Wed, May 18, 2011 - Page 14 News List

Signs of the times

Though it inexcusably leaves out some formative events, TFAM’s Eye of the Times exhibition presents a superb photographic portrayal of Taiwan’s recent history

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff Reporter

Cheng Sang-hsi, Steam From the Engines (1959).

Photo courtesy of TFAM

Despite its claim to give an inclusive chronological picture of Taiwan’s history over the past 140 years, Eye of the Times: Centennial Images of Taiwan (時代之眼 — 臺灣百年身影) at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum appears to have been edited from a Sino-centric perspective.

There are no photographs of the 228 Incident, a foundational event in Taiwan’s modern history that saw the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) brutally suppress an anti-government uprising. Several photographs of the event exist; none are shown here. Nor are there photos of the Kaohsiung Incident, or later street demonstrations calling for democratization. There is one photo titled White Terror (白色恐怖), but its subject matter — a man turning to face the camera while sitting on the seashore, the horizon punctuated by a distant island — is so opaque that it is meaningless in an historical context.

Perhaps not as egregious an oversight as the elision of former presidents Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) from a recent comic book history of Taiwan’s military published by the Ministry of Defense, but it does underscore how ideology played a role in the choice of which photos to include in the show.

Ostensibly an exhibit covering the Republic of China’s (ROC) centenary, it seems bizarre to tack on an additional 40 years. This becomes even odder when one considers that for the first four decades of its existence, the ROC government had no control over Taiwan. Furthermore, the exhibition pamphlet inappropriately dubs 1949 to 2011 the “Nationalist era,” and in one English-language exhibition essay, co-curator Chang Tsang-sang (張蒼松) unforgivably calls the Martial Law era the “Republican period.”

Exhibition Notes

What: Eye of the Times: Centennial Images of Taiwan (時代之眼 — 臺灣百年身影)

When: Until June 26

Where: Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM — 台北市立美術館), 181, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市中山北路三段181號), tel: (02) 2595-7656. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:30am to 5:30pm; closes at 8:30pm on Saturdays. General admission is free

On the Net:

These shortcomings aside, for anyone interested in a photographic survey of Taiwan’s history over the past 140 years, Eye of the Times is not to be missed, though its sheer size — 271 photographs by 117 photographers covering the museum’s entire second floor exhibition space — is sure to strain the concentration of even the most patient museumgoer.

The exhibit is arranged chronologically to show Taiwan’s development from a frontier outpost during the Qing Dynasty to its gradual modernization under the Japanese — a project continued by the KMT and progressing to the open and democratic society we see today. It also reveals how those who ruled over Taiwan up to the lifting of the Martial Law left an indelible mark on the country’s people, landscape, fashions and mores.

Eye of the Times begins with roughly two dozen photographs snapped by John Thomson, a Scottish photographer and adventurer who landed on Taiwan’s shores in 1871 as part of a tour through Asia. The series serves as a kind of visual tabula rasa of the country: rivers, streams, jungle and mountains largely free of human inhabitants, aside from a few shots of the island’s autochthonous peoples. This Qing-era snapshot ends with a picture (photographer unknown) of iconic Canadian missionary George Lesley Mackay pulling teeth from peasants who surround him at an “open-air clinic” — a nice segue to the imperial project of modernity ushered in by the Japanese following their occupation of the island in 1895.

The curators offer a relatively balanced portrayal of the Japanese. The photos depict them as benign modernizers, but also show the brutal “pacification” policies that accompanied their imperial pretensions.

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