In 1973, Tsong Pu’s (莊普) parents gave him US$1,500 and a one-way ticket to Spain. Madrid University is not the first place one would think a young, modern artist would choose to study at the time, but Tsong says he wanted to improve his technique and selected a school where he would be forced to paint realistically. He returned to Taiwan eight years later, and hasn’t painted realistically since.
Today the 62-year-old is seen as one of the founding members of the contemporary art scene that developed in Taiwan in the 1980s. At the Asian Art Biennial, now being held at Taichung’s National Taiwan Fine Arts Museum, he’s filled a large, high-ceilinged gallery with an elegant, rather austere installation titled One Comes From Emptiness — just the type of work his university teachers might have thumbed their noses at in the 1970s, perhaps describing it as “pretentious” or “incomprehensible.”
Seven-meter lengths of white nylon rope hang from the ceiling on discrete supports. On the ground, the ropes are carefully arranged into coils, each about 1m in diameter. Tsong showed me a model for the work at his studio near National Taiwan Normal University early last month. The forms are reminiscent of cobras rising for a snake charmer, or the rope that magicians might coax up from a table or hat.
The weave of the rope is similar to the patterns in Tsong’s best-known works — abstract paintings composed of 1cm-by-1cm squares that are often adorned with a diagonal swath of paint. Tsong says that he has been interested in repetition since he was a student at Fu-Hsin Trade and Arts School four decades ago.
“My classmates still ask me how I can keep doing the same thing without getting bored,” he laughs.
Throughout his years as a student at Fu-Hsin, his three-year military service and his time at Madrid University, Tsong lived a double life. Whether he spent his days drawing from plaster replicas of Greek sculpture or building tanks in Taichung, he produced art in his free time, developing a unique aesthetic.
While young, Tsong was ahead of his peers, at least in Taiwan. In his free time he made collages and learned about Western art from American and Japanese magazines. He remembers reading about — or at least looking at pictures of works by — Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro and Salvador Dali at a time when Taiwanese art magazines didn’t exist.
“At home, at school, and in society there was a feeling you couldn’t think freely, so when you saw Jackson Pollock and that kind of stuff you felt free, so you wanted to create something with the same kind of feeling,” he says.
By Western standards, he was well behind the times. Pollock died when Tsong was nine years old, while Miro and Dali were old hat when he chose to study in their country. But Tsong had already decided what he would do.
The purity of his abstract paintings and his nonjudgmental attitude toward art gained attention when he returned to Taiwan with an art degree and Spanish wife (now divorced) in tow. He was one of the founding members of IT Park Gallery in Taipei, a non-government, non-commercial art space for and by artists that after more than 20 years is still running, though struggling to stay open.
A father figure to many young artists — or perhaps better described as an uncle, as he displays none of the “holier than thou” attributes that some artists his age do — Tsong has unflinchingly followed his vision.
After seeing his model for the installation last month, I was surprised to find that some of the ropes he installed at the Biennial fall onto a bent metal signpost that reads “Taiwan Contemporary Art Museum.” There is no such place. Many artists complain that Taiwan’s museums — especially in the capital, and specifically the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) — don’t pay enough attention to the country’s artists.
“I wanted a contrast between soft and hard,” Tsong said when I asked him about the augmented work last week.
But what about the fact Taiwanese artists are relegated to the museum’s smaller galleries downstairs while Chinese artists Fang Lijun (方力鈞), Cai Guo-qiang (蔡國強) and Ai Weiwei (艾未未) get large exhibitions at TFAM? Was his work a comment on that?
I expected he’d avoid the question as the powerful TFAM defines who’s who in Taiwan’s art world and has several of Tsong’s paintings in its collection. But he didn’t hesitate.
“Yes,” he said.
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