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Snake Alley @ Taipei Cultural Center on March 19, 6-8pm
Snake Alley is part of Asian Contemporary Art Week which connects leading New York City galleries and museums in a citywide event comprising of public programs such as exhibitions, receptions, lectures and performances. The Week focuses on the broad spectrum of artworks produced by Asian contemporary artists working in their home countries and abroad. Please see details from http://www.acaw.net/ACAW2008/aboutacaw/
Snake Alley is a two-venue group exhibition of cutting-edge Taiwanese contemporary art at The Taipei Cultural Center and The Gabarron Foundation Carriage House Center for the Arts—Curated by Eric C. Shiner
Deep in the midst of Taiwan’s capital Taipei lies the Wanhua District, the city’s most historic area and home to Longshan Temple, the city’s oldest religious structure. The area was also home to Taipei’s red light district and a tourist attraction called Snake Alley where live animals including snakes and turtles were displayed in small cages—and often publicly killed for the extraction of their blood which could be consumed on site for good health and sexual prowess— until animal rights activists successfully brought the practice to a stop in the 1990s, or, more likely, pushed these activities behind closed doors, and thus ending this spectacle that was interweaved with tradition and hucksterism writ large. Today, it is a place filled with restaurants, night markets and shops, reflective of the bustling hub of the gleaming modern city that surrounds it. Yet, at the heart of Wanhua lie the secrets of Taipei’s past, a conceptual and shared history that artists from Taiwan have looked to again and again for subject matter that so often plays out in their work. In SNAKE ALLEY, the work of many of Taiwan’s most prominent contemporary artists shows how they are negotiating the epic changes that have occurred over the last two decades in Taiwan as the nation has exploded economically, and how they rectify those changes with an at times troubling past.
All of the artists in the exhibition examine the secrets, shadows and growing pains of contemporary Taiwanese culture. By no means pessimistic, their works smartly analyze the underground aspects of a specific site bound in the throes of unprecedented growth and informed by the binary of stability versus uncertainty that comes along with it. These artists look at the themes of identity, sexuality, politics and the environment (both built and natural) frequently, making critically-aware art that engages rather than condemns the ever-changing face of Taiwan.
Photojournalist and artist Chang Chien-Chi, for example, often turns his camera’s lens on the unspoken. His best known project comprised portraits of psychiatric patients whose families deeded them over to a temple complex known for taking in the unwanted. In SNAKE ALLEY, Chang again focuses on a topic of current debate in Taiwan: the growing number of older Taiwanese men who are traveling to Vietnam to use a service that matches them with a wife. Chang documents the process from start to finish in his “Double Happiness” series, showing the young women being interviewed, documented and eventually married (in a group ceremony) to their new mates from the other side of Asia. The portraits show resignation and excitement in not only the brides, but the nervous grooms as well, and document the simple fact that due to demographics, there simply aren’t enough women of marriageable age available for every potential husband back in Taiwan.
Twin brothers Chang Keng-Hua and Chang Geng-Hwa collaborate on projects revolving around technology and violence, and the fine line between the two. Here, the brothers display works from their “Shotgun Blue” series, sumptuous imagery of machine guns wrapped in black nylons and set against a rich blue ground. By encasing these lethal weapons in a product used in the construction of beauty—and the occasional bank heist—the Changs attempt to put a soft edge on the hard core realities of a world marred by war and violence, while at the same time critically addressing the media’s fixation on packaging war as a consumer product in and of itself. Young artist Chang Ling also looks at the meeting point of media and culture in his eerie paintings that combine traditional Chinese motifs, such as imagery of animals and nature, with such contemporary subject matter as war planes and mutated bodies. His fleshy and mysterious beasts populate a world riddled with violence, suggesting that Armageddon is upon us, or that it has already come to pass. Painter Wu Tien-Chang also depicts alternate bodies in his work, most often in the form of a strange clown-like character who appears again and again in the artist’s oeuvre. Whether riding a bicycle built for two or rowing in a boat, Wu’s strange and slightly menacing clowns, like Chang Ling’s animals, allow us to imagine a world populated by the completely bizarre.
Contemporary dance wunderkind Chou Shuyi not only pushes into uncharted territory in his choreography and dance performances, but also goes so far as to create installation art within which he stages dance happenings. Seemingly impromptu in nature, his jolting recitals are in actuality very much planned and rehearsed; their manic movements and seizure-like vibrations standing in for the real bodies which navigate the space of a radically-shifting Taiwanese landscape, both actual and psychological. Photographer and performance artist Hou I-Ting also looks at the topic of changing bodies in space by using herself as the primary subject of her work. Hou uses costuming and make-up to create alternate personalities, for example a sexy—yet faceless—figure in Day-Glo fishnets and a neon yellow wig in an early video work, while using a projector in other photo-based work to literally screen other possible selves onto her actual face and body. In so doing, Hou melds fantasy and reality, making us question the limits of both.
