The Taiwan Museum of Fine Art’s Jewels of 25 Years Museum Collection (25年典藏精粹) examined the intermingling of art and politics in Taiwan’s history. Organized for the most part chronologically, from the middle of the Japanese colonial period to the end of Martial Law and beyond, the pieces on display were chosen from among the 4,000 works in the museum’s possession because, according to the exhibit’s literature, they “illustrate the development of Taiwan’s art history.” The show revealed how two occupying powers imposed their aesthetic views on Taiwanese artists, resulting in a repetition of styles and lack of innovation — especially when contrasted with the artistic movements flourishing in European painting that found their center in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s, in American painting centered around New York after the 1950s and up to the 1970s, and in Taiwanese painting just before and after the lifting of martial law in 1987. While Jewels of 25 Years Museum Collection did not explicitly suggest that authoritarian regimes — at least in Taiwan’s case — stifle innovation, it is hard to imagine that it was not organized with this thought in mind.
TFAM’s exhibt Open Flexibility: Innovative Contemporary Ink Art (開顯與時變－創新水墨藝術展) explored the evolution of ink painting in Taiwan since the 1960s and China since the 1980s. Curator Liu Yung-jen (劉永仁) assembled 80 works by 27 artists — 15 from Taiwan, 12 from China — to trace the revolutionary changes in ink painting that have occurred in both countries. The juxtaposition of Chinese experimental ventures and Taiwanese modernist undertakings illustrated the flexibility of ink painting, which is able to engage the multiple preoccupations of contemporary aesthetics while remaining somewhat grounded in tradition. The exhibit’s subtext, of course, made it perfectly clear that Chinese innovative ink painters lagged 20 years behind their Taiwanese counterparts because of China’s tumultuous recent history.
Less impressive was the Futurism exhibit held this summer at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. The design of the show, which included manifestos, sculpture, painting, furniture and clothing, purported to demonstrate how relevant the movement is today by focusing on its obsession with youth, speed and technology. However, it unforgivably glossed over Futurism’s violent, anti-environment, anti-feminist and fascist elements. Consequently, the show failed to explain the ideological underpinnings that facilitated the movement’s rise. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine that the organizers weren’t aware of the message they were sending when they decided to hold an exhibit of artists who celebrated war and fascism inside a monument built to commemorate a right-wing dictator.
The National Museum of History should be commended for two exhibits. The Smiling Kingdom: The Terra-Cotta Warriors of Han Yang Ling (微笑彩俑—漢景帝的地下王國) displayed figurines and ancient funerary objects excavated from the mausoleum of the Emperor Jing of the early Han Dynasty. It focused on two aspects of Emperor Jing’s tomb to show how changes in society can be examined through funerary practices. The main part focused on clay figurines buried with the emperor, while a smaller section was devoted to building materials employed to construct his mausoleum. Small replica burial sites, illustrations detailing the excavation area and a documentary of the archeological dig complemented the 200 objects on display, which included bronze utensils and jade decorations.
The Museum’s Collection of Huaxia Artifacts (館藏華夏文物展) is a permanent exhibit on the museum’s third floor. Neolithic pottery, Shang Dynasty bronze ritual vessels and Tang Dynasty clay figurines share space with porcelain plates from the Sung and Ming dynasties and silver ingots from the Qing Dynasty. The exhibit focuses mostly on ceramics and bronze ware to emphasize the initial functional purpose of the objects and their ritualized use later on. Detailed introductions in Chinese and English along with maps, chronological tables and a documentary of excavation sites add depth to the exhibit. Although a little overwhelming, this permanent exhibit shows that a country’s plastic arts reveal much about its development as a civilization and the preoccupations of its people throughout history.
