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After the Chinese civil war by the end of 1949, half of my family stayed in Shanghai to maintain the family business, and the other half went to Taiwan, led by my first uncle who was an air force officer for the Nationalists. Years passed with my father’s generation gradually passing – but I still have an aunty, an uncle and many cousins in Taiwan. No matter what the politicians on both sides are bickering about, Taiwan is always in my heart and concerns.
In these few years, tension in the Taiwan Strait has been escalating. The threat of war is looming upon horizon, which would be a disaster for families on both sides.
Before it’s too late, this summer my wife and I went to Taipei, Taiwan.
Taipei is a city of subtlety and humbleness, yet culturally abundant. We enjoyed wondering around the neighborhood, savoring steamed rice rolls with freshly squeezed tea, watching occasional summer drizzles under the roof of a pavilion in a street park. Unlike the hassling bustling hustle bustle of Shanghai or New York, Taipei preserves the traditional Chinese virtues – cordial, courteous, modest, temperate and complaisant.
As usual, we offered our prayers to the Goddess Mazu at the historical Shilin Cixian Temple, in an area also known for its many sizzling night markets with unfathomably delicious food courts.
After satisfying dinners, we dipped into the hot spring pools in the Baitou district. Loving a hot spring bath is a cultural practice from the Japanese occupation between the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895 and the end of WWII.
In the evening, we went to the National Theater for a comical musical, laughing at the act of internet bullying on social media in Taiwan.
Like going to the Met every time we are in NYC, we must pay a visit to Taipei’s National Palace Museum, home to the best quality collections of national treasures, art and artifacts from China that were brought to Taiwan by the Nationalist government after the defeat of civil war.
As a college professor, I am always interested in the works by students and faculty from other institutions. We viewed the BFA graduation exhibition of the Taipei Normal University and a retrospective exhibition of Mr. Fung Nan-Su, the Dean of the Fine Art School of Taipei University, at the National Gallery of Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, where I showed my work for an international exhibition of works on paper in 2011.
One of the measures of the current development of a society is what’s showing in its contemporary art museums, besides the classics. Taipei Fine Arts Museum was on our must-see list.
I’ve known this museum for a long time, and I was particularly impressed by the museum’s presentation on behalf of Taiwan for the 2019 Venice Biennale. Despite Taiwan’s pavilion being located outside a main venue, the depth and thoughtfulness of the presentation by the museum was as profound, if not more so, as China pavilion at the Arsenal venue, in my opinion.
The architecture of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum is spacious, modern and eco-friendly. The general admission is $1 USD (30 NDT) per person, and $0.50 USD for students and Taipei residents. It’s quite reasonable for a country with an average annual individual income of $23,000.
One thing standing out is that most of the visitors are young people, instead of many senior citizens, as in American museums.
Four exhibitions were on view occupying three floors of the museum.
On the first floor, we encountered a retrospective exhibition titled Re-Present: Kao Chung-Li, by the multi-media-social-political artist, a Taiwan native.
According to the museum’s description, this exhibition revolves around the history and production relationship between humankind and audiovisual technology.
The Chinese title of this exhibition, literally translated as “life determines consciousness,” owes much of its inspiration to the famous quote of historical materialism from Karl Marx. It reflects Kao Chung-Li’s oeuvre that spans 40 years — his critical investigation into industrial temporal objects like photography, cinematography, sculpture, animation and audiovisual machines, as well as his indefatigable examination of his production conditions.
Kao explores perception and audiovisual technologies. By dint of artistic creation, he engages in media archaeology – investigating the power structures in the history of audiovisual machines, and continuing his unswerving pursuit of emancipation within the present system of media production.
He invents and produces his own audiovisual mechanical devices, and combines them with images, negatives and industrial apparatus he has collected. His approach reflects the perceptual conditions of the audiovisual on the one hand, and challenges the concepts of audiovisual technology production on the other.
It’s an engaging show, witty, dark, humous, poignant, nostalgic, intimate and passionate. The artist is about my generation but lived through a different social/political system.
His work resonates to me in terms of dealing with political repressions, family history and human struggles. We are looking at the same tree from opposite sides, familiar yet different.
Another show on the first floor was video installations by a Belgium artist, titled David Claerbout: Meditation in Peace.
The artist was born in Kortfijk, Belgium. Claerbout first received training in painting, and was later known for works mixing photography, video, sound and digital technologies.
Through manipulating and experimenting with motion and stillness, time and speed – as well as sound – the artist destabilizes conventional boundaries between visual media, and imbues his video images with multilayered temporalities.
This solo exhibition showcases a selection from his large-scale video works since 1996, accompanied by a series of sketch drawings that construct a unique viewing experience in the high-ceiling gallery.
Entering the large gallery space, I felt that time was frozen and everything was flowing in a slow motion.
The show on the second floor, was titled SUPERNATURAL: Sculptural Visions of the Body – international artists dealing with forms and technologies used in the representation of human bodies. The exhibition explores four major themes – “Hybrid Others,” “Postnature,” “Artist 4.0” and “Technological-Human-Metamorphoses,” which explore hybrid lifeforms, genetically modified organisms, future humans and robots, and technology’s impact on life.
The exhibition addresses the future of the human body in an Anthropocene era. Given technological developments in biogenetics, in the future humans will be able to make existential modifications to all living things — nature, the animal world and human likenesses. The exhibit asks, what will the bodies of the future look like? Who or what will we be? In what type of environment will we live?
The exhibition offers some possible answers through its hyper-realistic and realistic sculptures, that not only exemplify the impact of the digital revolution and genetic engineering on “posthumans” and the environment, but illustrate the increasingly vague lines between nature, science and culture.
Pushing the boundaries of sculpture, artists in the show foresee new design promises in artefact, biology and technology via their own oeuvres.
A stimulating show that attracts a large young audience.
On the third floor of the museum, we saw the exhibition Explosions of Sight, introducing the life of Swiss photojournalist René Burri. It displays more than 500 works and archival material including original antique photos, contact sheets, notes, sketches, books and correspondence.
Burri was an influential contemporary photojournalist. He demonstrated a visual “policality” in major cultural events of the 20th century and left many images of heartfelt immediacy in black and white for future generations – such as the iconic image of Cuban revolution leader Che Guevara with a cigar, the commemorative series of portraits photographed during his encounter with Picasso in 1957, and the records of Brasilia in its early period of construction and Beijing in the 1960s.
As the late photographer’s first retrospective, the exhibition aims to present not only many of his classic works, but a fruitful result of meticulous in-depth research on diverse unpublished archives from Photo Elysée in Lausanne, Foundation René Burri and Magnum Photos in Paris and New York.
Standing atop the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, now Taipei’s cultural center, I saw a crowd of children, young and old couples, and families waiting for the sunset ritual of the flag lowering ceremony, in peace and complaisance. Against the hazy rays scintillating from the ruddy dusk, my vision blurred at the politics belonged to the generation of our departed fathers and grandfathers.
As a bystander observing the history of triumphs and failures, aches of love and loathing, rifts between families and brotherhood, I saw people come and gone on this land, and no one won.
I prayed for them, as well as for us. . .
– Kirk Ke Wang