Sun, Jan 17, 2010 - Page 13 News List

Plight at the museum

Taiwan’s top two modern art museums both launched unannounced policies to hold two exhibitions by Chinese artists every year, leaving the local arts community fuming

By David Frazier  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

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When Cai Guo-qiang (蔡國強) left his native China in 1986, he began a process of artistic development that would lead to his being recognized as one of world’s top artists.

Two years ago, he became the first living Chinese artist to be awarded a full retrospective at New York’s prestigious Guggenheim Museum, which later traveled to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, the two shows logging the considerable total of about 900,000 visitors between them.

Western critics have long lauded the 53-year-old artist for making art from traditional Chinese materials, especially gunpowder, which he’s used to create fireworks displays with a conceptual edge. His famous exploding oeuvre includes everything from an awe-inspiring circle of light that spun for half a minute 300m over New York’s Central Park in 2003, to tiny mushroom clouds at historical nuclear test sites throughout the western US in the mid-1990s and the celebratory footprint-shaped explosions that tracked across Beijing’s sky to open the 2008 Olympic Games.

At the Guggenheim exhibitions, these explosions were presented as videos and shown alongside a number of fantastical, large-scale installations — “exploding” cars suspended in midair, a work involving 100 taxidermy wolves, and others. Now, these have for the most part been transplanted to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) for the current exhibition “Cai Guo-Qiang: Hanging Out in the Museum” (蔡國強泡美術館), which opened on Nov. 21 and runs until Feb. 21.

In Taipei, however, attendance has been middling, and the exhibition has been plagued by a steady stream of criticism concerning issues of politics and funding. The most vehement and publicized attacks were directed at the relationship between Cai and president Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Ma’s two daughters, Leslie Ma (馬唯中) and Kelly Ma (馬元中), have worked for Cai for years as artist assistants in New York, and Ma gave what’s been called a “personal guided tour” of the exhibition at its opening.

Art professionals are, however, more worried about deeper changes of policy that have become conspicuous in Cai’s exhibit. The first complaint is a new quota system for showing Chinese art in Taiwan, which has been instituted in at least two of Taiwan’s top art museums. Secondly, Cai’s exhibition, though in a public museum, was largely curated and managed by a commercial entity, the Eslite Corporation, whose Eslite Gallery (誠品畫廊) sells Cai’s art in Taiwan. Many believe these trends of politicization and commercialization threaten to redefine the role museums play in Taiwanese society.

“What’s happening now is, on the one hand, a very obvious politicization of the institution, and this threatens local museums’ professionalism and neutrality,” said Manray Hsu (徐文瑞), who has been intimately involved with TFAM for over a decade as co-curator of the 2000 and 2008 Taipei Biennials.

“And at the same time,” continued Hsu, “you have a new commercial focus, which threatens the ‘public’ nature of these institutions in a different way. Basically, what the government now wants is for the museums to make money. In Cai’s show, you have both these things happening at the same time.”

A NEW CHINA QUOTA

Cai’s current exhibit could have easily come to Taipei on its own merits, but what troubles local art circles is that it was ushered in as part of a new, unannounced policy, by which Taiwan’s top two museums for modern art — TFAM and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (NTMFA) in Taichung — have each set quotas of two exhibitions a year “featuring Chinese artists.”

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