Exhibition – The Power of Plateaus

1839 Contemporary Gallery - The Power of Plateaus - Gallery View 2

1839 Contemporary Gallery is an intimate, well-suited venue for Feng Jian Guo’s thoughtful portraits.

“When I first set foot on this magical land in 1999,” writes Feng Jian Guo (馮建國) of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, “I was deeply impressed by its magnificent nature and rich religious culture.” Other than one paragraph in his introduction to this solo exhibition of photographic portraits of Tibetans, however, the photographer doesn’t do much else to define and explain the power referred to in the exhibition’s title: The Power of Plateaus – Tibetan Portraits: 2007-2010. Feng’s engagement is less with the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau itself – there are no landscapes on display here – than with the Tibetans who call it home, and while The Power of Plateaus is an evocative name for this exhibition, the plateau’s presence is only felt second-hand, hinted at in, and refracted through, the details of these portraits – the flecks of snow and frost covering a herder’s hat, or the nest of wrinkles criss-crossing an old woman’s face.

Feng Jian Guo The Power of Plateaus

Qijia, 17 years old, Langmu Temple, Luqu County, Gannan Prefecture, Gansu Province (2009).

Currently an associate professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University’s Academy of Art & Design, Feng’s portraiture flirts dangerously with some very romantic (and patronising) Tibetan stereotypes. Thus the artist states that he has “tried to use a pure white background to take portraits for the people living on the the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau…to show the unsophisticated and pious Tibetan people.” Comments like this perhaps reveal more about the naivety of the observer than the observed, and this tense power relationship between the photographer and his subjects certainly adds an interesting dynamic to the exhibition as a whole. Indeed, many of the characters staring back at us through Feng’s camera lens do so with a tangible sense of pride, of defiance, and of aloofness, in the face of this artist’s attempts to represent them through such simple means as a photograph.

Feng Jian Guo The Power of Plateaus

Dawa, 22 Years old, Xicang Monastery, Luqu County, Gannan Prefecture, Gansu Province (2009).

This is Feng Jian Guo’s third solo exhibition in Taipei, and his second in three years at the intimate 1839 Contemporary Gallery (1839當代藝廊), and although The Power of Plateaus consists of only 24 photos in all, the overall effect is very powerful. Tibet and its people are an emotive photographic subject, as well as being players in one of the most sensitive political and religious issues confronting modern China. Over the last seventy years Tibetan society has been put under immense pressure by its increasing integration with, and repression by, the government in Beijing. Feng’s beautiful portraits are implicitly political therefore, portraying the clash between tradition and modernity that has left few parts of China untouched in recent decades, but which is arguably magnified in its ethnic borderlands. In one portrait, a teenage boy stares at us, boldly, confidently, while speaking to someone on his mobile phone. The phone is as much a status symbol as the heavy metal chain he wears around his neck. Inside his traditional robe he wears a t-shirt printed with a stylised picture of the Potala Palace and ‘Tibet’ written in English underneath. If any of these photos could be said to summarise the cultural pressures and contradictions faced by young Tibetans today, this is portrait is it. In a masterful example of arrangement by 1839′s curator, Edward Chiu ( 邱奕堅 ), the phone-wielding teenager’s portrait is placed between those of two old ladies in traditional costume, fingering their prayer beads and wielding large prayer wheels, creating a contrast that is both stark and provocative.

Feng Jian Guo The Power of Plateaus

A tribal representative in splendid attire during a festival, Xicang Monastery, Luqu County, Gannan Prefecture, Gansu Province (2009).

There is much more that could be said about Feng’s work, but there is one historical parallel which warrants comment. In 1907, the Amercian photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis wrote in the introduction to his first volume of The North American Indian that “the information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” Many of Feng Jian Guo’s portraits are – intentionally or not – photographed in a style very similar to those of Curtis, and one wonders whether the impulse which drove Curtis to record the Native Americans’ disappearing way of life is not the same as the one driving Feng. Over one hundred years on from the publication of Curtis’ magnum opus, and an ocean away, Feng’s Tibetan Portraits succeed in highlighting many of the same issues, and for that reason alone, this exhibition deserves to be seen.

By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei

The Power of Plateaus – Tibetan Portraits: 2007-2010 by Feng Jian Guo is on show at 1839 Contemporary Gallery until Sunday, December 16th.

