LEO LIU, Resistance is Beautiful (detail), 1978–2019, mixed-media installaion, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.

Once Upon A Time – Unfinished Progressive Past

Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei

Resistance is Beautiful (1978­–2019)—a bold statement and the title of a mixed-media series by artist and prominent Taiwanese activist Leo Liu—marked the beginning of “Once Upon A Time – Unfinished Progressive Past” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (MOCA Taipei). Liu’s work comprises archival documents—including drawings, newspaper clippings, and photographs—that trace the artist’s action-based practice and reflections on various social movements spanning the 1980s–2010s in Taiwan. With these materials, Liu aestheticizes the ephemeral happenings that took place during resistance movements regarding labor issues and civic awareness, and identifies artists as participants, witnesses, as well as catalysts in such events. Literalizing the message of the images, “Resistance is Beautiful” was hand-written in large Chinese characters on cardboards, placed right across from the museum entrance. Evoking a sense of allegiance to recent resistance movements, Liu’s archival materials offer a contemplative space for visitors to reflect on present-day Taiwan.

This notion that the past is inevitably imprinted on the present is echoed in the exhibition title and premise. With “Once Upon a Time – Unfinished Progressive Past,” curator Chien-Hui Kao had set out to elucidate the memories and imaginations of artists who have transformed the visual lexicon of art in Taiwan, with a focus on those active during the 1950s–‘90s. Instead of representing discrete historical moments, however, Kao selected artworks that delve into how Taiwanese social consciousness was shaped by unfinished modernism, the legacies of colonialism, as well as both contemporary and historical societal mechanisms. In this way, the artworks intertwine past and present, and reveal the parallels between personal, societal, and artistic trajectories of change. For instance, Chien-Chi Chang’s video The War That Never Was (2017) juxtaposes a montage of images from the Cold War with an interview featuring his mother, who was unaware of the political upheavals of the period. Through the work, visitors glean the alienation of ordinary citizens from history. 

CHIEN-CHI CHANG, The War That Never Was, 2017, still from video: 15 min 40 sec. Courtesy the artist.

Installation view of DEAN-E MEI’s Youthful Taiwan, 2019, mixed media, dimensions variable, at “Once Upon A Time – Unfinished Progressive Past,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei.

Alternatively, Dean-E Mei’s Youthful Taiwan (2019) is a nostalgic installation of memorabilia from Taiwan. The collection of objects, from Mei’s formative years during the period of martial law in Taiwan, offers retrospection into the collective imagery of a generation. In the decades following World War II, the Kuomintang government of Taiwan eradicated Japanization, a cultural reconstruction process, which oppressed local Indigenous communities. Such a shift and its impact on economic and trade reforms was reflected in the country’s consumer goods. Mei’s Taiwanese flag, a portrait of Sun Yat-sen, and military uniforms indicate the newly established national identity of Taiwan, foreign alliances, and interchange of political power at play. Chang and Mei’s installations form a dialogue of proximity and temporality. They demonstrate that the development of social consciousness is contingent upon time, space, and varying levels of public engagement. One may be alienated from major historical events but remain connected through the semantics of politics in everyday life. Such consciousness may only emerge in retrospection, as is reflected in Kao’s curatorial vision, which considers artistic imagination as a lens to re-examine history.

Elsewhere in the show, Shake’s video installation 1989 (2019) attempts to reveal how discipline, disguised within rituals of daily life and culture, shape collective memory. The work’s single-channel video, comprised of scenes from Taiwanese school life and backed by the melody of Madonna’s 1980s hit “Material Girl,” is presented in a classroom setting, recalling elementary school morning assemblies. Using nostalgia as a medium, 1989 metaphorically conveys the ease with which individuals are coerced into hegemonic systems. Shake’s classroom contrasts Liu’s Resistance is Beautiful—visible through a pane of glass not too far from Shake’s piece—which instead functioned as a reminder of the waves of resistance against repressive political powers. 

Installation view of SHAKE’s 1989, 2019, video installation, dimensions variable, at “Once Upon A Time – Unfinished Progressive Past,” Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, 2019. Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei.

“Once Upon A Time” investigated how lived experiences across different historical periods shape the memories and consciousness of society, and therefore, the aesthetics of an era. In the present context, the show could also be interpreted as a call to action. The presence of the past in the riddles of the present remains to be disentangled.

Once Upon A Time – Unfinished Progressive Past” is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, until October 13, 2019. 

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