasis on the works by artists Wu Tien-Chang and Wu Mali included in the Second and Third Asia-Pacific Triennial.

In the 1990s a pluralistic, dynamic art scene flourished in Taiwan. In the same decade, the exposure of contemporary art from Taiwan internationally increased dramatically. Prior to 1995 the idea of showing a large exhibition of Taiwanese art in Australia was considered a radical move. As Leon Paroissien pointed out in the preface to the book ArtTaiwan, although Australians in general had long-standing ties with neighbouring countries and cultures, in the case of Taiwan "different colonial histories, divergent shipping routes and more recently, political shifts have precluded the flowering of such close associations". In the last five years cultural associations have been considerably strengthened. The inclusion of art from Taiwan in two Asia-Pacific Triennials has played a significant part in this process - particularly in relation to a more collaborative regional focus. This article will briefly examine the background to these shifts in an Australian context, and will examine some of the continuities and changes in the late 1990s with a particular emphasis on works by artists Wu Tien-Chang and Wu Mali included in the Second and Third Asia-Pacific Triennials.

The exhibition ArtTaiwan shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney in 1995 and interstate was part of a cultural exchange between Australia and Taiwan; following on from Identities: Art from Australia (exhibited at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1993/94). There had been no similar exchanges in the past; an important point because both exhibitions sought to provide a broad basis for increasing awareness and a foundation for further exchanges and exhibitions in the future. Both exhibitions were pluralistic; avoiding monolithic notions of place - engaging instead with multiple groupings and points of identification. In ArtTaiwan, these groupings ranged from political and historical 'stories of place'; to intimate, poetic evocations; to satirical, sometimes playful, re-inventions; to abstract mixed media works. There were, for example, Wu Tien-Chang's large portraits of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Tse-Tung from his Portraits of the Emperors series; Hou Chun-Ming's sexually provocative woodblock prints, Erotic paradise (1992), as well as immensely subtle abstractions by women artists including Lai Jun-Jun's relief sculpture Wind (1990) and Chen Hui-Chiao's thousands of needles and inter-woven threads in Silent Picture (1990). Works by artists living in the south such as Yen Ding-Shen revealed a distinctive local sensibility - a humanity and intimacy, often associated with natural phenomena.

One thread that linked works across groupings and diverse media in ArtTaiwan was the environment; also a vital issue in the Asia-Pacific Triennials. For a number of Taiwanese artists this concern was linked with the impact of the 'economic miracle' of the 1980s, resulting in increased industrialisation and the erosion of the natural world and spiritual connections. This has been expressed in Huang Chin-Ho's work of the early 1990s through to the present. His paintings incorporate images of contemporary buildings, grotesque hybrid figures and an array of symbols from the past.

Traditional symbols, such as peaches (for longevity), sugarcane (for good luck) and lotus leaves, jostle with imitation-classical facades of karaoke bars and strip clubs in exquisitely painted garden settings ... The artist talks of Taiwan's 'migrant' and 'colonised' culture as having produced a flamboyant, ostentatious aesthetic, a brash ersatz rococo ... In these wild warning scenes, the artist is concerned with the consequences (especially for the environment) of Taiwan society's materialism and pragmatism, and, fundamentally, with a contemplation of human existence in which the world of spirits hovers, perhaps trapped, within the fiery, brightly coloured world of passion and mortality.

Environmental issues and reinventions of the past recur in the works of Lee Ming-Tse from southern Taiwan - included both in ArtTaiwan and the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial. While there are obvious parallels with Chinese literati (scholar) artists, Lee's painting in the APT, A day in the life of an artist (1994), reflects personal observations of the 'overlapping, contradictory faces of Taiwan'; the changing nature of his local environment in Kaohshiung enmeshed with the looming threat of a nuclear power plant - mirroring wider, regional and global concerns.

