CHIA-WEI HSU, Spirit-Writing, 2016, two-channel video installation: 9 min 45 sec. View at Taipei Biennial 2016, Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Copyright and courtesy Taipei Fine Arts Museum. 


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Taiwan elected its first female president, Tsai Ing-wen, in January 2016. Though Tsai’s party, the Democratic Progressive Party, leans toward formal independence from China, in her first months in office she played the role of a low-key technocrat and avoided controversy. This ended abruptly with her congratulatory telephone call to US president-elect Donald J. Trump in December, making her first Taiwanese leader to speak directly with a US president or president-elect since 1979, when the US broke off diplomatic relations in order to appease China. Tsai also supports the legalization of gay marriage, a movement that saw a quarter-million supporters march in Taipei late in the year.

As the West tilts to the right, Taiwan retains an atmosphere of optimistic social liberalism. Taiwan has since the late 1980s enjoyed an open, democratic and independent system of governance. The art system, however, lacks insulation from politics, and new presidents and mayors frequently appoint new directors of museums and culture bureaus. Taiwan’s top three modern and contemporary art museums all received new directors—the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in 2015, and the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts in 2016. The domestic gallery system is gaining strength, and privately backed nonprofit spaces are starting to exert influence. Though museums still struggle to find private donations, the art scene is steadily growing and diversifying.

The Ministry of Culture (MOC), created in 2012 from several preexisting agencies, implements national arts policies, governs national museums and supports creative industries—with a budget of NTD 1.3 billion (USD 380 million) in 2016. Programs include subsidies to galleries attending international art fairs and, through the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, it administers the Art Bank Taiwan, which, based on models in Canada and Australia, leases works from its collection. The MOC also channels funds from the Ministry of Economic Affairs to the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF), which in 2015 distributed NTD 112 million (USD 3.5 million) to 701 cultural projects, including visual-arts projects. The NCAF also sponsors funds for international travel, exhibitions, the production of works and performances as well as the National Awards of Art. In 2016, winners included installation artist Wu Mali.

The city of Taipei supports the arts through the Department of Cultural Affairs, which had a budget of NTD 1.8 billion in 2016, less than half its 2015 budget of NTD 3.9 billion. It distributes funds directly through the Taipei City Culture Foundation and oversees three of the nation’s most important arts institutions: the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, and Artist-in-Residence Taipei (AIR Taipei); the latter two also receive funding from other sources.

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) was founded in 1983 as Taiwan’s first museum for 20th-century and contemporary art and has hosted the Taipei Biennial as an international exhibition since 1998. The 2016 Taipei Biennial, “Gestures and Archives of the Present, Genealogies of the Future” (9/10–2/5/17), curated by French academic Corinne Diserens, focused on the nature of documentation with works by 76 artists and groups presenting a diverse array of archives. The exhibition was dry and, for many critics, overly theoretical. The cohort of more than 34 Taiwanese artists, including Chia-Wei Hsu whose video Spirit-Writing (2016) looked at local mythology on Matsu Island, was the largest ever in the Biennial’s 20-year history. Though the exhibition made for laborious viewing, a robust program of lectures, symposia, film screenings and performances across the exhibition’s five months created positive community engagement. TFAM also hosted a retrospective on Yang Mao-lin (1/30–4/24), which looked at 30 years of pop-culture-influenced multimedia work by the 63-year-old artist, tracing his art from early political activism to more recent examinations of globalization.

Opened in 2001, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei hosts local, regional and international exhibitions, and especially embraces young artists and recent trends, ranging from new media to technology and fashion. Ronald Ventura’s “Project: Finding Home” (9/15–11/20) featured paintings, large installations and the repeated forms of boats, airplanes and suitcases that alluded to the millions of Filipinos who work abroad, in a nomadic pursuit of material happiness. “Polymerization & Multiply” (11/6–12/4) featured non-narrative videos, including 2D and 3D animated works by UK artist Matt Abbiss and German artists Max Hattler and Robert Seidel. 

PENG HUNG-CHIH, To Dress at Home-5, 2001, still from single-channel video wiuth color and sound: 55 sec. Courtesy the artist and Chi-Wen Gallery, Taipei. 

Private and university-run museums occasionally host international exhibitions of significant interest. The Taipei National University of the Arts is home to the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, which has hosted the Kuandu Biennale since 2008 as a theoretical alternative to the Taipei Biennial. The 2016 Kuandu Biennale, “Slaying Monsters” (9/30–12/11), invited 10 pairs of artists and curators from East and Southeast Asia to create new myths for contemporary Asia, with playful results.