Address: B1, No.120 Yanji Street, Da’an District, Taipei
MRT: Zhongxiao Dunhua
Entry: Free
Open: Tuesday – Sunday, 11.00 am – 8.00 pm.
Tel: (02)27788458
Web: www.1839cg.com
  • Gallery View 2
  • The Power of Plateaus - Gallery View 2
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  • Feng Jian Guo Portrait 24
  • Feng Jian Guo Portrait 26
  • Feng Jian Guo Portrait 3

Taipei Biennial 2012 – Death and Life of Fiction

Hannah Hurtzig - The Waiting Hall, Scenes of Modernity. Taipei Biennial 2012

Visitors make their highly visible entry to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum through Hannah Hurtzig’s artwork – The Waiting Hall, Scenes of Modernity.

As you walk through the doors of the museum, your entire field of vision is confronted, challenged even, by a brightly-lit white screen standing five metres inside. A ramp leads up towards the screen and onto a narrow walkway which runs alongside it. Which way do you go? Left or right? After making your decision you begin walking and suddenly become aware that you are being pinned against the screen by immensely strong footlights, relentlessly drenching you with their glare. Any chance of making a quiet entrance has been utterly obliterated. The spotlight is, literally, on YOU, and the conditions of your attendance at the exhibition have been radically reversed. You, the subject, came to see the exhibition, an object. But the stage and its blazing lights have deconstructed this lazy assumption and blurred this traditional divide between the observer and the observed. You are now an object too, your role transformed by the very first work with which you come into contact. You are barely through the doors of the Taipei Fine Art Museum (TFAM) and yet your engagement and interaction with Death and Life of Fiction – Taipei Biennial 2012 has begun in earnest.Death and Life of Fiction - Taipei Biennial 2012

From the off, then, this is an intensely thought-provoking exhibition, and Anselm Franke, the Berlin-based artist and Taipei Biennial 2012 curator, has certainly not shied away from tackling big, heavy questions. History, identity, war; highly appropriate subject matter for a moment in history when, in the words of TFAM director, Hai-Ming Huang, “the earth and the people that inhabit her today, to borrow a Chinese phrase, are besieged under deep water and scorching fire.” Franke and the artworks contained in the exhibition prove that good art is ideally suited to illuminating these issues and providing challenging, provocative, and critical perspectives. The three floors of maze-like halls and display spaces may even contain the seeds of a solution, of an answer to the question of humanity’s violent, divided, forgetful predicament, though visitors will have to scratch more than just the surface of these works to find it. The result of Franke’s bold selection of works and the thematic framework into which they (almost) all seamlessly fit, makes this exhibition a powerful artistic success, the effects of which will resound and reverberate in Taiwan’s, and indeed Asia’s, art community for years. Death and Life of Fiction is, in short, a must-see event for Taipei’s art-lovers and curious, questioning minds.

Wei-Li Yeh - Antiquity-Like Rubbish Taipei Biennial 2012

Wei-Li Yeh – Antiquity-Like Rubbish Research & Development Syndicate in 206, 2012 (installation view); Installation

With full-price tickets selling for only NT$30 (including a brilliantly-written 160 page guidebook) many visitors may be tempted by multiple visits to see the Taipei Biennial 2012. Indeed, with over 50 artists and collectives taking part, it is essential if one wants to see everything. The scale might have been overwhelming, but Franke’s curating expertise and his creative use of space is abundantly evident, making the exhibition feel very accessible, intimate, and unhurried. There is none of the overwhelming sense of pretense or elitism that often accompanies modern art shows in Europe, and each work of art is given space to breathe and captivate. It is inevitable in a show of this size that works spill over into one another – the soundtrack of a video installation informing the context of an unrelated painting or photograph in the room next door, for example – but with Death and Life of Fiction Franke and his team seem to have controlled this phenomenon and curated with it in mind, creating moving continuities between the exhibits.

The works come from artists representing every corner of the globe and a huge array of artistic formats: posters, videos, dolls, film sets, sculpture, discarded rubbish, antiquities, maps, you name it. We are forced to think about what counts as art, and what context does to alter the the way an object is perceived. We are confronted by the crimes and atrocities that have repeatedly been committed in the name of reason and progress. We are moved to ponder the components of our identity and those of others. We are exposed, above all, to art that challenges us, that makes us think, ask, and respond. That, after all, is the power of art, and Death and Life of Fiction – Taipei Biennial 2012 is an incredibly potent exposition of this power.

Biennial Highlights

John Akomfrah The Unfinished Conversation, 2012 (Still).  Taipei Biennial 2012

John Akomfrah – The Unfinished Conversation, 2012; 3-channel HD video installation, colour, sound.

