The work of a successful artist often has a unique signature or quality that is instantly recognizable, whether it's the pointillism of Georges Pierre Seurat or the screwy surreal landscapes of Salvador Dali.
You see the painting and know the artist because of this trademark "look."
Designer Apex Pang-Soong Lin (林磐聳) made his mark in 1993 with a poster series called Taiwan is Drifting, that has black and white, Taiwan-shaped clouds floating above a royal blue ocean and an ancient map of the country in palimpsest.
It's a pretty picture that encapsulates the state of the nation, floating like a nameless cloud, blown by the winds of politics and fate, destination unknown.
"How do you catch an image that is drifting? For instance, Canada's image is of a maple leaf, the US has its iconic flag, Italy is recognized by its boot shape. I thought, like Italy, Taiwan was best identified by its shape," Lin said.
It brought Lin recognition and he has since become one of the foremost designers in the world. Phaidon Press, a leading publisher of books on visual arts, rated him as one of the top 100 graphic designers in 2003.
His works hang in the National Museum of History, Germany's Cottbus Museum and other international galleries. His commercial offerings include the iconic logo for China Telecom (中華電信) and he has been behind various government-sponsored image-building projects. He is also a consultant designer for the Beijing Olympics.
As a graduate and currently dean and professor of National Taiwan Normal University's fine arts department he has arguably been the country's most influential visual image maker and teacher.
"I think I am lucky to have been regarded so highly. ... I have been in the right place at the right time with the right idea. This is how I came up with Taiwan is Drifting," Lin said at our interview last week held in the Eslite book store, where his latest solo exhibition, My Homeland is being held.
Once again, Lin has returned to the theme of a new Taiwanese identity, this time by producing 21cm by 27cm ink drawings of plants, mountains or abstract forms, all in the shape of Taiwan.
These 40-odd prints are supplemented by another, more recent series, of 10.5cm by 15cm works, that are arranged together in a series of 20. As befits a commercial artist the larger prints are for sale at around NT$6,600 and you can also buy mugs, hats and tea sets.
The drawings feature not only Taiwan's flora, fauna (such as the endangered land-locked salmon) and geography, but also express a range of styles.
William Morris and his decorative arts and crafts approach is an obvious influence and there are also nods to Albrecht Durer, Chinese and Japanese folk art, pointillism, even pop art and abstract works.
The point, it seems, is that Taiwan is a mix of influences, but always retains its identity.
"The identity of a country is important to me. Actually you must define yourself, and this is always done in opposition to everyone else. My work says Lin from Taiwan."
"In the 17th century Westerners came here and drew maps of the country and these were the world's image of Taiwan. Now we have two identities because there are two flags [Republic of China and Chinese Taipei] and this is what the world sees now."
When it was suggested to Lin the DPP [Democratic Progressive Party] had like him co-opted the map of Taiwan, in its logo and flag, Lin replied this was political and was not the intent of his work.
"Mine is not a political statement, it's more of a historical and artistic statement. I don't think new Taiwan is about politics or relationships. It's spiritual.
"In Szechuan [China] they say, ‘I'm Szechuanese.' The same for Guandong and Shanghai. Our identity is not just a country, it's a place. That's why I have called the exhibition <>, it's where I was born and inspired."
Lin brought up the subject of his father, a scholar and photographer who lived in Taiwan during Japan's occupation of the island from 1895 to 1949. He said it was his father's death at the end of 2004 that inspired his new series of posters.
When he returned to Pingtung for Chinese New Year in 2005 he looked around his father's room and saw a big pot in the corner of the room which contained the evergreen plant devil's ivy (黃金葛). He drew it as though it was shaped like Taiwan. Following drawings were variations on the same theme.
"My father thought he was Japanese. He was Japanese educated and spoke Japanese. ... After 1949 there was a new Taiwan, a different culture and different thinking, borrowing from China."
At university, where he studied fine arts and design, Lin was influenced by Western art history and this was "a new window."
The 49-year-old said, "I was born in new Taiwan, which has the influence of China. As a teacher I have to find new elements to represent a new Taiwanese identity. This is a very interesting problem."
As for the relationship with China, which he has visited over 200 times since 1990 on business and education exchanges, Lin said he did not worry about the cross-Strait relationship.
"It's very difficult to find a solution now but this may not be so difficult in the future. It will be decided by culture, social and economic factors.
"Taiwanese now are influenced by a resurgent China, but we are respected. It's about interaction. For the new generation I think there will be a lot of sources as the world is globalized and the artist integrates these influences," Lin said.
“I'm a professor first. It's essential for us to consider the new generation. It's like the Olympic flame. My professor passed the torch on to me and I want to do the same. I would like to be seen as a light, so that students can find their own vision and progress."
What he tells his students is that to arrive at an artistic vision there are three staging points on the way. First, you must observe events and things. Then you should think about what you have seen and come up with an opinion or view.
"Finally, you've got to do it, communicate and present your idea, act it out or put it on paper," Lin said.
"This is what I say to my students but actually each new generation will come up with their own image of the map of Taiwan.
"Different people under different conditions have different ideas. An artist must feel the pulse and have an independent position. Why is this? Because you must have your own vision. I want people to love Taiwan, like I do. And that's why I hope my students have their own map of Taiwan in their hearts."
My Homeland by Apex Pang-Soong Lin is at the Eslite Bookstore on Dunhua and Renai roads, B2, 245, Dunhua S Rd, Sec 1, Taipei (誠品書局,台北市敦化南路一段245號B2樓), until Sept. 17. Entrance is free and opening hours are from 11am to 10pm.
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