Japanese rule over Taiwan began in 1895 when the island became a Japanese colony. As the Japanese government pushed for complete modernization, Taiwan entered a new stage of interaction with Western civilization. The changes that occurred in the process of modernization was reflected not only on artists’ understanding of Western art and their exploration into the fundamentals of art, including the definition of art and what makes a modern artist. More importantly, in Taiwan, new mechanisms in art can be found in the implementation of art education, the formation of art groups, exhibitions, research organizations on painting, and the establishment of art criticism platforms. Based on all of this, “art societies” with modern features came into being, and art has gradually developed accessible, public-facing, worldly attributes of modernity.
Since Japanese rule, Taiwan’s limitations as a remote region of the mainland dynasties have been overcome, and the perception of Taiwan as a complete, independent artistic environment have been formed, producing works that elevate Taiwanese culture and represent the progress of modern Taiwanese society. Through the call for “local features” to be highlighted, artists must consider how to present Taiwan in their art. Thus, observing one's surroundings has become a new approach to art, which has given rise to visual considerations that take Taiwan as a subject. Though the new educational system established during Japanese rule provided an impetus for modernization in art, it was a process of Westernization grafted through colonization, based on an indirect, transplanted Western concept of modernization mediated by the colonizers.
During Japanese rule, Taiwan progressed from a traditional, localized society into one that was modernized and industrialized. In that process, the greatest challenge was the inevitable, intense, and thorough cultural transformation. Later, the Nationalist government came to Taiwan. Post-war political landscape in Taiwan underwent dramatic changes. Nationalism reigned supreme, resulting in another wave of cultural transformation oriented toward political correctness. Post-war art in Taiwan sought opportunities of national revival yet was caught between binary debates over East vs West, modernity vs tradition, nativeness vs foreignness, and local communities vs the central government. Within a political atmosphere of decolonization and re-Chinalization, art faced another transformation. It was not until a new generation of artists began pondering the direction of the modernization of Chinese art and facing the rapidly surging and changing post-war international artistic movements that another wave of non-mediated, spontaneous modernization in art was launched.
Since the 1950s, the debate over the orthodoxy of traditional Chinese painting had sparked a scramble for cultural sovereignty, resulting in a stall in the exploration into Taiwanese history. Now, caught between nationalistic modernization and the reconstruction of native identities, coinciding with shifts in political and social environments, through different stages of cultural transformation, artists continued to seek paths forward within and without the system and established corresponding subjectivity. In the 1970s, with the rise of nativism, the Taiwanese consciousness and the pursuit of Taiwanese subjectivity gradually gained prominence. Painting, especially landscape painting, faithfully reflected this trend. Artists collectively embarked on rediscovery of local communities and formed an artistic landscape of endemicity and local identities. The contribution of native art to native values is believed to lie in local subject matters. In other words, the depiction of Taiwanese flora, figures, and landscape is the most essential basis for creating this kind of native artistic value.
For artists, the pursuit of a value system and the establishment of autonomy are of utmost importance. All beliefs should be based on the land on which they are born and raised, thus strengthening their concern for local cultures. This self-awareness, born of the accumulative nativist movement, became the most essential core value in the progression of art in the 1970s, during which time Taiwan become the hub of all such value. Artists are dedicated to the rediscovery, exploration, and repositioning of everything in the past, thus making possible the formation of shared local identities and local experiences. In the process of reconstructing subjective cultural values, opportunities for merging the self and the other also arise.
With shifts in the political landscape, since the 1980s, social and artistic values have begun to diversify, entering a new era of exploring cultural and subjective identities. Continuous democratization has also resulted in cultural policies that are based increasingly on Taiwanese subjectivity, actively establishing specialized and complete cultural environments and art education systems. With a maturing artistic environment, a rich and diverse artistic society thus forms. Meanwhile, as Taiwan became increasingly democratic, social values have diversified. In addition to the increase in the awareness, appeal for, and identification with localization, Taiwan has also entered a new stage of internationalization and globalization.