John Akomfrah – The Unfinished Conversation, 2012

John Akomfrah’s moving video installation, The Unfinished Conversation, has already received critical acclaim at this year’s Liverpool Biennial, and is without a doubt one of this exhibition’s most interesting works. The film is a beautifully-rendered, three-screen narrative exploring the life, ideas, and ‘multiple realities’ of Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born academic and cultural theorist whose work on identity and difference has been very influential. Hall’s theories had a major impact on Akomfrah’s own development as a film-maker, and as The Unfinished Conversation twists and weaves through the events that shaped and contextualised Hall’s life we become acutely aware of Akomfrah’s touching, almost filial, respect for the man and his achievements. The film never stands still, and in its diverse range of source material – both audio and visual – it constantly reflects the dynamic relationship between historical events, private life, and identity. Akomfrah has succeeded in creating a haunting work of art whose ghosts will remain with its audience long after they have left the installation.

The Museum of the Monster That Is History Taipei Biennial 2012

Installation view of The Museum of the Monster That is History; Bavamd Behpoor, Reza Abedini – Martyrs Museum; Installation (detail) – Installation view at TFAM

The Museum of the Monster that is History – Curated by James T. Hong and Anselm Franke

Of the Biennial’s numerous, and highly original, mini-museums, The Museum of the Monster that is History is the one visitors will probably encounter first. This highly prescient, political, and thought-provoking exhibit is “devoted to the violence on which modern states and social orders are based”. Modern history, according to the curators James T. Hong and Anselm Franke, reveals that states are strikingly consistent in deploying officially sanctioned, systematic terror in the name of ‘reason’ and there’s no lack of material here to support that assertion. We are first confronted with a video of numerous national leaders making official apologies for atrocities and crimes committed by their respective states, while Taiwan WMD displays materials relating to Taiwan’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programmes into the present. Hong has also created what at first glance resembles a currency exchange board familiar to millions from airports and hotels. Yet upon closer inspection this is not a normal exchange of one currency for another: the moving ticker at the top of the board reads ‘Compensation amounts for Afghan civilian deaths’. We are directly confronted with the monstrous ‘economy of death’ and the commercial intrusion into life itself by putting a price tag on what we are so often told is price-less. This all makes for uncomfortable, but necessary, viewing.

The Museum of Crossings - Museum of Psalmanazar, Taipei Biennial 2012

Installation view of The Museum of Crossings; Hongjohn Lin – Museum of Psalmanazar.

Museum of Psalmanazar – Curated by Hongjohn Lin

A mini-museum inside a mini-museum, Museum of Psalmanazar is set within the broader framework of The Museum of Crossings (curated by Anselm Franke and Hongjohn Lin), which looks at the phenomenon of crossing borders – “mimetic zones in which identity and alterity are in permanent exchange, and in which the imaginary and the fictional assume a powerful role.” George Psalmanazar was an 18th century, blonde-haired, blue-eyed fraudster who claimed to be the first ‘Formosan’ to visit Europe (despite being French) and who even wrote a highly acclaimed, best-selling guide to ‘his country’ – An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa – (despite never having set foot in Asia). Items described in his fictional account of Taiwan are presented as real museum artifacts and in this exhibit Psalmanazar is resurrected as an example of someone who was a border-crosser par excellence, constantly negotiating the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and imagination. The exhibit is perhaps less interesting for its artistic value than its casting a light on the life of a fascinating historical character but nevertheless its depiction of an imaginary, historical Taiwan leads the viewer to ask searching questions about the modern, ‘real’ version of Formosa we live in today.

Roee Rosen - Vladimir's Night Taipei Biennial 2012

Roee Rosen: Maxim Komar Myshkin – Vladimir’s Night, 2011-2012 (Installation view); 40 gouaches on paper, framed each 55 × 33.5 cm; framed 70 × 50 cm.

Roee Rosen – Maxim Komar-Myshkin, Vladimir’s Night, 2011-2012

Obscene, grotesque, and highly subversive, Roee Rosen’s Maxim Komar-Myshkin, Vladimir’s Night is a collection of 36 gouaches on paper that is – perhaps due to its perverse subject matter – tucked away in a hard to find spot on the exhibition’s second floor. Maxim Komar-Myshkin, Rosen’s fictional creator of these works, allegedly committed suicide last year, having suffered immensely from extreme paranoia. Vladimir Putin, so Komar-Myshkin believed in his paranoid state, wanted him dead. In a desperate final act he takes revenge on Russia’s president by creating this set of paintings which depict the horrific results of Putin’s stay at one of his summer holiday homes. Faces the president sees in the surface of his furniture come to life as nightmarish objects which proceed to torture, rape, and murder him. Vladimir’s Nightis a disturbing journey through a tormented, wild imagination, whether Rosen’s or Komar-Myshkin’s. The artist’s use of children’s-book -style illustrations is a disarmingly powerful technique, and the ‘poems’ Rosen has written to supplement each painting are an incredibly witty accompaniment to the work. This exhibit won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you don’t mind seeing brightly-painted depictions of one of the world’s most powerful leaders being impaled with a cucumber, then it’s a provocative journey that is well worth exploring.

