Sun, May 11, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Looking for the real in surreal Taiwan

They're cute, versatile and we eat them everyday, but do betel nut pigs really work as a national emblem?

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

Betelnut Pigs Happy Song, by Chang May-ling.

PHOTO COURTESY OF TIVAC

In the 1950s, an American movement in photography and literature undertook a top to bottom inventory of its nation and ended up defining a sense of "Americana" through novels like Jack Kerouac's On the Road and photos like Robert Frank's The Americans. Over the last few years Taiwan's photographers have embarked on a similar mission, documenting elements of Taiwanese identity like betel nut girls, Hsimenting kids and the culture of fishing boats and harbors.

The latest contribution to this growing trend comes from female photographer Chang May-ling (張美陵), who is now showing her new digital photo series, Eighteen Tricks of Betel Nut Pigs (檳榔豬十八招), at the Taipei International Visual Arts Center (TIVAC).

Chang's vision of Taiwan is gaudy and trite, but pretty fun. Using a digital camera and the image blending software Adobe Photoshop, she's packed 18 large prints with collages of Taiwanese icons: betel nuts, the presidential palace, Taipei streetscapes, the national flag, street stall noodles, and above all, betel nut pigs.

In a statement accompanying the exhibition, Chang describes how the pork and betel nut industries are often practically integrated units in southern Taiwan, with the borders of adjacent pig farms frequently marked by hedgerows of betel nut trees. The pigs of these environments, she says, are "betel nut pigs."

Her photo-collages seem to elevate betel nut pigs to embody some quirky approximation of the Taiwanese geist. They're blended with the elemental forces of fire and water. They sing happy songs. They are in paradise. One is urinating, two are having sex. And they're all surrounded with Taiwan's neon glow and hustle and bustle. It's all very cutesy and bright, which is why the show is good to breeze through, but doesn't work on any deep level.

Not that Chang didn't try for a deeper level.

Her artist's statement hints at a double entendre, by which the betel pigs may be replacements for betel nut girls. She writes that the "18 Tricks" in the title indicate both the literal happy-go-lucky tricks performed by the pigs as well as tricks turned by prostitutes. So the work is also an anti-prostitution statement by a conservative feminist, and while the message is valid, it unfortunately only comes off as a flat pun.

All in all, Chang is successful at presenting work that's graphically lively, but unsuccesful at leaving a lasting impression. She would have done better to focus on subtler themes of Taiwaneseness, possibly something she half-discovered in her visual documents.

A theme that's peripheral, mostly undeveloped and much more interesting than her quasi-cartoon pigs would be Taiwan's world of gaudy neon. It's an aesthetic found in night markets, betel nut stands, Taoist temples, and all-night discos. What's interesting is that it knows no social boundaries; it's equally associated with Taiwan's most traditional, most futuristic, most sacred and most corrupt.

Thematically, it or something like it would provide a better vehicle to explore the basic problem of Taiwanese identity: how can a notion of unity come out of so much diversity? Taiwan International Visual Arts Center, TIVAC (台灣國際視覺藝術中心), is at 29, Lane 45, Liaoning St, Taipei (台北市遼寧街45291).

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