On the other hand, there was a lack of formal artistic institutions during Japanese rule. The training of artistic talents relied on resources from Mainland Japan, with limited capacity. After the war, art education systems have been established one after another. In addition to the Art Department at the Provincial Normal College (currently the Department of Fine Arts, National Taiwan Normal University), normal institutions founded in Taichung, Taipei, and Tainan during Japanese rule also created their respective art departments. Before the end of martial law, under anti-communist and anti-Russian banners, autonomous, diversified development in art was difficult, restricted by political needs and policies for wartime propaganda and the enhancement of the national consciousness. Nonetheless, through the expansion and implementation of various social mechanisms, from schools, art exhibitions, competitions, China Youth Corps events, to local art festivals, Taiwan has created more robust and developed infrastructure for an art society.
Artistic development in Taiwan over the past century has been intimately linked with the implementation of academic art education. From the pre-war normal art departments to post-war art academies, juggling both practicality and ideals in art education, through stages of reflecting the times, sustaining the regime, transcending ethnicities, and serving as international cultural assets, artistic paradigms have evolved for different generations, societies, and values. Art education institutions, headed by the Department of Fine Arts, National Taiwan Normal University, all began exploring possibilities within such zeitgeist or system. On the premise of complying with governmental policies and practical concerns, they established values including their academic authority and national/cultural canon. The existence of and emphasis on an academic canon are closely connected to the continuation of a national consciousness and identities. To put it another way, the former are “tools” crafted by the latter for its purposes.
The establishment, deconstruction, or reconstruction of the canonical come from the consensus and implementation regarding cultural transformation. If artists derive their reputation and status solely from their niche assigned by the system, they cannot escape the influence of mainstream values. Conversely, by resisting constraints or through aesthetic reconstruction, they may achieve transformation and, in turn, the diffusion of différance. The constant deconstruction of canon (core or source) may ultimately lead to the disintegration of meaning.
Shifts in artistic trends involve the reevaluation of canonical values. The differences in aesthetic awareness and in the level of political and social involvement between generations has resulted in different canons and différance belonging to or manifesting generational consciousness as well as social identities. The interactions between canon and différance over generational shifts suggest the disagreements in choosing aesthetic values among different groups, reflecting a shared cultural consciousness and collective transformation of a given generation or group.
How does Taiwanese society, having been through constant shifts in subjective values and cultural identities, construct an artistic canon closer to the realities of its land and history? On the differing paths of colonization, re-colonization, and de-colonization, the creation of a culture-specific canon is no different from the pursuit of a value system and the establishment of autonomy. Through the complementary interaction between distinctiveness and self-sufficiency, the subjectivity of the native land is established. Moreover, when discussing Yilan - a place often referred to as Taiwan’s back garden - what kind of canonization is its local art history undergoing based on the link between academia and the power relations within the capital’s art circles? How does it clarify the basis and differences in its generational or group identities in an unequal power structure as a subordinate region in a country? Over the decades, has the definition for “local” artists changed as they emigrate from and immigrate to Yilan? What kind of différance has such circumstances engendered? What kind of mediating roles do they play historically in the canonization of local art? What attitudes and positions do the different groups of generational artistic styles play in the post-war turbulences in political, social, and artistic realms? These are the academic inquiries that this exhibition aims to highlight and explore.
This exhibition features four “Yilan” artists - Chen Tung-Yuan, Hung Tung-Piao, Chen Shih-Chiang, and Lin Chin-Hsien, surveying the historical context of a century of Western art in Taiwan to analyze the divergence between central authorities and local identities. Against their “canonical” background in the Department of Fine Arts, National Taiwan Normal University, the exhibition examines their connections and differences as influenced by transformations such as academic and social changes, as well as by various cultural transformation issues, so as to explore the process and phenomenon of the canonization of “Yilan art” along with the progressive changes regarding the resulting diverse différance. We also raise the following questions as the exhibition’s main topics on what constitutes Yilan’s local art history. What kind of canonical landscape have the artists created collectively or individually? Along with the expansion of and changes in external environments, how much différance have personal styles created? In this direction of différance, what key impacts subjective concepts of Yilan as a “hometown” have on the return to or establishement of personal local identities?