Mixed media works by the other Taiwanese artist selected for the Second Asia-Pacific Triennial, Wu Tien-Chang, revealed a dramatic shift from his earlier overtly political paintings in ArtTaiwan. In On the damage to the spring and autumn pavilion - Dream of a past era (1995) Wu deals with past and present, nostalgia and sexuality, by manipulating imagery from old photographs and embellishing them with tactile plastic flowers and masks. As Hyacinth Lo pointed out, Wu had abandoned trying to rediscover his identity through the caricature of 'official versions' of history. Instead he was opening the pages of a photo album of memories and engaging in "an enterprise of self-ridicule in a most calm and confident manner". By the late 1990s parody was still linked with social criticism but now with a more playful satire in mind, as demonstrated in the Gaudy-ism in Taiwan exhibition held in Taipei in 1998. As Chinese curator and art critic Li Xiang-Ting noted, in the 1990s gaudyism represented a "new phenomenon that quickly spread across all parts of China", "mimicking and exaggerating the infatuation of the masses with materialistic pleasure" under the new Capitalism within the Socialist Society banner. However, in addition to humour and mock-outrage, Wu Tien-Chang's works were also more layered and enigmatic. This sense of enigma was heightened in the haunting beauty of his installation, Endless love in a temporal world (1997) shown in the Taipei Biennale : Site of Desire, curated by Fumio Nanjo for the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 1998. In this work optical illusion is used to bring to life a famous painting of a woman who had migrated from China to Taiwan during the 1940s. Accompanying the central ethereal dancing figure, the soundtrack from a film White Rose, Red Rose addressed the love triangle between a man, his wife and his mistress. Allusions to the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China were still present, but now enmeshed in a web of love, loss and desire.

The shift towards a more personalised approach in Wu Tien-Chang's work could be seen to correspond with the growing emphasis on pluralism and individualism in the 1990s as Taiwan moved further towards democracy. The fluid interplay between the personal and the political, local and universal concerns is clearly apparent in Wu Mali's work. She has, for example, involved local communities in the making of installations that re-tell the stories and dreams of individuals, as in Epitaph (1997), Stories of Women from Hsin-Chuang (1997) and Collective Dream (1996) at the Hong Kong Arts Centre - the latter involving the creation of 5000 handmade paper boats inscribed with a rich array of memories, imaginings and longings of the people of Hong Kong leading up to 1997. The breadth of Wu Mali's output is apparent in other works of the 1990s: from her humorous take on materialism in the gold Prosperity car (1991) (in ArtTaiwan), to her iconoclastic reinvention of the Library (1995) comprising myriad shredded fragments of canonical texts (in Multiplication and Segmentation, the unofficial exhibition at the Venice Biennale 1997), through to The sweeties (1999) an installation of fifty childhood photographs of well-known individuals, shown at the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial in 1999. The artist's capacity to distil complexity - to gather fragments of the past and to reconstitute them in new contexts - was revealed in quite extraordinary ways in The sweeties. The childhood photos which invoke humour and pathos are in a sense a repository of human memory. For Wu Mali "making big people small again" was also a way of envisioning the future and a means of breaking down preconceived prejudicial ideas developed in our adult lives. The work is part of a much larger project undertaken in different locations around the world, commencing in Germany and continuing in (among other places) Taiwan, Australia, and most recently in Africa. In each instance Mali includes people from local communities, eroding the much-debated 'local-versus-international' conundrum through personal connections.

In the more high-tech world of Wang Jun-Jieh's installations, such as Neon urlaub - Agency version (1999) replete with pink blow-up palm trees and a booth containing a virtual travel agency, shown in the 'Virtual Triennial' component of the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial, the artist provides audiences with fantastic, satirical viewpoints on media-hype, mass-marketing and contemporary desires. In the late 1990s, what artists of the so-called 'Generation X' such as Wang Jun-Jieh share in common with artists like Wu Mali and Wu Tien-Chang is primarily a spirit of irreverence - merging fact with fantasy in a world where imagination transcends national boundaries.
While there were commonalities, approaches by the various artists in the Triennials were also highly distinctive. Looking back over the past five years they reflect the pluralism of contemporary art practice in Taiwan, as well as a concerted move towards increasingly personal, open-ended investigations and imaginings. In tandem with group exhibitions of contemporary art from Taiwan shown internationally in the 1990s, the inclusion of these diverse contemporary artists in the broader contexts of the Second and Third Asia-Pacific Triennials has played a significant part in strengthening regional dialogue and in generating new ideas and possibilities for further collaborations well into the twenty-first century.