The private Hong-gah Museum organized its fifth biennial international exhibition of video art, “Negative Horizon” (10/16–1/8/17), curated by Lu Pei-yi and Hsu Fang-tze. Works by 27 artists were presented in relation to discourse about the epistemology of artificially produced images and philosopher Paul Virilio’s warnings on the acceleration of information.

Taipei’s major artist-residency programs are run by AIR Taipei at its flagship venue, Taipei Artist Village, in the city center. Satellite facilities include Treasure Hill Artist Village in the city’s university district.

Reclaiming industrial spaces as art hubs is a growing trend. The first such space, Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei’s Zhongzheng District, was discovered by artist squatters in 1997. Since management was transferred from the government to developers in 2007, Huashan no longer includes artist studios and has become a culture-themed shopping mall with spaces for commercial touring exhibitions. Taipei has also instituted ten Urban Regeneration Stations to make derelict properties available for arts and other uses. 

Many artists, however, feel that government spaces are too restrictive and have developed independent spaces as an alternative. Established in 2010, the nonprofit organization Taipei Contemporary Art Center includes Taiwan’s leading curators, artists and critics as its members. It conducts research on local artists and hosts a lively series of talks and workshops, in some cases critiques of major exhibitions or events in the art system. Polymer Art Space, a warehouse complex opened as a co-working space in Taipei’s Beitou District in early 2014, houses studios, an office, a small theater and exhibition and event spaces.

Taipei’s galleries have proliferated, with more small spaces opening and many top players inhabiting pristine, museum-like spaces. There are currently around 150 galleries of all genres in Taiwan, 122 of them members of the Taiwan Art Gallery Association. One factor fueling this scene is the rise of Taiwanese collectors, viewed as some of the most progressive in Asia. 

One of the leaders of the commercial gallery scene is Eslite Gallery. Aligned with the local Eslite Bookstore empire, the gallery maintains an expansive, modern space and represents top artists from Taiwan and China. In 2016, it mounted “New Paradise” (11/5–12/18) by Michael Lin, who is known for pop-art-style appropriations of Taiwanese textile patterns. His new canvases were derived from vintage package designs from 1950s and ’60s Taiwan, with the exhibition title borrowed from New Paradise brand cigarettes. “Liu Xiaodong in South Africa” (5/14–6/5) showcased watercolor sketches of African wildlife by the famed Chinese painter, a pastoral sojourn from his larger oeuvre of unflinching social realism. 

Installation view of MICHAEL LIN’s “New Paradise” at Eslite Gallery, Taipei, 2016. (Back) Departure, 2016; (Front) Anfu Road, 2016. Courtesy Eslite Gallery. 

The Neihu district has emerged as a hotspot, with expansive white-cube spaces setting up amid the glass-tower headquarters of Taiwan’s many tech companies. TKG+, the contemporary arm of modern specialists Tina Keng Gallery, presented a retrospective of Wu Tien-chang in two parts: “Divergent Paths to Reality, 1980–2011” at Tina Keng Gallery (6/18–7/31) and “Never Say Goodbye 2001–2015” at TKG+ (6/18–9/11). The exhibitions followed on the heels of Wu as the first-ever solo artist in the 2015 Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and traced his career from neo-expressionist painting to postcolonial and magic-realist digital images and installations. Also exceptional was “A Slant of Light” (4/23–6/5) by Wang Yahui, who presented trompe-l’oeil images and installations based on minimalist geometry, time and space. Charwei Tsai’s “Universe of Possibilities” (9/24–11/20) featured a new Buddhist-inflected video about death and detailed photographs of shells that resemble planets. 

Among galleries known for emerging artists and new-media art, Galerie Grand Siècle hosted “Post-We” (11/4–12/18) by Chang Teng-yuan, a series of surreal, sci-fi landscapes populated by cartoonish bird people. Aki Gallery mounted “Tiny Torture” (1/10–2/5) by Yu Shih-fu, in which everyday objects were converted into torture devices.

There is no shortage of theoretically minded galleries and art spaces. Project Fulfill Art Space held “Chemical Gilding, Keep Calm, Galvanise, Pray, Gradient, Ashes, Manifestation, Unequal, Dissatisfaction, Capitalise, Incense Burner, Survival, Agitation, Hit, Day Light. III” (9/3–10/9) by Chou Yu-cheng who transformed the gallery into a construction site. Belgian artist Heidi Voet used plastic bags to weave traditional totemic images, ethnographic masks and ritual costumes of pre-industrial cultures (11/26–1/8/17). Earlier, Yuko Mohri had shown her mechanized sculpture objects built from everyday materials (6/11–7/17).