Chen Tung-Yuan’s early works of still life reflect a meticulous, realistic style, constructing an eloquent yet objective paradigm for everyday objects and materials. His excellent skills can be seen in detailed depictions using dry brushes. Not only has he won numerous top prizes in watercolor competitions, but he has also been recognized as a leading figure in the “golden age of watercolor,” thrilling art circles as an emerging academically trained artist. Coinciding with his years at National Taiwan Normal University and the time of his graduation was the height of the Taiwan nativist literature movement. Nativist realism was on the rise, and he, therefore, turned his attention to the long-neglected remote lands, wilderness, and rustic scenery. From the raising of animals and cultivation of crops to natural landscape and festivities, the spirit of the land under his brush has become the most prominent example of what soothes the homesick. As the Taiwanese subjective consciousness developed, over a short period after the lifting of martial law, he produced zen-like, minimalist works that reflect his pure heart and his self-isolation from politics and fleeting worldly affairs. After the 90s, he traveled all over China. His journeys culminated in paintings that bear witness to his rediscovery of the foreign land. In a career spanning over half a century, in simple or complex forms, dynamically or statically, in broad strokes or in details, he has demonstrated how the different stages of academic training, field exploration, and overseas travels informed his humanistic perspective that celebrate a so-called “heaven on earth.”
Hung Tung-Piao places emphasis on expressions of distortion, division, and reconstruction. Despite coming from the cubist and futurist schools, his goal is to deconstruct the rules and imitations therein and reflect the experimental impetus that had fully developed in the 70s academia. Since his school years, aesthetic paradigms based on genres including landscape, figures, and still life seem to have been projected onto imaginations regarding the classics in Western art history, with attempts at qualitative shifts driven by changes in form. Images that transcend reality and time are juxtaposed like memory fragments. In lyricism or realism, in black-and-white or in color, viewed from afar or in close range, his works emanate a creative sentiment that merge grace with passion. Since the turn of the millennium, through voyages off the island, his series of portrayals of scenery has re-explored the four centuries of complex history surrounding Formosa. The switching of land and coasts as locales has indeed transcended the hybrid identities and changing environments born of the multitude of colonizers, recreating the amazement upon the discovery of the island. Thus, silent, reflective moments such as dawn, moonlight, dusk, and the brisk autumn can easily bring its people back to its origins. Fantastical scenarios that cross the boundaries of nations, history, and reality rekindle their passion for Oriental and native aesthetics. Their native land, poetic and dream-like, comes to life on paper as if awakening for the first time.
Chen Shih-Chiang’s shifting creative interests wander among varying artistic disciplines. Influenced perhaps by his self-enlightenment during school years and his keen perceptions of our treacherous times, his style is strong yet close to the perspective of the viewer. His techniques that blend hot and cold or condense reality and fantasy reflect the liberation from authority in pop art as well as the alienation processes in post-modernism with biases, hybridity, satire, and an unreal realism. The disparities resulting from his varied training has created floating and clashing sentiments toward the divide between his learning habits and external conflicts. With the lifting of martial law came the liberation in body, expression, and thought. The prospect of democratization in Taipei may have been gloomy, yet it spurred on a new generation of artists in a wave of exploration outside the city. Returning to his hometown and traveling around the island brought about a period of freedom in native expressionism. The bold and direct strokes, clashing vivid colors and homecoming themes reflect the underlying tone of his semi-autobiographical works to come. His time studying in New York expanded his understanding of the deconstruction of power structures, cross-cultural experiences, and visual adventures, which have continuously intensified in modern society, becoming a new chapter in his exploration into new worlds. Along with comic strips and graffiti with stimulating plots and mysterious styles, he has recreated old memories of the people and stories, between history, reality, and decolonization, forging a modern Investiture of the Gods.
Lin Chin-Hsien’s prodigious and refined artistic talent is like the prologue to an ancient legend, preparing him for a sacred expedition. His reflections on the academic canon fueled his inquiries into the essence of art and human social relations, bringing him on a journey into the spiritual realm of art history. The logical relation between people and objects has always been his main concern. By framing figures and body language as well as portraitizing and allegorizing myriad natural materials, he has constructed classic imagery containing historical iconography, reflections on life, and examination of reality at the same time. With analytical experience from doing case studies during his academic years, in pedagogical scenarios, and in the process of theoretical deduction, he constantly closes the gap between paradigms, existence, and imagination. Based on classics as texts and a bard-like cautionary approach, he continues to create monumental structures and atmospheres, cementing the immortality of the subjects in his paintings. Totemized bodies and landscapes and etched-in group histories, triggered by the emphasis on cultural subjectivity and reconstruction of ethnic identities in post-colonial narratives, nativist canonizing endeavors have been accelerated. In repeated recontextualizing of details, through diverse portraiture of both figures and objects, he reestablishes the laureate glory of native values.