Sun, May 25, 2003 - Page 19 News List

An outsiders' view that takes us nowhere

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

Installation work by Barbara Penrose and Nameer Davis.


Australian artists Barbara Penrose and Nameer Davis are currently in residence at the Taipei Artist Village, and the small team exhibition, Mimics + Models, is their ephemeral contribution to the local scene. The show is basically a look at Taipei and interesting for a few frank observations on our home turf, but fizzles in terms of larger statements.

The exhibition's first room is a scrapbook of travel notes and fresh reactions that stem from urban Taipei, especially the area around the Taipei Train Station. One of a few observations on this city scribbled on one of the exhibition space walls provides one of the show's better moments. It reads, "at peak hour, in a crowd we were waiting to cross chungshiso rd at the main station. A large bus was turned the corner we standing on, it had a long mirror window, the whole crowd was reflected in this window. As the bus turned, we were turned, our images turned around us, the bus window was 10 metres long, 1.2 metres above the ground, 2 metres wide. IT carried our reflections for 20-30 metres upon it before we slid off." (Spelling and grammar reproduced as in the art work.)

The rest of the walls are meanwhile covered with cutouts of the Shin Kong Life Tower, folded pieces of paper, watercolor sketches of the MRT, computer printouts of hundreds of locally taken digital photos, tracings of Chinese characters and sketches of Chinese screens. On one wall these mental odds and ends are connected by a running strand of red string, and after I'd pondered it for a moment, Julie Andrews appeared in my mind, singing: "... brown paper packages tied up with string, these are a few of my favorite things."

Indeed, the bric-a-brac is romanticized, mostly out of a forgivable, bubbling enthusiasm for the new forms Taipei has to offer. But when the statement grows in the second room to assert larger connections, it begins to falter. Half the room is full of architectural drawings that attempt to assert connections between Taipei's cityscape and ancient Chinese architecture, as if some ancient spirit of all things Chinese were finding new avatars in the city's generic, industrial sprawl. A police station loudspeaker tower is pitted against a pagoda (c. 1290) and the Civic Boulevard skyline is compared to a traditional Chinese architectural motif. There are many more examples, and the problem with all of them is that the coincidences are just coincidences. At a basic level, any tower-form recalls most other tower-forms. The artists, like many new arrivals, seem to fall into a trap of thinking they see Chinese-ness in everything around them. Certainly Taipei is different from Sydney, but all too often these architectural drawings attempt to ascribe some Platonic ideal of pure Chinese character to buildings that are for the most part generic, especially the Civil Boulevard skyline.

Penrose and Davis announce in a statement that the art they're doing here is an effort "to understand the difference in the dynamics of Australian public/private space and Taiwanese public/private spaces." Where they most successfully achieve this is in the exhibition's third section. It's a collection of rulers painted on canvas with irregular groups of people -- groups they seem to have observed in Taipei's streets -- superimposed over the inch and centimeter calibrations. The juxtaposition presents an interesting paradox of urban living: there is no simple way of calibrating groups of people, and yet we have created cities of uncompromising calibrated order.

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