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On Each Palette, a Choice of Political Colors

On Taiwan, style is ideology. Traditional suggests unification with Beijing; conceptual, independence; oils, the ruling centrists.

Bird's-eye view of Taipei's East District at rush hour. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Bird’s-eye view of Taipei’s East District at rush hour. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1985, there were 15 galleries in Taipei; now there are more than 200. Most sell decorative oil paintings in a kitschy Impressionist style for bourgeois decorating, but a good number of more serious places sell engaged contemporary work in various so-called Western and Chinese and nativist Taiwanese styles.

Since martial law was lifted in Taiwan in 1987, the country has moved with astonishing ease from dictatorship to democracy, and the art and art criticism of this transitional period have been politicized. Taiwan under dictatorship knew just what it was: the Nationalist Government of China in exile. Taiwan under democracy cannot decide to what extent it is Chinese, independent or Westernized. The re-election of President Lee Teng-hui confirms the country’s commitment to what our State Department calls “creative ambiguity.”

This crisis of identity is reflected in — and, two high Government officials told me, partly caused by — the country’s increasingly conflicted art. Every stylistic choice carries great significance.

You can almost say that to do traditional Chinese brush painting is to support the rightish New Party, which favors reunification with the mainland; to do conceptual art is to ally yourself with the leftish Democratic Progressive Party (D.P.P.), which favors independence; to do oil painting (almost all dreadful by Western standards) is to tie yourself to the ruling centrist Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT).

Some artists resist all this rhetoric, but a surprisingly large number of intellectuals in Taiwan today have positioned themselves in this sweep of history. The recent exhibition of “Splendors of Imperial China” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art threw the politics of art in Taiwan into sharp relief.

Taipei Art Park and Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Taipei Art Park and Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum, the enormous museum of contemporary art of Taiwan, is a city entity, and so its new director was appointed by the D.P.P. mayor of Taipei, who has recently announced plans to build two more museums of Taiwanese art. At a banquet given by the museum’s director, I was seated next to the director of exhibitions, Lee Yu-lin, a young woman of enormous grace and charm who moves easily between official circles and the world of contemporary artists. I asked her to help me with introductions to a few artists.

“I’m D.P.P.,” she said. “I’ll help you if you’ll put forward the case for an independent Taiwan in your article.”

A week later, I was seated at a banquet next to Chou Hai-sheng, chief editor at Taiwan’s leading art publishing house. “I’ll make introductions to our great Chinese artists,” he said. “I was there the day the New Party was founded,” he explained.

In Taiwan right now there is a term, ben sheng ren, “people of this province,” which refers to the ethnic Taiwanese; a term, wai sheng ren, “people from outside,” which refers to mainlanders who came over in 1945 and their progeny, and a newly voguish term, Taiwan ren, “people of Taiwan,” which is the politically correct term that may save the day. Much of Taiwan’s art is about these three modes of self-definition.

IT Park Gallery

IT Park Gallery

The heart of the avant-garde art world in Taiwan is an artist-run gallery called IT Park, founded in 1988 by five friends who felt the need for an alternative space. It is three upstairs rooms, a small sun-drenched terrace, an office and a little bar. There are about 40 artists associated with IT Park, two of whom actually run the place on a day-to-day basis, serving at the bar, talking to artists, receiving the occasional journalist, negotiating such sales as may take place.

Artists drift in to look at one another’s work or just to see one another. The conversation is easy, casual. Most of the IT Park artists have studied in the West — at Cooper Union in New York, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and similar institutions.

When I stopped in, Dean I-mei, a young conceptualist, was showing a mitten made with a raised middle finger; this in-your-face piece, he said, had been knitted to his specifications by his mother. At lunch, he showed me a canvas with two nearly identical watches nailed to it, both bought in Chinatown in New York. One has the mainland flag for a face, the other, the Taiwan flag. “Made in Hong Kong” is the title.

“Culturally I am Chinese but politically I am not,” said the erstwhile art critic J. J. Shih one night as we sat with our drinks on the balcony at IT Park. “In Taiwan, you can make an IBM-compatible computer, but you cannot make American-compatible art.”

Another artist who calls himself Tchenogramme put it this way: “I am an international citizen and a Taiwan localist.” The question of whether their art is Taiwanese and why dominates conversation among these artists.

Dean e-Mei, Uniting China throgh Three Principles of the People, 1991. Photo © the artist.

Dean e-Mei, Uniting China through Three Principles of the People, 1991. Photo © the artist.

In the 70’s, there was a tendency to make art that embraced the peasant culture of Taiwan and represented the distinctive features of the landscape: “In the 70’s, politics was using art; in the late 80’s, art started using politics,” explained another young artist, Tsu Ming. “In the 70’s, our localism reflected our insecurity around the time we were thrown out of the United Nations; now, our Taiwanism reflects our self-confidence as we move toward complete freedom and great prosperity.”

As Lynn Pascoe, until recently director of the American Institute in Taiwan and so the United States “ambassador” to Taiwan put it: “In 1964, Taiwan graduated from aid; then it rapidly graduated from a rural to a handicraft to a technical economy. For a brief period the rural-handicraft side of the society was its basis, and now it’s a sentimental matter.”

Artists like the IT Park crowd, educated in the West, have more sophistication than they know what to do with. “Some of us are breaking with Chinese culture; some are breaking with Western culture; some are breaking with their entire past,” said J. J. Shih. “There is underground xenophobia against the West and overt xenophobia against China. But localism is not really nationalism.”

