Taiwan’s contemporary art scene evolved significantly from the 1970s as artists engaged with changes in Taiwanese society and international trends. A new generation of artists used video art to re-examine neglected histories and shifting geopolitical identities, in the process capturing everyday perspectives among ordinary people.
Just like their peers in the rest of the world, Taiwanese artists have been developing different forms and styles of visual art since the 1970s and 1980s. The themes that concerned them have been influenced by their immediate surroundings as well as the international environment, leading to an artistic outcome that differed drastically from that presented before the end of Taiwan’s period of martial law.
From the Tangible to the Intangible
Taiwanese artist Su-Chen Hung’s classic video work East/West shows a mouth split into two parts with overlapping sentences spoken in Mandarin on one side and in English on the other. Hung created the work after immigrating to America and wanted to express her experiences of dealing with the clash of languages, cultures, and identities in a foreign land. According to Lesley Ma, former curator of Ink Art at M+, Hung’s work did not merely touch on the Taiwanese experience but also on something universal, and such universality speaks to one of the core standards of M+’s collection.
During the period of martial law, many Taiwanese artists observed the rest of the world from afar. As a result, their works carried a sense of confinement and dreariness. The dreariness displayed in Hung’s work, however, differed in that it reflected her personal conflicts of living in a foreign place and acted as an outlet for her thoughts on politics and society. As more artists found reasons to go abroad in the 1970s and 1980s, their ways of seeing the world also began to change.
Among these artists are Lee Mingwei and Michael Lin, who became well-known names on the international art scene beginning in the late 1990s. They represent a generation of artists who grew up overseas but trace their roots back to Taiwan. Influenced by two different cultures, their art-making explores and reveals values that echo more strongly with global perspectives. Whether it’s reviewing the value of art or challenging art spaces and their positions of authority, Lee and Lin use the history and culture of Asia as starting points to delve deep into their connections with the wider world.
‘Lee and Lin were both interested in relational aesthetics. Their works present elements of Eastern culture that can be understood by Westerners and that also explore the connections and relationships between people,’ Ma said.
The means of experiencing their works also show a migration from the tangible to the intangible. One example is Lee’s The Letter Writing Project. This work started with Lee penning over a hundred letters to his late grandmother as a way to mourn her death. It then expanded into a larger installation that opened up the contemporary art space to viewers by inviting them into wooden booths where they could write down the words they never had a chance to express to those who were no longer present in their lives. Letter writers can provide a delivery address so that the museum can send their letters on their behalf. Providing the venue and the guidelines, Lee invites the audience to participate in his artwork and encourages them to release their emotions collectively through the act of letter writing, Ma explained. Behind his tender sentiments, Lee also challenges the traditions and preconceptions connected to contemporary art spaces and art itself.
Lin, meanwhile, is known for placing everyday objects into contemporary art spaces. Lin was born in Japan and studied and developed his career in Europe and the United States before moving to Taipei, where he currently resides. Having grown up in a transnational setting, he has both a stark and distant memory of Taiwan’s traditional floral cloth. He transforms these traditional floral patterns into large-scale public artworks and spaces for audiences to immerse themselves and connect with their memories or experience this type of floral cloth for the first time. The cloth represents a Taiwanese culture and aesthetic that belong to the past and encompasses a generation’s memories. Under Lin’s transformation, it becomes a bridge between modern and traditional narratives while highlighting a contrasting collision in between. By bringing pieces of floral cloth from the home into the art space, he also expands the public’s understanding and imagination of art museums.
Examining History through Everyday Experiences
Some Taiwanese artists born in the 1970s and 1980s engaged in more direct and fervent social dialogues than those before them. Many from this generation used video to dig deeper into what it meant to be Taiwanese and the discourse of Taiwan’s global identity. ‘From overlapping geopolitics, they unearthed untold histories to further the inquiries into their standings,’ Ma explained. Compared to those from previous generations, these artists did not only use their everyday experiences to discover historical narratives but also analysed the hidden powers that have influenced Taiwan. Such inquiries were inevitable, given that this generation of artists grew up with a more intense and ardent reflection of history.
Take Chia-En Jao as an example. In 2016, Jao created Taxi, a digital video that runs for 79 minutes and 32 seconds. To create this work, Jao took over 70 taxi rides to historically sensitive locations in Taipei, such as the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, the Grand Hotel, the former American Military Club, and so forth. Jao filmed his conversations with the drivers during his rides and edited them into a mini-historical documentary comprising diverse viewpoints and memories. The work explores whether people’s values and perceptions of history differ simply because they hail from different generations and backgrounds or if the histories of the places visited have lost their significance over time. ‘Taipei drivers love to chat, but talking about politics is rather perilous,’ said Ma, who hails from the Taiwanese capital. Fortunately, with Jao’s tender attitude, the work draws out conversations about forgotten or intentionally buried geopolitical histories with hints of humour and sorrow. As Ma explained: ‘Jao captured the bigger picture of history through everyday experiences.’
Another artist from this generation is Hsu Chia-Wei. Within the span of a decade, he created four to five large-scale artworks that explored many topics and art forms. In Huai Mo Village, he reveals the story of the ‘lost army’ that continued to be stationed at the Thailand-Burma (now Myanmar) border even after the Chinese Nationalist Party supposedly withdrew its troops to Taiwan. In Hsu’s video work Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau, a veteran in Northern Thailand narrates this fragmented piece of history, which Hsu reinterprets and presents in the form of a traditional Thai puppet show. Blending reality with theatre, Hsu not only questions historical identity but also allows the audience to experience the lives of those abandoned in the wilderness. Artists like Hsu Chia-Wei exemplify this trend of pushing boundaries through works that blend reality with creative reinterpretation. Their creative resilience challenges prevailing understandings and encourages ongoing re-evaluation. By capturing overlooked viewpoints and engaging the public, their efforts reflect how art can mirror and influence a society’s comprehension of its shared heritage and evolving sense of self.
The Chinese-language version of this article was originally published on 21 October 2021 in the Hong Kong Economic Times. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Chan Kwan Yee, it has been translated by Kelly Tang and Dorothy So, and edited by Dorothy So.