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Aug 16 2021

MoCA Taipei Embroiled in Dispute over Nearly Canceled Show

by Brian Haman

Installation of JUN YANG’s “The Artist, His Collaborators, Their Exhibition, and Three Venues" at the entrance of Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) Taipei, 2021. Image via Facebook.

What initially started as a contractual dispute between artist Jun Yang and the Museum of Contemporary Art Taipei (MoCA) over his multi-chapter exhibition “The Artist, His Collaborators, Their Exhibition, and Three Venues” has morphed in recent weeks into a public furor regarding the often opaque politics and institutional procedures at work within Taiwan’s public art museums.

Yang, who was born in China and is now based between Austria, Taiwan, and Japan, discussed the two-year-long conflict in a filmed talk at the exhibition’s closing event on March 31. On July 30, a week after it was uploaded to MoCA’s YouTube channel, he shared the video and elaborated on the situation in a Facebook post titled “A director unfit for her position.” The saga began in May 2019, when the artist and curator Barbara Steiner—director of Kunsthaus Graz, which had just mounted his exhibition—first approached MoCA about a trio of simultaneous presentations in Taipei, at MoCA, the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, and TKG+ Projects. Subsequent negotiations between Yang’s team and MoCA’s then-director, Yuki Pan, suggested that both sides were moving forward with the concept. In October 2019, Yang was informed of Pan’s resignation and reached out to the MoCA curator he had been communicating with to check if the show would be canceled due to the leadership change; the curators assured him that it would continue as planned.

However, after Li-Chen Loh took up her role as the new director on November 1, 2019, she allegedly attempted to cancel his exhibition without any negotiations with the artist’s team. Armed with extensive correspondence between himself, his team, and MoCA, Yang threatened legal action, with negotiations in December 2019 and January 2020 culminating in a compromise: the exhibition would go ahead, but its initial three-month duration would be halved. The MoCA chapter of the show opened the following year on February 6 and closed on March 31, with the Chinese New Year public holidays effectively shortening its run to one month. In his Facebook post, Yang thanked the staff who made the show happened but also expressed frustration at having to make curatorial changes to fit the schedule and criticized Loh for her absence. Furthermore, Yang claimed that one MoCA curator involved with the project was fired, while another top museum staff was demoted. Throughout the dispute, Yang and his family were subjected to cyberbullying by anonymous internet trolls. Yang also believes he was the target of a xenophobic rant Loh had posted on her Facebook page; screenshots show her complaining, “The world is full of villains who pretend to be victims but really just want to take advantage of you. Fake foreigners who think they’re superior come to Taiwan and take all the resources.”

In response to Yang’s allegations, MoCA issued an official statement on July 31 emphasizing that the institution fully respected the artist’s concept and did not interfere with his decisions. According to MoCA, during the director’s handover, details for Yang’s show had not been included in the museum’s annual exhibition plan, as a contract between both sides had not been signed. The emails exchanged between Yang and a curator who had agreed to the show’s high costs before Loh’s arrival were not shared with the incoming director. In order to protect the institution from the fallout of a protracted legal dispute, Loh staged Yang’s exhibition at the expense of MoCA’s 20th anniversary program, which had to be shortened to a ten-month program running from May 2021 to March 2022. MoCA added that Loh had been present at an online meeting for the project but that Yang had strongly objected to her attendance, leaving the director no choice but to hand over the reins to vice director Chang Yu-Han.

Writing on his own Facebook page, Chang also came to MoCA’s defense, stressing that Loh initially hadn’t been informed about Yang’s plan, and that the exhibition was “not approved or recommended by the committee” and not listed in the 2020 schedule. Chang acknowledged the mistakes that MoCA made in the administrative procedure, stating that he had accepted an unspecified punishment, and that the team had made improvements to the system to avoid similar incidents in the future.

The spat has elicited strong reactions within Taiwan’s art circle, however, with cultural workers debating the incident on the anonymous Facebook page Kaobei Art. Some commentors defend MoCA while others criticize its overall silence on Loh’s inappropriate words and express sympathy for the dismissed curator.

When ArtAsiaPacific reached out to MoCA, the spokesperson responded, “We insist on maintaining the neutrality of art and preserving the artist’s rights. All the museum staff made their all-out efforts to ensure the smooth execution of the show. As for the screenshots of director Loh’s private post, the director feels sorry for it, but no specific person was named in the post. We have re-examined and improved our work procedures, and learned about the importance of the museum’s ability to receive public criticism.” 

At a time when Taiwan is attempting to distinguish itself as a regional cultural destination, the controversy has spurred discussions over the need for greater transparency, improved working conditions, and increased agency for artists and curators in public institutions.

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