A Symbol of Resistance
In a city like Taipei it is immensely difficult to resist the commercial pressures surrounding us. We are bombarded by relentless advertising, dependent on shops for survival, and locked into a system in which money dictates more of our decisions than perhaps it should. Many of Taiwan’s educational institutions, while sheltered to some extent from the turbulence of an economic system beyond their control by government support, are increasingly subject to the same stark forces governing the logic of The Market. In this context, the opening of the Museum of National Taipei University of Education (MoNTUE) represents an heroic act of resistance against Mammon‘s magnetic power and a loud display of support for a conception of wealth that attaches as much significance to spiritual enrichment as material gain and thrives on art, culture, and learning. To put it another way: the site on which MoNTUE recently opened very nearly became just another 7-Eleven.
MoNTUE’s story begins in 2004, when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art decided to dispose of some of its substantial collection of plaster cast sculptures, many of which it had been unable to put on public display due to a lack of space. Professor Lin Mun-lee, who was at the time director of the National Palace Museum, heard about this through her ex-colleague at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Yulin Lee, whereupon she began looking for funding to help transfer these works from New York to Taipei. The success of Yulin Lee’s coordination and Professor Lin’s fundraising efforts resulted in the first occasion the Met had ever made a donation to an institution in Taiwan. The artworks – numbering some hundred pieces in all and including the cast of a work by Michelangelo – needed a home, and Professor Lin looked to the National Taipei University of Education, where she had been the founding director of the Fine Arts Department, for a potential solution. Six years on, following a struggle within the university between those who wanted to use the space now occupied by MoNTUE as a commercial, cash generating enterprise, and those like Professor Lin, who firmly believed that the long-term value of an art gallery and museum would far outweigh short-term financial gains, the Met’s donation now has a worthy new home in the heart of Taipei. The opening of MoNTUE may well represent the beginning of an exciting new chapter for Taiwan’s art world, as historic European artworks, the likes of which were previously only accessible through books and air travel, are put on display in the heart of the island’s largest city. These include the ‘Metro 11′, eleven works which are now on permanent display in the building, among which are sculptures from the facades of Reims and Chartres Cathedrals in France, Antoine Louis Barye’s powerful ‘Lion Crushing a Serpent’ whose bronze original stands in the Louvre, and two incredible 15th century wood carvings take from the pew ends of St. Olav’s Church in the Faeroe Islands.
Deconstructing A Divide
With generous help from the university itself, commercial foundations, and the government, MoNTUE opened on September 25th this year. For almost a year prior to that, Japanese architect Keisuke Toyoda was hard at work transforming the newly built structure into a state-of-the-art gallery space. The site where MoNTUE is located was previously occupied by the university’s campus wall and as such was a barrier to interaction between the institution an the city. Breaking this boundary down and replacing it with an open, inviting structure which bridges the arbitrary divide between the university and the urban fabric surrounding it was part of the philosophy guiding the gallery’s design. The result of this is that while MoNTUE has successfully transformed the physical nature of this part of central Taipei, whether the gallery is able to fulfill its goal of becoming a ‘public living room’ and commencing a genuine interaction with non-student residents of the city remains to be seen.
True to MoNTUE’s goals Toyoda, a founding partner of Noiz Architects, has succeeded in creating a gallery which encourages interaction between outside and inside, the building and the viewer, the artworks and the city, and as such has dissolved many of the traditional boundaries constituted by less thoughtful architecture. While sections of the gallery contain traditional display space, many of the paintings and sculptures currently on show are framed, not by white walls, but by MoNTUE’s large windows and the trees or traffic behind them. Most of the building’s street-facing facade is glass, with the gallery’s contents open and visible to passers-by. When juxtaposed with, for example, even a relatively modern gallery building such as the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), whose imposing concrete walls conceal and take a protective approach to its contents, the outcome of MoNTUE’s accessible architectural vision becomes immediately apparent. Visitors here never really leave the city behind, its light and sounds continually accompanying their tour. Ensuring that gallery entrance remains free is another important part of this guiding philosophy and by doing so Professor Lin and Lan Kung-hsu – MoNTUE’s executive director – aim to make this a cultural and educational resource which benefits Taipei’s residents.
In conversation with Joyce Lai and Nova Huang, two of the gallery’s three full-time management staff, TFAM, as Taipei’s biggest art institution, is understandably a name that keeps coming up, mainly in relation to how MoNTUE might be able to complement or indeed offer a different approach to exhibiting. An example they use to outline MoNTUE’s creative approach to curating is the current exhibition, Still the Vanguard of Education, the Forefront of Art. TFAM has held a number of exhibitions about Taiwan’s first generation of modern painters – the subject of this show – but MoNTUE hope to present this narrative in a new format, thus revealing aspects of the works that previously remained hidden or under-exposed. The gallery’s next exhibition – its ‘Grand Opening’ – which is planned to open in April 2013 and will be curated by a National Taipei University of Education academic, Lin Chi-Ming, will use a plaster cast of one of Michelangelo’s sculptures as a departure point from which to explore the artist’s impact on contemporary art. The aim in doing so is to reveal parallels between works that would otherwise be separated by time and art-historical categories. Exhibiting in this fashion will inevitably require some high profile loans from other international art institutions, which TFAM has already done with some degree of success, and thanks to the experience and reputation of Professor Lin, as well as the gallery’s world-class facilities, MoNTUE is confident about being able to secure important loans from other galleries around the world. Moreover, MoNTUE and the Met plan to continue their collaboration, with curator visits from New York and lecture series. This all means that Taiwan’s art-lovers are in for a treat.
With plans to show three to four exhibitions each year, MoNTUE’s focus is evidently on quality and providing the environment for sustained engagement with the works on display. Free access naturally allows for a slower, more relaxed way for Taipei residents to interact with an exhibition’s works and the vision in mind is one of visitors dropping in to the gallery during their lunch break or on their way home from work, taking a second, third, or fourth glance at the artwork which sparked their imagination last time, and discovering a sculpture that somehow escaped their attention on a previous visit. Guests are invited to take notes, draw sketches, or leave drawings for future visitors. This provides a counterpoint to commercially-oriented galleries, of which Taipei has no shortage, whose business models are built around the quick turnover of artist exhibitions and can be stressful, intimidating spaces for the uninitiated.
To return to the theme with which this article began, when we mentioned the commercial pressures that surround us in the present, we might now also bring the past, and future, into the equation. MoNTUE’s unique claim to attention is firstly its directors’ awareness of the university’s historical role as Taiwan’s first institute of higher education, and thus a place in which the island’s first generation of modern painters was nurtured. This is undoubtedly a heritage worth celebrating, exploring, and revealing. Perhaps more importantly, Professor Lin and those who supported her quest to establish MoNTUE advocate a brave, optimistic view of the future. This is a vision of the future that deserves to be supported; a Taipei where art is accessible, open, and a vital part of the urban fabric. MoNTUE is itself an artistic statement, a manifesto for a certain kind of city, and we like it.