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Critical mass

Mediaholic is a superbly presented retrospective on the life and work of Ni Tsai-chin, but is he the best choice for this type of show?

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff reporter

Ni Tsai-chin, Who is Happiest? — New York (2009).

Photo courtesy of MOCA, Taipei

When artist and critic Ni Tsai-chin (倪再沁) penned an article in the early 1990s lamenting the state of Taiwan’s art scene over the previous century, he helped spark a debate over identity and imitation that continues to reverberate today.

“In the past, local art was like a flower without roots in its own land. Lack of a unique consciousness has made our identity very vague,” Ni was quoted by Taiwan Review as writing in an article published in Hsiung Shih Art Monthly (雄獅美術).

Comparing Taiwan’s art scene to Mexico’s, Ni wrote that the latter had absorbed Western art, but wasn’t subsumed by it. Consequently, the country was able to develop an artistic tradition with a “distinct national identity.”

“Art in Taiwan now is at transitional stage: Can we show a devotion to Taiwan and at the same time reach out, absorb and transform influences from outside?” Ni wrote.

Though a little overstated — Taiwanese artists had been mulling over these issues for at least a decade prior to the article’s publication — Ni, now 56, has spent much of the intervening years trying to answer that question through criticism, curating and artistic creation. It is a theme that pervades Mediaholic (媒體大哼), a superbly presented retrospective of his life and work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (MOCA, Taipei).

Much has been made of the fact that this is the museum’s first major exhibit of a Taiwanese artist since it opened 10 years ago. At first glance, Ni seems the ideal candidate. His installations, performance pieces, paintings, collages and sculptures span the gamut of contemporary art movements that have exerted influence on Taiwanese artists: environmental art, conceptual art, pop art and Superflat.

Exhibition Notes:

What: Mediaholic (媒體大哼): Arts of Ni Tsai-chin (倪再沁)

When: Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 6pm. Until Feb. 13

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei (MOCA, Taipei), 39 Changan W Rd, Taipei City (台北市長安西路39號), tel: (02) 2552-3720

Admission: NT$50


A former director of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung and dean of the College of Arts at Tunghai University and currently the university’s director of the Taiwan Art History Research Center — in addition to writing dozens of books, articles and essays on Western and Eastern art (many of which are on display at MOCA) — there are few as knowledgeable or well placed as Ni to “absorb and transform influences from outside.”

As the exhibition pamphlet states, his stature in Taiwan’s art world and multidisciplinary approach “expands the definition and scope of an artist.” After wandering through the exhibit, however, the reverse seems to be true: Ni’s considerable output expands the definition of the critic, not the artist.

This is most apparent with two series: Who is Happiest? (怪談) on the first floor and Super Superflat — Parody as Attack (超.超扁平) on the second floor. In the first, Ni takes potshots at the contemporary art industry’s “manufacturing of ... trends, products and superstars,” according to the exhibition catalog.

Each of the nine sculptures and color prints in Who is Happiest? shows four subjects — cartoon characters or animals — lined up as if they are mounting each other. Who is Happiest? — New York (紐約怪談), for example, takes aim at Jeff Koons’ kitschy reproductions of banal objects — here four balloon dogs made from stainless steel are depicted in flagrante delicto. Who is Happiest — London (倫敦怪談) does the same with a color print that pokes fun at Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child, Divided, the bisected cow and calf preserved in a vitrine of formaldehyde that took the art world by storm when it was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1993.

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