January 24, 2020
LANDING IN TPE ON JANUARY 16, just five days after Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen’s triumphant reelection, I was ready for a jollier mood than what had loomed over the capital during my last trip. That was during the Taipei Biennial two years ago, when I witnessed the Democratic Progressive Party’s defeat in the local elections, followed by Tsai’s resignation as Party leader. Now, on my ride to the hotel, I immersed myself in the view outside. The beauty of Taipei’s built environment—rows of slightly worn office buildings elbowing restaurants, Japanese lettering against the backdrop of a far-flung mountain silhouette—resides in its special blend of nostalgia and stasis, a vaporwave freeze-frame par excellence. Everything has changed; nothing does.
Later, at a dinner at Si Zhi Tang hosted by Edouard and Lorraine Malingue (a gallerist couple with outposts in Hong Kong and Shanghai with a presence at this year’s Taipei Dangdai, and who shows quite a few Taiwanese artists), I found myself talking about futurism with two other guests, one from Hong Kong and one Taiwanese—the former’s political quagmire has, in this recent election, fueled Tsai’s comeback. “It’s always been a process oscillating between left and right, but that’s what a mature democratic society should look like,” artist Lai Chih-Sheng said about Taiwan’s political trajectory since the lifting of martial law in 1987. Afterwards, he took us to a piano bar tucked away on the side of a busy street, and we sang songs to the owner’s acoustic obbligato. Over Lai’s cover of “Wanderer’s Love,” rocker Wu Bai’s classic ballad, HOW Art Museum Shanghai deputy director Zoe Chang, who is Taiwanese, explained that this style of karaoke belongs to a waning tradition called nakashi, a style of performance that emerged in teahouses and pubs during the Japanese Occupation of the 1930s. She leaned in to spill the tea. “A lot of Kuomintang (KMT) supporters come here.” When I asked her how to tell a KMT (who favors closer ties to China) from a DPP, she winked at the older, suited fellows sitting at the table nearby. “Just listen,” she said.
I woke up the next day prepared for a more idiosyncratic game of identifying good and bad—or, as I like to think of it, “critical window shopping.” For its second year, Taipei Dangdai returned with a roster of ninety-nine participating galleries, a couple numbers up from its first edition. As hinted by its slogan—“Taipei’s Global Art Fair”—the promise of international prestige is its main appeal. Aside from blue chips like Hauser Wirth and David Zwirner, which you find at all such “global” fairs, Taipei Dangdai is marked by a different regional dynamic. While there were nearly thirty galleries from Korea and Japan this time, Chinese galleries took up only one-tenth of the program, similar to last year’s ratio (I didn’t attend). After strutting around for a few hours, I could only spot a few mainlanders, such as fellow fair directors Zhou Tiehai, from West Bund Shanghai, and Bao Yifeng from Art 021. This had as much to do with a solo tourist visa ban issued by China—effective since July 31, amid cross-strait tensions—as well as the fair’s proximity to Chinese New Year. Codirector Magnus Renfrew doesn’t seem too upset with the situation. “It’s a fair for Taiwan,” he told me. A few displays stood out, including Wada Fine Arts’s solo presentation of the late Tetsuya Ishida and Richard Saltoun Galler’s presentation of émigré Li Yuan-Chia (also deceased), alongside some of his peers like Antonio Calderara, from the Punto movement. Among the younger artists showing, I was taken by a few canvases from Chen Ching-Yuan’s “Card Stunt” series at the TKG+ booth, where, inspired by North Korean card stunt events, he paints imagined, allegorical portraits that tap into tensions between personal and public.
At other venues across the city, I was most excited to catch the final weekend of Au Sow Yee’s solo, “Still Alive,” at TheCube Project Space. The Malaysia-born, Taipei-based artist is known for exploring the regional history of Southeast Asia through whimsical video installations based on meticulously composed scripts (Au has a background in theater arts and experimental filmmaking). Take Prelude: Song of Departure, part of The Extreme Journey of Perwira and the Calm Sea: In 3 Acts, 2019, one of the three works on view: collaging several songs from Taiwan’s colonial history and contemporary pop culture into a karaoke ballad, it serves as a teaser for a forthcoming series on Southeast Asian oceanic exchange told through the little-known story of Japanese spy Tani Yutaka. I also made it to Apichapung Weerasethakul’s survey at the Taipei Fine Art Museum, at the opposite end of the city, but ended up spending just as much time marveling at the spectacular large-scale calligraphies on view at Taiwanese Tong Yang Tze’s retrospective, “Moving Ink.”
Saturday at noon, I sat down with Taiwanese rap producer Razor Chiang at the fair for a conversation as part of the fair’s Ideas program on crossovers between the country’s art and pop culture, taking hiphop as a case study. (Cocurated by fair codirector Robin Peckham and public intellectual Chang Tieh-Chi, this year’s talk program—“Islands, The Straits between Them”—centers on four themes: Technology, Ecology, Pop and Tradition.) Our conversation revisited the brief history of hiphop in Taiwan, from its emergence following the lifting of martial law (before which folk music had reigned, due to a nationwide ban on dance clubs) to its local adoption by underground rappers and subsequent incorporation into the mainstream by the fin de siècle. I again found myself reflecting on the local-global counterpoint, that perennial ’90s theme, lingering still. Some say history ended in the that decade. In Taiwan’s case, that’s far from true: The same questions remain, but there is movement too. Step by step.