How has the depiction of the human subject been holding up in the second decade of the 21st century under globalization, consumerism and conformity? Not too good, if a pair of complementary photography exhibitions at the National Museum of History is anything to go by. Curator and respected photographer Chang Chao-tang (張照堂) has assembled two excellent exhibitions that are intentionally dissonant in the photos selected. The works on display show how contemporary museum and gallery photography primarily maps the artists’ internal landscapes rather than offering a visual record of Taiwan society and its people.
The larger of the two exhibitions, Moments of the Past: Selected Photographs of the Museum Collection (光影歲月—庶民台灣1920-1992), which is located in gallery 201 and gallery 203, sets the stage by presenting more than 130 images snapped by Taiwanese photographers from the 1920s to the 1990s. The subject? People going about their daily business. Temple fairs, puppet shows, fishing on the Tamsui River or portraits of Aboriginal hunters looking heroic: The scenes may vary but what unites the photos in Moments of the Past is a focus on people.
There are many excellent photos to look at here, some taken by well-known photographers such as Deng Nan-guang (鄧南光), Chang Tsai (張才) and Lee Ming-tiao (李鳴鵰) — the so-called Three Musketeers (攝影三劍客), who set trends for realist photography that was to influence subsequent generations — while other photographers are relatively obscure but equally talented. For this reviewer, the crowd-stopper, and an image indicative of the thesis that the curator is trying to prove, is Hwang Pai-chi’s (黃伯驥) Storytelling (說故事). It depicts the bygone tradition of traveling bards who would draw on their considerable store of stories to entertain an intimate and transfixed crowd.
What: Moments of the Past and To Gaze and to Look Beyond: Eyes of Formosa
When: Until June 17. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 6pm. General admission: NT$30
Where: National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館), 49 Nanhai Rd, Taipei City (台北市南海路49號), tel: (02) 2361-0270.
On the Net: www.nmh.gov.tw
The only drawback to Moments of the Past is its size. Chang Chao-tang could have easily proved his thesis with the space allotted in Gallery 203, and the viewer wouldn’t feel so overwhelmed and weary by the end. Still, there is a certain method to the size here, as the viewer quickly understands upon entering To Gaze and to Look Beyond: Eyes of Formosa (凝視．對望－福爾摩莎之眼攝影展), located in gallery 202. It presents the work of 28 contemporary Taiwanese photographers snapped over the past three years.
The photos in Eyes of Formosa are jarring when compared to those of Moments of the Past. The human subject all but disappears or is present only as a distorted remnant of its former self, usually shown in shadows or fog or as a reflection. Instead, we are given several pictures of deformed mannequins, severed dolls and cement statues.
Animals also undergo a similar contextual estrangement. Gone are the sacrificial pigs at a temple fair or beasts of burden in a farmer’s field. In The Ecology of the City (城市生態) by Lin Kuang-peng (林光鵬), for example, the animals are made from cement and face away from the viewer, while in Tsai Cheng-yao’s (蔡晟耀) Mimicry (擬態) the animal becomes a blurred abstraction.
The photos in To Gaze and to Look Beyond may not be everyone’s cup of tea. You might even view them as a younger generation of photographers’ self-indulgent attempts to, as the curatorial introduction states, “express their mental landscape,” at the expense of anything substantial. Placed in the context of Moments of the Past, however, we see that the new generation of photographers is less concerned about society in general.