Sun Xun - Some actions which haven't been defined yet in the revolution Taipei Biennial 2012

Sun Xun – Some Actions which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution, 2011 (still); animation, b&w, sound, 12 min 22sec.

Sun Xun – Some Actions which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution, 2011

Mainland China is well-represented at the Biennial, but it is perhaps Sun Xun, a young Beijing-based artist, whose work is most interesting. By using woodcuts to create a film animation, Sun has successfully combined the traditional with the modern and in the process given a tangible context to the work, highlighting China’s struggle to define itself and locate the source of its own identity. With these two centrifugal forces – tradition and modernity – pulling in contradictory, opposite directions, the result is a schizophrenic and deeply unsettling sense of paranoia which haunts society. In Some Actions which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution Sun has provided us with an acute observation of this societal schizophrenia told through the nightmarish journey of the animation’s main character. We have fleeting glimpses of nurses directing cranes which move monstrous syringes towards the character’s body, faces being pulled off and transformed into feature-less flesh, and the sleeping protagonist being watched (or is he about to be pecked?) by a deeply sinister crow. Sun’s hellish visions are reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch and their effect on the audience excites similar feelings of distress and perverse curiosity. Just as Bosch’s artistic imagination undoubtedly fed on the energy released by the traumatic changes taking place in European society during the early Renaissance, perhaps Sun’s work is nourished in a similar way by the energy of the revolutionary changes China has recently undergone and, indeed, is still undergoing.

By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei

Death and Life of Fiction – Taipei Biennial 2012 runs until January 13th, 2013 at the two locations below. Full-price tickets cost NT$30 and include a guidebook. The Biennial also has a free mobile application for download, which can be found by searching for ‘Taipei Biennial 2012‘.

Taipei Fine Arts Museum - exterior.

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum’s modern exterior.

Taipei Fine Arts Museum (49 exhibits)

No. 181, Section 3, Zhongshan North Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei

Open: Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 am-17:30 pm; Saturday open until 20:30 pm; Closed on Monday

Tel: +886-2-2595-7656

Biennial Website: www.taipeibiennial2012.org

Museum Website: www.tfam.museum/

The Paper Mill (4 exhibits)

No.31, Fude Road, Shilin District, Taipei

Open: Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 am-17:30 pm; Saturday open until 20:30 pm; Closed on Monday

Tel: +886-2-2881-1111

Paper Mill Website: www.thepapermill.shihlin.com.tw

  • Sun Xun
  • The Museum of the Monster That Is History
  • The Museum of Crossings - Museum of Psalmanazar
  • Roee Rosen - Vladimir's Night
  • Taipei Fine Arts Museum
  • Hannah Hurtzig - The Waiting Hall, Scenes of Modernity
  • Anton Vidokle / Hu Fang - Two Suns, 2012 Installation View
  • John Akomfrah The Unfinished Conversation, 2012 (Still)
  • Wei-Li Yeh - Antiquity-Like Rubbish
  • Big Gourd - Shiro Takahashi - The Museum of Gourd
  • Death and Life of Fiction - Taipei Biennial 2012
  • Taipei Biennial 2012 Waiting Hall Feature Image

Wen Stone – A Taiwanese Treasure

The Wen Stone exhibition runs at the National Taiwan Museum until February 24th, 2013.

Taiwan’s Gems – Wen Stone Exhibition is currently occupying the whole of the National Taiwan Museum‘s third floor, and invites visitors to “feast their eyes on the natural majesty and historical glory of Wen stone and to explore the mysterious formation, mineral composition, of the rare gemstone unique to Taiwan”. The mysterious gemstone has been highly sought after for centuries, but especially so since the beginning of its commercial exploitation in the early 1900s, when the Japanese established a processing plant for Wen Stone on Penghu. The exhibition was organised by the Ministry of Culture and Penghu County Government with the intention of revealing more about the geological conditions behind Wen Stone’s formation, and its history as an object of both research and desire.

Fine examples of Sanxia Wen Stone carved as seals.

