Quoting London’s Tate Gallery, the Wikipedia entry for “appropriation” kicks off with the following lines: “Appropriation is a fundamental aspect in the history of the arts (literary, visual, musical). Appropriation can be understood as ‘the use of borrowed elements in the creation of a new work.’” It is productive to think of the Taipei Fine Art Museum’s exhibition Time Games: Appropriations of the Past (台灣當代．玩古喻今) not so much as an accomplished show that disentangles the various “borrowed elements” apparent in the work of 23 Taiwanese artists, but as a kind of cognitive dissonance.
“Based on the subject matter of the appropriated works, the exhibition is divided into seven categories, harkening back to the classification system of dynastic China: Landscapes; Taoism and Buddhism; Human Figures; Tales of the Mysterious; Calligraphy; Flowers, Birds and Beasts; and Photographic Images,” states the introductory brochure.
In other words, the visual language of contemporary Taiwanese art (all displayed works were produced after 1990) can be reduced to the subject matter found within another country’s art traditions using general categories that are never explained. What results is an exhibition of outstanding art that suffers from severe conceptual shortcomings.
To underscore the relevance of its thesis, TFAM provides an illustrated handout featuring the “appropriated” works from China’s dynastic history (Southern Song to the Qing), many of which are to be found in the collections of the National Palace Museum and Beijing’s Palace Museum. The viewer can then bring the document into the museum and, presumably, marvel at the similarity between the works hanging on the walls and the matchbook-sized images on paper.
What: Time Games — Appropriations of the Past (台灣當代．玩古喻今)
When: Until June 10. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:30am to 5:30pm and until 8:30pm on Saturdays
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. Admission: NT$30
On the Net: www.tfam.museum
The problem, though, is that it’s baloney. While it’s undeniable that elements from China’s artistic history are present in the photography, painting and sculpture displayed here, American pop culture, European fairy tales and Japanese iconography — not to mention appropriated genres such as surrealism, dadaism and conceptualism — are equally, if not more, apparent.
Take Kuo Jen-chang’s (郭振昌) Where to Start III (從何開始之三) for example. The large-scale mixed-media painting of devilish characters seducing a young woman is a dadaesque medley of visual elements drawn from Taiwan’s folk religion and Walt Disney. Or Yang Mao-lin’s (楊茂林) Stories From the Lives of the Two Mad Sarvanivarana-Viskambhin Kings (除蓋障瘋癲二天王之本生傳). Yang has always had a penchant for secularizing the spiritual by commandeering kitschy pop characters (King Kong, Batman, Tinker Bell) as icons of the sacred. Here he follows that tradition, but using characters from Alice in Wonderland on a surface of Buddhist iconography. Intriguingly, the scroll on which the painting is based comes from Tibet.
Other artists on view follow the classical Chinese tradition of imitation while appropriating the framework of conceptual art. Howard Chen’s (陳浚豪) Reproduction of “Travelers Among Mountains and Streams” by Fan Kuan in Sung Dynasty 1031 (2011 臨摹北宋范寬谿山行旅圖 1031) is an exact visual replica of the 11th-century work on which it is based. However, the “painting” was created using 750,000 mosquito nails, a process that evolved from Chen’s experiments with installation art. Interestingly, Chen’s solo show at Tina Keng Gallery (耿畫廊) last year translated “reproduction” in the title as “imitation.”