TheCube Project Space, run by academic Amy Huei-hua Cheng and music critic Jeph Lo, focuses on research-based curating, project-oriented art and sound art. In “Working-Through: Vandy Rattana and His Ditched Footages” (2/27–5/15), the Cambodian artist uses a combination of journalistic photography and video to revisit memory in the post-Khmer Rouge era.

IT Park, Taiwan’s oldest artist-run gallery and a pioneer in experimental art practices since opening in 1988, hosted Huang Po-chih’s “500 Lemon Trees: Patient Number Seven” (8/27–9/24), a project existing between art-world financing (or crowd-funding) and Huang’s family farm. Huang cultivates a lemon orchard, brews his own lemon liqueur, and conceived this relational artwork as an interface between art spaces and an agricultural community. 

Founded in Tainan, and with a space in Beijing since 2001, Soka Art Center in Taipei featured emerging Taiwanese artists in “Post-Awards” (12/10–1/15/17). In Taipei’s central Da’an district, Mind Set Art Center presented a survey of Filipino art “Every Island from Sea to Sea: Recent Philippine Art” (10/15–11/26), curated by Patrick D. Flores. Gallery 100 displayed two short films of Myanmar-born, Taiwan-trained filmmaker Midi Z (11/5–12/10). Just to the north, Michael Ku Gallery showed the mixed-media assemblages of emerging artist Luo Jr-shin (3/19–5/1).

Several galleries look after Taiwan’s modernists, such as Liang Gallery, located in Neihu district. In Zhongshan is Double Square, which showed Sunil Gawde’s elaborately conceived sculptures (3/5–4/3).

Taipei’s largest art fair is Art Taipei (11/12–15), organized by the Taiwan Art Gallery Association since 1992. The 2016 fair drew 30,000 visitors, including Cai Guo-Qiang, and 150 galleries, down from 168 galleries in 2015. Almost half the galleries were from Taiwan, while the major international cohorts came from regional neighbors including Japan, China, Hong Kong, Korea and Singapore. While high-priced works by Picasso, Anish Kapoor and Hokusai struggled to find buyers, the top sellers have remained Taiwanese painters and sculptors, including Lee Kuang-yu and Ho Kan.

CHARWEI TSAI, Self Liberation, 2016, hand-inscribed photograph, 75 × 75 cm. Courtesy the artist and TKG+, Taipei. 

Outside Taipei, the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts named Lee Yulin, the former artistic director of the Taishin Bank Foundation for Arts and Culture, as its new director. The museum’s exhibitions are oriented towards Taiwanese and Chinese masters, but it also exhibits a range of Asian and Western modern and contemporary art. In 2016, exhibitions included a survey of 20th-century literati ink painter Huang Kuang-nan (11/26–3/5/17).

In Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest city, the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts has sponsored the Asian Art Biennial in odd-numbered years since 2007 and the Taiwan Biennial in even-numbered years since 2008. These exhibitions focus on contemporary art in the Asia region and Taiwan, respectively. The 2016 Taiwan Biennial, titled “The Possibility of an Island” (9/10–2/5/17), featured 30 local contemporary artists and artist groups, exploring how they chronicle the changing times. Taichung is also home to a smaller network of galleries such as Da Xiang Art Gallery, which featured Huang Zan Lun’s futuristic works in “Humanoids” (11/5–12/18). 

Several private foundations support the arts. The Fubon Art Foundation, supported by the Fubon Financial group, sponsors public-art projects and lectures. The Taishin Bank Foundation for Arts and Culture has since 2002 sponsored the Taishin Arts Awards. In 2016, its top prize, of NTD 1.5 million (USD 46,000), went to contemporary artist Hsu Che-yu for his video-art piece Microphone Test (2015) about a man who explained to his mother that he would commit suicide two months before actually killing himself. 

Internationally, the Liverpool Biennial (7/9–10/16) commissioned Yin-Ju Chen to produce the multimedia installation Extrastellar Evaluations (2016), which postulated that 1960s-era conceptual artists were actually descended from a mythical civilization that sank into the sea. The Biennale of Sydney (3/18–6/5) featured works by Yin-ju Chen, Charwei Tsai, Lee Mingwei, Yao Jui-Chung and Lost Society Document, and a mini-retrospective of Chen Chieh-jen.

In 2017, the most anticipated exhibition of an artist from Taiwan will be the solo show by the famed performance artist Tehching Hsieh, curated by Adrian Heathfield, in the national pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, which begins in May. Hsieh is known for his one-year performances in the 1980s, in which he attached himself to a woman with a one-meter length of rope for a year and punched a time clock hourly. He has seldom exhibited in Taiwan, but is revered as one of the country’s greatest contemporary artists. 

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