Taiwanese artists in the 1950s onwards sought to break free from traditional boundaries and create works that embodied their inner thoughts and feelings.
An era can be captured and reflected in the works created by artists contemplating the conditions of a specific time and place. While Taiwanese ink paintings in the 1950s and 1960s were heavily linked with Chinese aesthetics, many artists during and following that period wished to connect further with the wider world. Some replaced the brush with a camera to document human life and the social landscape of Taiwan, and others went abroad and turned their bodies into a medium for art-making. All intended to pursue the greatest freedom within different artistic and social boundaries. Through its collection of Taiwanese art from the 1950s onwards, M+ strives not only to interpret the works’ importance from a local and international viewpoint but also to consider their site-specific nature and to contemplate the meaning of being in Taiwan.
Ink Art: Connecting Through Abstraction
Painting was the most important artistic medium in Taiwan in the 1950s. Influenced by modernism, painters started to become increasingly abstract in their work, although that development carried a certain risk, explained Lesley Ma, former curator of Ink Art at M+. ‘If the regime could not find a connection between an artwork and Chinese aesthetics, they would suspect the artist of criticising its leadership. But young artists at the time longed for international recognition and were eager to express themselves through culture, especially amid turbulent times in Taiwan. If they did not create abstract works, it would mean that they were not modern,’ Ma added.
Abstract painting could be seen as similar to philosophy in that it could manoeuvre through the helplessness and wreckage of politically sensitive times to question the meaning of existence in a metaphysical manner. This mentality was embraced by important organisations such as the Fifth Moon Society and the East Painting Association. These groups attracted artists in their 20s and 30s like Liu Kuo-sung and Chuang Che.
‘Although they firmly believed that ancient paintings were of paramount value, they aspired to capture the essence of an epoch with their works, which channelled their meditations on the era. By ruminating and reflecting on Chinese culture, they were able to reimagine that very culture through abstract paintings,’ Ma said.
Liu’s Clear Conclusion of Clearness offers an example of how young artists at the time used abstract painting as a way to connect with the world. Liu replaced canvas with coarse cotton paper and swapped traditional calligraphic brushes for artillery cleaning brushes. From afar, the work appears as a Chinese landscape painting with a strong emphasis on negative space. Upon closer inspection, one can see that the painting’s vein-like pattern is achieved by peeling the paper fibres and leaving indented strokes of white space—all of which is accomplished without losing the essence of traditional landscape paintings.
Contemporary art continued to develop with various media, yet many Taiwanese artists never ceased their explorations into ink. One such artist is Tong Yang-Tze, who challenges traditions and melds calligraphy with Western abstract paintings. ‘Calligraphy at the end of the day is still a crucial part of Chinese visual art, and Tong’s exquisite penmanship in captured in the form of her brushstrokes,’ Ma said. For Tong, the lines and strokes are the most significant parts of calligraphy, as they allow Chinese characters to transcend beyond linguistic barriers and to be appreciated even by those who don’t comprehend the words. Tong has even created calligraphic works featuring human-sized Chinese characters, thus transforming their viewing into an immersive experience that breaks away from the established way of perceiving text.
Photography and Videography: A Dynamic Leap
Moments of external liberation brought about by photography and videography prompted a change in people’s ways of thinking . Acclaimed Taiwanese artist Chang Chao-Tang started using photography in the 1960s to observe and capture Taiwan with an untainted perspective. While he started off with his brother’s camera, his subsequent job in television broadcasting gave him greater access to video equipment. In 1976, during a night of overtime work at the television station, he set up a 16mm camera in the office and started recording himself shaking and bobbing his head repeatedly in front of the lens, leading to the creation of a video piece titled Face in Motion. Chang was 33 years old at the time and living in a repressive society, and ‘his mental state in response to the dreary circumstances is displayed in this five-minute video’, Ma explained.
Chang also started fusing his aesthetics into his documentary works of Taiwan. Aside from those taken in arranged sets, his works can be seen as realistic reflections of human life as well as diary-like snapshots. With subtle hints of melancholy, Chang’s photos often displayed the living conditions of Taiwanese people and captured their existence and connections in moments preserved in imagery. ‘From Chang’s photos, one notices the tedium and suppression of that era but also a rebellious youthful spirit,’ Ma said, adding that Chang enjoyed listening to Western rock music, including the work of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.
In 1979, Chang filmed The Boat Burning Festival in Sucuo Village in Tainan’s Anding District. This iconic documentary, shot by cinematographer Christopher Doyle, was meant to explore the voices of Taiwan through a recording of a religious rite with shots of fanatical acts of worship. During post-production, however, Chang recorded over the original audio with Mike Oldfield’s song ‘Ommadawn’, displaying a sense of artistry that turned the film into a masterpiece.
The Body as a Medium: Exploring the Meaning of Art
When it comes to exploring the transformation of the body as an artistic medium, the name Tehching Hsieh cannot be left unmentioned. The former painter wanted to jump beyond the boundaries of his medium and did exactly that in 1973 when he literally jumped from the first floor of a building in his inaugural performance art, Jump Piece. Following this move, he put his relationship with painting on hold and started using alternative artistic expressions, including turning his body into a medium for his art. Taiwan, still a relatively conservative society at the time, took no notice of his work. This led to Hsieh’s next jump, which was as an illegal immigrant on a boat headed to the United States.
Hsieh continued to explore the meaning of art with his body, especially as a response to his lack of identity in the United States. Time became his life and his work in a series of one-year performances. Between 1980 and 1981, he documented himself punching a time clock every hour for an entire year; he also spent twelve months in 1981 and 1982 on the streets of New York, barring himself from entering any indoor space; in 1983 and 1984, he used an eight-foot-long rope to tie himself to the artist Linda Montano without coming into direct contact with her. Hsieh’s oeuvre, which consists of only six works, exemplifies a globalised vision—whether it’s from the point of his identity or behaviour, Hsieh insists on creating art that has meaning within itself without any artistic or social boundaries.
Many artists, critics, and researchers often describe artworks produced during Taiwan’s period of martial law as a liberation from the era’s ennui and dreariness. For some artists, however, they simply did and created things that they enjoyed at that specific time. While a work of art can reflect the background of an epoch, its creator’s original intention may be to simply convey their inner thoughts and feelings, thus striving for the freest form of expression within the limitations of the external world. In this sense, an artwork can be the purest form of an artist’s existence and mentality. ‘Our collection of works by Taiwanese artists may not be as comprehensive compared to those housed in institutions in Taiwan, yet with Hong Kong as a starting point, we are connecting them into a story from an international viewpoint,’ Ma explained.
Image at top: Chang Chao-Tang. Alishan, Chiayi, Taiwan 1990, 1990. Silver-print proof. M+, Hong Kong. © Chang Chao-Tang
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 5 August 2021 in the Hong Kong Economic Times. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Chan Kwan Yee, translated by Kelly Tang, and edited by Dorothy So. All works: M+, Hong Kong.