The opening of the Chinese opera classic The Palace of Eternal Youth (長生殿) at the National Palace Museum (國立故宮博物院文會堂) in July was an exciting event for opera lovers, in presenting a short format opera by a top company with the benefit of good English subtitles. The production, by the Lanting Kun Opera Company (蘭庭崑劇團) and starring Wen Yuhang (溫宇航), was the first production in the New Melody From the National Palace Museum (故宮新韻) series, which is conceived of as an ongoing project. The Lanting production was followed by Li Baochun’s (李寶春) Taipei Li-Yuan Peking Opera Theatre’s (台北新劇團) staging of a 12-week program titled New Journey to the West (新西遊記). There has been no news of how the National Palace Museum aims to continue the series into the New Year, but fingers are crossed that 2010 will not see the end of the venture.
This year also saw the Taiwan premiere of Kenneth Pai’s (白先勇) The Jade Hairpin, which follows the enormous success of Pai’s highly acclaimed version of The Peony Pavilion (牡丹亭), which toured successfully in Asia and the US and proved that an ancient style of Chinese opera could form the basis of an international theatrical hit. The show’s triumph — far exceeding what is usual for Chinese opera — showed that Pai was onto something with his “youth editions,” which sport a young cast and a youthful aesthetic.
In addition to the Taiwan premiere of The Jade Hairpin, there were a number of fine operas catering to both traditionalists and modernists in 2009. Most notable for the former was a series titled Ghostly Stunts (鬼•瘋) by the Guoguang Opera Company (國光劇團) in May. The program included famous opera highlights chosen for their association with the supernatural or delusional. Vengeful ghosts and people (often women) made mad by sorrow provided ample opportunity to showcase Beijing opera’s most demanding performance skills.
In addition to often-seen water sleeves (水袖) move and the flourishing of hair and beards, the program includes the use of stilts (蹺工, employed to imitate the effects of bound feet), a discipline that was discontinued in China in 1949 for its depiction of a degenerate feudal custom, and the spitting of fire, a highly dangerous maneuver for singers that is a specific function of supernatural characters but now rarely seen on stage. Beijing opera has never been shy about the delight taken in ostentation, and the show did everything it promised.
Another return to tradition was seen in Contemporary Legend Theater’s (當代傳奇劇場) The Legendary Pear Garden (梨園傳奇), which opened in November. This is the first time the group has performed a fully traditional work in Taiwan since it formed in 1984. Founder and lead performer Wu Hsing-kuo (吳興國) made a point of underlining the importance of passing on traditional styles to a younger generation, even within modernizing groups such as his. The program ended with two performances of Loves That Topple Empires (傾國之戀), which includes the scene Farewell My Concubine (霸王別姬), made famous in Chen Kaige’s (陳凱歌) 1993 film of the same name and one of the great tragic set pieces of Beijing opera. This was combined with Beijing opera diva Wei Hai-ming (魏海敏) performing The Drunken Concubine (貴妃醉酒), a highly technical piece made famous by Wei’s mentor Mei Lanfang (梅欄芳). This return to the traditional roots of two bold innovators brought the house down, and provided proof, if any were needed, that traditional opera still has the chops to cut it in the modern world.
November also saw the revival of two highly successful modern style Chinese operas, The Jester (弄臣), based on Verdi’s opera Rigoletto, and The Wilderness (原野), based on an unfinished play by China’s greatest modern playwright, Cao Yu (曹禺). Both productions by the Taipei Li-Yuan Peking Opera Theater (台北新劇團), a company known for its strong traditional values, proved enormously successful and also toured China, with The Wilderness participating in the Shanghai International Art Festival (上海國際藝術節) and The Jester in the Beijing International Theater Dance Festival (北京戲劇舞蹈季).
Amid the many art festivals of 2009, one of the most notable was the triple event staged by the Taipei Children’s Art Festival (台北兒童藝術節), Taipei Arts Festival (第十 一屆台北藝術節) and Taipei Fringe Festival (台北藝穗節), which ran this summer. The three festivals, sponsored by the Taipei City Government, went out of their way to recruit new venues, emphasizing community centers such as schools and cafes, where the performing arts could reach new audiences.
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