Having an ‘art attack’ in Taipei
by Ghaz Ghazali, firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted on November 20, 2011, Sunday
From tastefully artistic to downright bizarre, Taiwan’s capital is dotted with interesting public artworks.
From the first step outside Taipei Taoyuan International Airport not far from the terminal’s front square, I caught sight of a bronzy sculpture in the shape of an Atlas globe.
“How very apt,” I thought.
On my way to the hotel, I didn’t think much of it at first.
From the next day onwards, however, I began to notice that Taipei – enterprising and economically vibrant to the world – is also very artistic with quite a number of public art displays dotting the city.
I got my first ‘art attack’ during my tour to the Taipei Sogo shopping mall. It was during my stroll around the grounds enjoying the cool, crisp autumn afternoon that I immediately noticed a very unique sculpture near the mall’s entrance.
Just looking at it made me hungry. Why? Because to me, it looked just like a big ball of twisted white dough. Unfortunately, as I got closer, I couldn’t see any plaque bearing the name of the creator.
Strange looking as it was, the ‘twisted dough’ sculpture was amongst many publicly-displayed, government-funded artworks throughout Taipei and across the island republic.
Already known for decades as one of the world’s most industrious economies, Taiwan has also been working hard to promote itself as a culturally-aesthetic as well.
“After many years of almost exclusive focus on economy development, it became clear that such a national growth strategy generated serious problems, often associated with a lack of the spiritual aspect of humanity as cities became filled with cold – as well as uninteresting – steel and concrete structures,” observed Chou Ya-ching, a researcher at the Taiwanese Council for Cultural Affairs’ (CCA) Provisional Office of Headquarters Administration of Cultural Heritage, in a research paper ‘An Introduction to Public Art Policy in Taiwan’.
According to Chou, there were very few examples of art in public spaces in Taiwan previously.
He related: “In 1930, artist Huang Tu-shui died after completing the plaster bas-relief Herd of Water Buffalo. About seven years after that, Huang’s widow Liao Chiu-kuei donated the work to the Taipei City Government where the gigantic piece was later brought to inlay the work into the central wall between the second and third floors at the then-Taipei City Hall, today called Chungshan Hall. This was the first time the work by a Taiwanese artist was ever installed in a public space.
“Indeed, this event is widely recognised as the beginning of public art in Taiwan, though essentially as a memorial,” he said.
When Taiwan was returned to China in 1945, the post-war situation ensured that public art was almost exclusively dominated by near identical political statues and religious idols.
In 1961, artist SL Yen began promoting the idea of beautifying the urban landscape and produced a series of mosaic murals designed for that purpose.
“Because people in Taiwan initially had no concrete ideas about how the public art may impact on the living environment, many of them were left with the impression that the public art was referred only as some outdoor sculptures and murals.
“In the 1960s, artist YY Yang promoted the idea of ‘landscape sculpture’ and in 1970, one of Yang’s most important works – Phoenix is Coming – became famous after being shown in the China Pavilion.
“While it caused a stir at the Osaka World’s Fair, that event gave impetus to the development of ‘landscape sculpture’ in Taiwan,” Chou wrote.
With the establishment of the CCA in November 1981, the revolution moved even further – more so in 1990 when the government began to attach importance to the issue of art and the environment.
Indeed, since 1998, the CCA had compiled and published an annual ‘Public Art Yearbook’ full of detailed facts and figures about the public art projects installed throughout the year.
According to these figures, in the 12 years between 1998 to 2009, a total of 1,790 works of public art were installed in accordance with procedures laid out in the ‘Regulations Governing the Installation of Public Artwork’ and paid for by government departments or agencies.
Expenditure-wise, allocation for the installation of these public art works amounted to more than 700 Taiwanese dollars in 2009.
The numbers could have easily reached 2,000 artworks by now. In Taipei itself, more than 400 works of public art are now gracing many of the city’s public areas.
In the effort to maintain these works, the Taipei City Government’s Department of Cultural Affairs undertook the 2010 Survey of the State of Public Art and Maintenance Demonstration Plan – a programme geared towards making a full assessment of public art works, collecting information on the cleaning, restoration, relocation, or removal of public art works, as well as selecting five works made from different materials to demonstrate professional cleaning, maintenance and restoration.
“Whether looked at from the perspective of buildings, urban planning or art, we live in a time when greater attention is gradually being paid to public art. Indeed, it could reasonably be said public art is the fastest developing and most changeable visual form in Taiwan today,” Chou emphasised.
Very visual indeed, I thought, seeing that every 50 metres or so across Taipei, there would always be a sculpture of some sort adorning the landscape.
Not without controversy
As demonstrated by YY Yang’s ‘Phoenix is Coming’ in 1970, the public art scene in Taiwan has also had its shares of controversy at one point or another.
In 2006, a giant wooden sculpture on display at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport caused a major pandemonium amongst foreign visitors and flight crew who demanded its removal.
The one-metre long sculpture in the shape of the male sex organ to amplify its representation as a fertility symbol, was part of an exhibition of artifacts from the Thou tribe, one of Taiwan’s 10 tribes.
According to the tribe’s culture, the sculpture had been used since ancient times to temper the female ‘mountain deity’ who could, otherwsie, unleash rocks and mudslides.
Understandably, it did not temper sentiments amongst some female tourists and flight attendants who posted photos of the artwork on their websites, saying it was an offensive public art display especially at a busy place like the airport.
Eventually, the sculpture was relocated but it had caused a loud conflict between airport management and representatives from the Thou tribe, who strongly refused such a move.
Perhaps it was due to lack of understanding amongst foreign people with regards to Taiwanese culture. But any form or art – sculptures or otherwise – has been known to create curiosity and admiration – even shock – amongst observers.
If these reactions were the primary objectives of installing any public art display, then in the case of the Thou tribe’s phallic artwork, it did achieve its purpose.
Obviously, so did the ‘Twisted Dough’.
l This is the final installment of a two-part series on Taiwan. The writer was in Taipei during a media familiarisation trip, organised by Taiwan’s Government Information Office in October.