Five decades after Chen Su-ho (陳樹火) founded one of the first factories specializing in handmade paper in Puli (埔里), Nantou County, his daughter has returned with an exhibition that gives the traditional craft a modern twist.
When Rita LiChen (陳瑞惠) was growing up, Puli was home to roughly 60 factories where paper was made by hand. Now only six remain. Watching the factories disappear - many moved to China - inspired her father to open a museum to preserve the memory of this chapter in Taiwan's cultural history.
LiChen's father died in a plane crash in 1990, but his dream lives on in the Suho Memorial Paper Museum (樹火紀念紙博物館) in Taipei. The museum is currently hosting its largest collaboration to date at the National Taiwan Craft Research Institute (國立台灣工藝研究所) in Nantou's Caotun Township (草屯). Zhi-Dao: Environment, Tranquility, Reverence (紙道:境,靜,敬) runs through April 27 and showcases the work of nine Taiwanese and international artists chosen by LiChen, who heads the Suho museum.
"With this show, I wanted to destroy the entire concept of what 'paper' is," LiChen says. "Only by destroying this concept can artists find new ways to express themselves."
"Some people might think our work is too high-brow or think they can't understand it," she adds. "But I don't worry about that. If it's good, they'll naturally come to appreciate it."
Instead of selecting works by the best paper-makers and craftsmen in the field, Zhi-Dao presents a broad group of pieces ranging from paper-based lampshades and jewelry to contemporary art installations like Zeng Pei-ling's (曾沛玲) Tibetan Bhuddism-influenced wall hangings.
Out of all the artists whose work is on display, Li Chao-cang (李朝倉) seems most set on pushing the boundaries of what "paper" is. Li has wrapped the entrance of the hall in a stretched white polyester tunnel that viewers have to duck through to access his main piece, a crude assemblage of reeds and other materials gathered from Nantou's flora and tied together to resemble the bamboo scaffolding commonly seen at construction sites.
What: Zhi-Dao: Environment, Tranquility, Reverence (紙道:境,靜,敬)
Where: National Taiwan Craft Research Institute's Cultural Hall, 573 Chungcheng Rd, Caotun Township, Nantou County (國立台灣工藝研究所工藝文化館,南投縣草屯鎮中正路573號)
When: Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm; through April 27
Information: (049) 233-4141 X199
Getting there: Take the High Speed Rail to Taichung, then take the Nantou Motor Transport bus (南投客運) from the High Speed Rail station (高鐵台中站) to the institute. The bus ride lasts 25 minutes
Japanese artist Kobayashi Junko's Bamboo Forest, a giant 50m-by-3m sheet of paper that required the strength of 15 workers to lift and install, encircles the hall's second floor and dominates the exhibit. The paper's dyed vertical stripes gradually shift in hue as the viewer follows the piece around the room, suggesting the changing seasons. Delicate white paper slippers by Zhou Meng-ye (周孟曄) lie scattered in front of the piece. With a reflective score written for the show by Belgian composer Pierre Hujoel, the space exudes an air of serenity that makes viewers want to slip off their shoes and forget the winter cold and bustle of the holiday season.
A visit to the hall's fourth floor - not a part of the Zhi-Dao exhibit - gives visitors an idea of how irreverent LiChen's transformation of the conservative, craft-oriented institute was. Stone teapots carefully hewn to look like old wood, intricately carved bamboo frogs, wicker insects and lacquerware are displayed in glass cases, often with price tags next to them. Not quite the stuff of a modern art gallery.
Plans for the exhibit met with opposition from staff at the cultural hall, though not from its director. Since the show runs through the Lunar New Year - a time to celebrate beginnings - some said Li's white tunnel wasn't appropriate because the color is traditionally associated with funerals and death. Three large white banners that were to be hung outside the hall advertising the show had to be redesigned, but Li's tunnel stayed.