Painter Hua Chien-Chiang also creates fantasy environments, often using mythic animals and technologically-enhanced bodies as the main characters in his vivid canvases. In Hua’s world, birds sprouting earphones or USB cables as plumage are the norm, as are human beings with recharger attachment portals and futuristic jetpacks. Here, the past and the future become one, exactly mimicking the actual conditions of society in flux that so defines contemporary Taiwan. Sculptor and installation artist Huang Shih-Chieh also works within this vocabulary, but in radically different—and often large-scale—ways. A representative of Taiwan at the 2007 Venice Biennale, Huang is known for using junk technology as the primary material in his work. Highlighter fluid, cheap plastic shopping bags, remote control toy motors and other odd elements all come together in Huang’s flashing and whirring contraptions as if to bring a sense of optimism to the patchwork nature of life in the here-and-now. For SNAKE ALLEY, Huang installs his massive work Organic Concept in the carriage house of the Gabarron Foundation at 149 East 38th Street. Consisting of just a few box fans and meter-upon-meter of reconstituted plastic bags, the billowing snake form that results inhabits the entire space and is both menacing and tranquil in equal measure. Sculptor Wong Yuh-Shioh also uses the detritus of life—polystyrene foam, marbles, bricks—to piece together fantasy realms based in the realm of nature. Her Jellyfish Lamp sends out a bright light that seems to expose the cheap materials from which it is made, making us question the concept of truth and beauty, and indeed of life itself.
Carrying on with this theme, artist Ku Shih-Yung presents a video work, The Astonishment of What I Have Been Through Abolishes the Aureola of Experience, that features an animated skeleton cavorting on the screen. Part of a larger installation that was presented at the Taipei Museum of Contemporary Art, the work looks at the underpinnings of life and how something as simple as our own biological framework can be construed in a variety of ways, while at the same time charting the course of time on our physical containers. And it is those very containers that photographer Kuo Hui-Chan takes as her subject matter, often times using her own body as the canvas upon which she depicts alternate beings or fantasy environments. Literally painting aspects of architecture, nature and urban views over her skin and clothes, Kuo becomes a chameleon that perfectly blends into her surroundings, whether against a back alley wall in downtown Taipei, or standing in a rice paddy in the countryside. By becoming one with the diverse landscapes of Taiwan, Kuo charts her lived environment by fusing herself to its very make-up.
The youngest artist in the show, Lan Yuan-Hung, also manipulates the body, however does so not to blend in, but to stand out. His grotesque digital manipulations feature men across a variety of age groups and body types lying in their beds in contorted poses and sprouting additional appendages such as an extra leg here or a third arm there. Seemingly depicting the after effects of a toxic spill or nuclear disaster, Lan’s mutants both repulse and attract thanks to their focus on the flexibility of the human form, whether through digital or actual means. Video artist and photographer Lin Hsin-I also features mutants in her animated films and enhanced photography. Here, the artist plays the role of a futuristic nymph with cyber eyes and sockets embedded into her flesh, no doubt a site for the implantation of nourishment, energy or data. Lin’s work often features this cyborg character in lush tropical environments, an effect that makes her robot-like form appear even further distanced from nature. She questions the role of the human corpus as technology gradually overtakes it, positing that at some point in the not-too-distant future we may all begin to morph into hybrid bodies that straddle the binary of nature versus technology. Video pioneer Yuan Goang-Ming also explores this divide in his new series of videos and C-prints composed of endless thickets of lush green leaves, all without life-giving veins below their glistening surfaces. Through using technology to erase an important element of his natural subject, Yuan takes on the role of creator, editor and fabricator in one fell swoop, producing a faux nature that can never exist in real life.
For sculptor Shyu Ruey-Shiann, this same binary has always infused his work with a hard-edged grit and witty sense of humor. Known for his large-scale sculptural works made from old machine parts, working motors, fan belts and gears, Hsu seems to utilize the detritus of industry as the primary building blocks of his elaborate works. Referencing Taiwan’s own loss of industrial jobs due to rising production costs and the migration of factories to mainland China in the 1990s, Hsu’s work gives the past’s mechanical ghosts a new lease on life. Here, his new sculpture Between comprises two standard kitchen garbage cans in metal. When guests use the foot pedal to open the can, they are confronted with a most unexpected barrage: lion roars exploding from the speakers set within. As with his massive churning sculptures, Hsu here too seamlessly blends the natural with the man-made, forcing us to question where the line of distinction between the two truly lies.
Video artist Tseng Yu-Chin also confronts the “man-made” in his work, but not via industrial or technological means. Tseng is much more concerned with the production of identity as it develops in childhood and how the fears, dreams and secrets of our youth remain with us for a lifetime. Perhaps Taiwan’s most celebrated young artist, with a showing at Documenta in 2007 and the recent receipt of China’s most celebrated art prize, the ACCC Award, Tseng has created an entire aesthetic vocabulary based on diverted glances, childhood uncertainty and a sense of longing for something just outside the camera’s frame. Haunting in its loneliness, Tseng’s work takes us back to the universal time of feeling out of place and prompts us to think about the influence these memories have on us today. Novelist and photographer Seven U also takes us back in time, whether through a literary passage about the glories of youth, or through his stark black and white photography that documents the abandoned or hidden space of cities around the world. In his “Low” series, U snaps pictures in old factories and empty buildings throughout Taipei, showing that even in the face of unprecedented development and economic growth, unwanted and unkempt spaces still exist. Indeed, all of the artists in SNAKE ALLEY turn to the secrets and fantasies of a society in flux for inspiration, and in so doing, create works of art that capture the uncertainty, aspirations and realities of life in Taiwan today.