The Background

Wen Stone has only ever been found in Taiwan and Sicily, but Taiwanese Wen Stone differs from its Sicilian cousin in the prevalence of concentric patterns – the result of unique geological pressures acting on the surface of the earth here over millions of years. Nestling in basalt cavities or vesicles, the gemstone is both rare and incredibly beautiful, and has been coveted for its unique appearance for centuries. Penghu’s islands – whose bedrock is made up predominantly of basalt – have long been noted as the source of the most spectacular examples of Wen Stone, many of which are on display in this exhibition. Indeed, the stone was a source of such local pride that in 1767 Penghu’s newly-built academy (now the Confucius Temple) was named the Wen Stone Academy. The name was both descriptive – much of the structure was built with Wen Stone – and symbolic: the Wen Stone Academy’s purpose was to cultivate students who were as rare and brilliant as the gemstone itself. More recently Wen Stone has been identified in the Sanxia area of north-central Taiwan, and Taiwan’s Gems also sheds further light on this latest find.

The exhibition features a number of basalt items inlaid with Wen Stone, like this elegant pot.

The Science

After years of painstaking research on specimens from the Penghu archipelago, Wen Stone was mistaken in 1909 for aragonite by Japanese mineralogist Yohachiro Okamoto, who is perhaps best-known for his discovery of another of Taiwan’s unique rocks, the radium-containing mineral Hokutolite (or Beitou Stone) . More recent research has since proven that the stone is in fact an agglomeration of secondary minerals, of which aragonite is an important component, but which also includes calcite, dolomite, quartz, and chlorite among others.

Wen Stone develops over ten million years in the bubbles, or vesicles, formed by volcanic magma as it rapidly cools. Minerals are then formed in the vesicles through the interaction between sea or groundwater and the basalt through which it drains. These minerals then become subject to different levels of temperature, pressure, and acidity, and develop into secondary minerals when the resulting liquid concentration becomes over-saturated. Wen Stone’s ‘eyes’ come into being through the alternating growth and crystallisation of minerals of different colours. Taiwan’s Gems includes some very informative information boards detailing this process through written explanations and diagrams, though the content’s heavy reliance on geological terminology can be overwhelming at times.

Taiwan’s Gems is nicely laid-out among the rafters on the Museum’s third floor.

The Splendour

For visitors less familiar with, or uninterested in, the nitty gritty geological details, the real attraction of Wen Stone lies in the multicoloured veins running through the rock and occasionally forming ‘eyes’ – concentric circles whose perfect dimensions and vivid colours are awe-inspiring to behold. Many visitors may initially require a suspension of disbelief as the fact that these intricate patterns and hypnotic circles are formed as an accident of nature is slowly absorbed.

The exhibition’s display cases contain some exquisitely carved examples of the stone, including pieces which reflect Wen Stone’s natural development by setting the gemstone in basalt, providing a stunning contrast between the basalt’s inky black hues and the playful light tones and geometric playfulness of the Wen Stone. Indeed, Taiwan’s Gems features pieces from some sixty-four different private collections, indicating both the breadth of the display and the comprehensive nature of the exhibition. While the information boards hint at the gemstone’s substantial commercial value as a collectible item, they stop short of giving exact estimates, perhaps to avoid encouraging the wrong kind of attention.

Penghu Wen Stone displays beautiful concentric circles, called ‘eyes’, which are captivating.

Taiwan’s Gems is very well structured, comprehensive, and accessible to both English and Chinese speakers. It ticks most boxes when it comes to quality of lighting and the guiding narrative, however the display pieces would benefit from more informative labeling regarding details such as the craftsman or workshop behind the piece, the date of its processing, and the story (if any) behind the artwork. In the curators’ defence, there is a fine line to tread between creating a rounded exhibition covering both Wen Stone’s geological development and the gemstone’s role as object of desire, and focusing too narrowly on the more decorative and artistic aspects of the stone, and Taiwan’s Gems should therefore be considered a great success: the heroes here are, as they should be, nature and the Wen Stone itself, rather than the individual craftsmen who have shaped it for human consumption.

By Matt Bowden, for Love Taipei

Taiwan’s Gems – Wen Stone Exhibition runs at the National Taiwan Museum until February 24th, 2013. Entry to the exhibition is included in the NTD20 ticket price for the Museum.

National Taiwan Museum
Open Tuesday – Sunday, 9am – 5pm.
Full-price entry: NTD20
Address: No.2, Xiang Yang Road, inside 2-28 Peace Park, Zhongzheng District, Taipei
Nearest MRT: NTU Hospital
Tel: (02)2382 2566
Web: www.ntm.gov.tw
  • Basalt Pot Inlaid With Wen Stone
  • National Taiwan Museum
  • Wen Stone Chops
  • Wen Stone Close-up
  • Wen Stone Exhibition Layout