Ben Sloat’s two-dozen photographs currently on display at Taipei City’s American Cultural Center in an exhibition titled Yellow in August are firmly rooted in the documentary tradition of Swiss-American photographer Robert Franks, who 50 years ago traveled across the US taking pictures that challenged traditional notions of American life by depicting all strata of society.
Like Franks, Sloat views photography as a journey. But rather than spending two years wandering across the US, Sloat spent the better part of the past year photographing the region surrounding Meinung (美濃) Township in Kaohsiung County, where he recorded the area’s landscape and how it is intimately bound up with the cultural heritage and spiritual beliefs of its people.
“I’m interested in iconography and mythology and how we create our own iconography that surrounds our life,” he said in an interview earlier this month. “Taiwan has the Confucian idea of society and a Buddhist idea of the afterlife and a very Taoist idea of interaction and an almost animist idea of the land — the land as embodied by spirits and gods.”
Sloat, 32, teaches photography, digital media, and photo history at the Art Institute of Boston, Massachusetts, and took a year off to photograph the region after obtaining a Fulbright Scholarship. His mother hails from Kaohsiung, which prompted Stoat to choose Meinung as his base, an area that he says “parallels other [places] in Taiwan.”
One of Sloat’s concerns is how people retain their identities in the midst of change, he said.
In Clan House Concrete, Sloat investigates the tension between new and old. The photo shows a run-down traditional clan home sandwiched between and dwarfed by two recently built structures. The image alludes to the inevitability of change.
“Who doesn’t want to live in a brand-new house? But how do you preserve the old-style Hakka houses, which have a different kind of cultural value?” he said.
Sloat’s photography doesn’t offer us any simple or direct answers to those questions. And yet, his images depicting religious practices suggest that although much has changed, much remains the same.
HEAVEN ON EARTH
One obstacle confronting any photographer wanting to portray Taiwan’s rich and diverse religious culture is doing so without, as Sloat said, “exoticizing or objectifying it.”
There is probably no amount of research that can prepare a person for the sight of an entranced spirit medium self-flagellating with a spiked mace.
Taoist Flagellants shows, in the foreground, a spirit medium and his retinue performing a ceremony on a large cement platform, while Man at Parade is a close-up of a martial character in the middle of a crowded street procession. Taken individually, both are stereotypical images of Taiwan’s religious culture. Combined, however, they hone in on the function of these performances to provide contact between the earthly and heavenly realms.
With so many roadside graves and cemeteries dotting the area’s landscape, it is unsurprising that death frequently appears in this series. Tomb in Rice Field shows a burial mound located in the middle of a rice paddy and deftly illustrates the intimate connection between man, the spirit world and the land.
Farmland Next to River shifts the perspective to a semi-urban setting. A farmer walks along the side of a garden plot located in the middle of a canal’s dry bed, framed by buildings one side, an image that encapsulates man’s desire to control nature.
There is much else on view here of interest (I particularly liked Man Harvesting Water Vegetables, a superb photo of a naked man emerging from a swamp that echoes the myth of Nuwa (女媧), the Chinese goddess who fashioned humans from the mire). And although Sloat’s Yellow in August doesn’t provide as large a survey of society as Franks did with The Americans, his photographic journey leads down many fascinating roads.
WHAT: Yellow in August
WHERE: International Trade Building, 21F, 333, Keelung Rd Sec 1, Taipei City (台北市基隆路一段333號21F)
WHEN: Until Aug. 7
ADMISSION: Free, but registration is required. CALL: (02) 2723-3959 X227 or X214
Until this summer, when the idea of hiking the length of the island first occurred to me, I didn’t even know that Cijin (旗津) had been a peninsula until 1967. That’s when diggers and dredgers severed Cijin from Taiwan’s “mainland,” because the authorities wished to create a southern entrance to Kaohsiung’s fast expanding port. The island is just under 9km long, but a bit of research quickly convinced me that a south-to-north trek wasn’t a good idea. The southern third of Cijin is dominated by container-lifting cranes, warehouses and other facilities off-limits to the public. Dunhe Street (敦和街) forms the boundary between
As if the climbs and views and snacks and companions of cycling in Taiwan aren’t sufficient, the GPS-generation of route-planners are now using apps such as Strava and Endomondo to create works of art as they ride. One such is nicknamed the Dove Road of Sijhih (汐鴿路), a 25km ride that follows the riverside bike path from the Nangang-Neihu Bridge (南湖橋) to New Taipei City’s Sijhih District (汐止), climbs around 400m up the Sijhih-Shiding Road (汐碇路), before dropping back down past Academia Sinica to generate a very dove-like pattern. Originally called Kippanas by indigenous Ketagalan people and transliterated into Hoklo (more commonly
Sept. 28 to Oct . 4 A large number of 3000-year-old slate coffins were unearthed on a hill near Nanhe Village (南和村) in Pingtung County on Sept. 30, 1985. Unfortunately, the United Daily News (聯合報) noted that they had been seriously damaged by construction, and no artifacts or human remains were found. Although the newspaper called the find a “significant discovery,” little information can be gleaned about this specific site because it’s just one of countless locations where stone sarcophagi have been unearthed across southern and eastern Taiwan, and as north as Yilan County. These stone receptacles for the dead were
Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is a way urban households can obtain healthy produce, while helping to build a more sustainable farming sector in Taiwan. King Hsin-i’s (金欣儀) transformation from advertising copywriter to social entrepreneur began in 2008, when she visited a rice farmer who practiced pesticide-free agriculture. “He explained that we have to leave space for other species. At the same time, I realized that while big companies have budgets to spread their messages, farmers have few chances to tell the public about their beautiful concepts,” she recalls. Inspired, she quit her job and traveled throughout rural Taiwan for a year. King went