Tsong Pu, one of the founders of IT Park, said: “Our responsibility is to negotiate between local and international ideas. But where are the boundaries? Artists make work about Taiwan’s politics, but their definition of and notion of a political art was learned in American art schools.”

Like most vanguards, this one is full of frustration. The difficulties of “becoming international” often seem insurmountable. “Artists are struggling for a Taiwanese vision, but the struggle is never the subject of the work,” Dean I-mei said. “That’s why the work isn’t interesting to the rest of the world.” Chen Hui-chiao, an artist who makes formalist-minimalist installations with needles and steel and water, said: “Don’t look at my work and think about Taiwan. Just look at it. It’s just art.”

The contemporary art market in Taiwan is weak right now, and about 90 percent of galleries operate at a loss. “The problem,” explained Lily Lee, director of the Gallery Association and owner of the Dragon Gate Gallery, “is that prices became very inflated at the dawn of the museum era, when the Taipei Fine Arts Museum was established, and everyone began fussing about Taiwanese art. And then it turned out that the secondary market was unpredictable and that our art hadn’t really gone international. Chinese people don’t like this kind of unstable investment.”

So while the development of a contemporary-art world is key to Taiwan’s continuing struggle for cultural identity in the wake of the first free Presidential elections, the manufacture of art is increasingly marginalized by its unprofitability.

A five-minute cab ride away from IT Park is the New Paradise, another artist-run space. The New Paradise is nonprofit, windowless, in a basement. There is no chic coffee bar and no balcony for philosophers to sun themselves; the audience here is even smaller and more self-referential, the work even more sophisticated and isolated. In one piece, all the clocks are set at 2:28, lest we forget the two-two-eight events (the Taiwan massacres of Feb. 28, 1948), heroic background to Taiwanese nationalism.

As Lee Yu-lin of the Fine Arts Museum and I set out to see her boldly Taiwanese artists, we talked about the delicate pragmatics of an independent Taiwan which would be born of the vision of artists.

“Taiwanese orthodoxy rejects the Chinese past, but our new identity will in fact be half-discovered and half-created,” she said. “We cannot throw away the Palace Museum and our Chinese heritage, for that is part, an important part, of modern Taiwan. If we want to establish an identity, we have to incorporate our whole past. If we can include the Chinese past, we are the richer for it.

Wu Tien-Chang, Sayonara, 1992. Photo © the Artist.

Wu Tien-Chang, Sayonara, 1992. Photo © the Artist.

“The problem is to include our Chinese past but also distinguish ourselves from it,” she continued. “Culture is a thing that accumulates; you can’t just start a new culture right now. It has to be based on the past.”

In the studio if Wu Tienchiang, we discuss what he calls “the passenger mentality of the KMT”; that the Nationalist Government came to Taiwan only to pause before reconquering the mainland.

“Our history is fake,” he says. “Everyone comes here expecting to go away again. We have no superhighways because the KMT didn’t think it was worth building them because they expected to leave as fast as possible. This island is full of fancy buildings made of plywood. Nothing has a real base, no real roots. We in Taiwan are so accustomed to this fakeness that we accept it as real. We have to change that.”

He gestures at his “Self-Portrait as a Sailor,” the colors eerie, the light artificial, the scenery hilariously kitsch. “Everything in my work is fake because that reflects the social reality of this island.”

Later that night, we sit in a garden — we are outside the congested center of Taipei, and this one-story house looks as if it has stepped out of a scroll painting — with Huang Chih-yang and his wife, watching the moon rise over the city and drinking tea and eating pumpkin seeds. His work is hauntingly beautiful, employing the techniques of Chinese brush painting to make conceptual installations.

Huang Chih-yang, Maternity Room (Panel 27), 1992. Photo © the Artist.

Huang Chih-yang, Maternity Room (Panel 27), 1992. Photo © the Artist.

“When I was beginning art school,” he explains, “I decided to study Chinese art because to me at that young age all Western art looked the same. I knew I wanted to do something new, and I didn’t think there was anything new to be said in Western media.”

“Maternity Room,” one of his most spectacular pieces, has more than a dozen hanging lengths of rice paper with beautifully drawn ink pictures of skeletal figures, their sexual organs exaggerated and estheticized, half human and half monstrous. “Why is it thought that to be modern and to be Chinese are artistically alien ideas? Only those who are strong can possess their own culture; I am after a beautiful status close to the truth of this mad, mixed society,” he says.

I went with the editor Chou Hai-sheng to see Shia Yan, one of the great old men of art in Taiwan, an oil painter whose work looks derivative and banal to the Western eye but whose retrospective at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum last year was a blockbuster. “An artist learning Western art has a plan to improve Chinese art with Western,” Shia Yan said. “This philosophy only damages the tradition and does not reconstruct it at all. Perhaps at best it is possible to bring together Chinese feeling and Western form.”

Another day we went to see Hsia I-fu, who paints landscapes in which only the trained Chinese eye can see corrupting traces of Western perspective and some nontraditional contrasts between wet and dry brushwork. “Western painting you go to when you are feeling quiet and it makes you excited,” he said. “Ink painting you visit when you are excited and it makes you calm. Ink painting is closer to religious experience: like a meditation, it purifies the mind.

“My work itself is not Chinese, not Taiwanese, but from the heart: for in our hearts here, what most of us really want is to be calm; and what you from the West want, and what these young avant-garde artists and D.P.P. people want, I think, is to be excited.” He paused and looked around the room. “Elections; bombing raids; do we need art to excite us too?”

Hsia i-Fu, Seascape, 2004. Photo © the Artist.

Hsia i-Fu, Seascape, 2004. Photo © the Artist.