May 02 2013

Field Trip: Taipei

by HG Masters

The flight from Hong Kong to Taipei—the world’s eighth busiest route—is just over one hour in length, yet the Republic of Taiwan feels a world away. Clean, quiet, green, and efficient, Taipei is laid out on a modern city grid at the foot of the hills and surrounded by three tributaries that merge to form the Tamsui River, which heads north to the Pacific. Anchored by a respected biennial and several pioneering nonprofits, as well as regional museums, the island-nation’s art scene remains modest in size and staunchly self-reliant. So far, Taipei has been spared the hyperexpansion brought on by an influx of foreign capital, as seen in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. On a rainy weekend in mid-April, although many galleries were on hiatus between exhibitions, a tour around the city offered a partial glimpse into Taiwan’s quietly humming art community. 

The shops on Dihua Street, which runs through Taipei’s old city center, sell medicinal herbs and specialty foods of all kinds. The range of styles found on their facades are evidence of Taiwan’s varying colonial-era influences, from Chinese and Japanese, to European Neoclassism. 

The world’s tallest building from 2004 until 2010, Taipei 101 is the emblem of new Taiwan—its international ambitions, high-tech engineering prowess, confidence in overcoming the elements (in this case, the persistent threat of earthquakes and typhoons).

The 30-year-old Taipei Fine Arts Museum organizes the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale and is home to the Taipei Biennial, whose 2012 version, curated by Anselm Franke, was one of the best-received mega-exhibitions in East Asia last year. TFAM, however, cycling through six directors in two years, has been scandal- and controversy-plagued. The local artist community has criticized the museum for bending too far in political winds, promoting pan-Chinese unity through blockbuster exhibitions of mainland artists. 

At TFAM, “True Illusion, Illusory Truth – Contemporary Art Beyond Ordinary Experience” was a ponderous title for what was otherwise a very decent exhibition of 19 (mostly) Taiwanese artists. Here, Luxury Logico’s project “a~Art and Water Cycle” (2012) is a bottled water company whose proceeds go to support art projects selected by a jury. The exhibition space is just the warehouse for the stylishly designed bottles. 

Strangely, Hiraki Sawa was the lone non-Taiwanese artist in “True Illusion, Illusory Truth,” though his work seemed otherwise fitting for the show. The black-and-white, two-channel film Lineament (2012) portrays the surreal apartment and psychic interiors of a man with amnesia.  

Wu Tien-chang’s installation “Unwilling to Part with the Worldly Life II: Homage to Lee Shih-chiao” was all about illusion. In a darkened room, a lone dancing figure appeared on screen. When the lights came up, she returned to her static position at the center of this canvas, “Market Entrance” by the Taiwanese realist painter Lee Shih-chiao (1908–95).

“Home Run” (2003), a sculpture by Lee Tsai-Chien outside of TFAM. Back in 1984 at TFAM, Lee proposed a similar work, called “Minimal Infinite,” which when viewed from the side resembled a red star. To avoid the Communist reference, the TFAM director had the sculpture painted gray. 

Across the Keelung river in the high-tech district of Neihu, Tina Keng Gallery was opening a large exhibition of paintings—mainly on loan from Taiwanese collectors—by the French-Chinese painter Sanyu (1901–1966), featuring his nudes and still lifes. 

A low-lit room of drawings by Sanyu at TKG

Maybe not the best weekend to shop for “swallows’ nests”—considering concern over H7N9 virus which had just broken out on the mainland—but this famous shop was also home to a Michael Lin painting. 

The exterior view of IT Park, located on upper floors of this building, which was one of the nonprofit spaces that galvanized the Taiwanese art scene, opening in 1988, a year after the end of martial law. It now functions as a commercial gallery. 

The doorway to IT Park, between two street-level restaurants.

The small exhibition spaces on two levels were given over to the unfortunately bauble-like stainless steel sculptures by performance artist Cheng Shih-Chun, as well photographs of his escapades, which included him being stuffed into a suitcase and wheeled through the streets.

At VT Art Salon, founded in 2006, Kuo Hung Kun’s exhibition “On the Horizon” was a eulogy to favorite modern structures and fading styles from Taiwan. His introduction to the exhibition began: “Every morning, and between two and four o’clock in the afternoon, the temperate moisture on the horizon of this Pacific island draws a palette of balmy, savory colors. The air fills up with elegant hues of thickly painted shades. At moments like these, I like to sip a cup of warm, strong tea, let it slowly trickle down my throat and transport me to an extraordinary realm within ordinary life.”

Despite the artist’s treacly statement, the paintings were playful mixes of abstraction, figuration, collage and appropriation—a mélange of 20th century styles. 

“Another Reality” was an exhibition of Zhao Gang’s paintings at Lin & Lin Gallery that seemed like deliberately gauche pastiches of classic European Expressionism (think Kirchner) and Classical Chinese painting. 

An exterior view of Project Fulfil Art Space. In April, the gallery was displaying “Shortcut” by Jao Chia En, winner of the 2012 Taishin Arts Award. 

Walking through Jao’s maze of suspended wood took you around the perimeter of the gallery and then back out the doorway. 

A uniquely Taiwanese folk touch found all over Taipei: the electrical company gives over its boxes to these romantic scenes of flowers and landscapes, which though painted rather hastily, are each unique. 

HG Masters is editor-at-large of ArtAsiaPacific and is based in Istanbul.