At first glance, Tugou (土溝) in Houbi Township (後壁), Tainan County, appears to be a typical farming village on the Jianan Plain (嘉南平原). Traditional sanheyuan (三合院) dot the rural community where residents are mostly children and the elderly. Nearby, paddy fields stretch as far as the eye can see.
But a closer look reveals a communal lounge space decorated with artwork where villagers come to take a tea break, gossip or catch a music performance. By the roadside, residents relax on decorative settees while watching their grandchildren play. Several large-scale black-and-white photographs, located further down the road in the middle of a rice field, depict the wrinkled faces of those who have spent their entire lives tending the land.
These uncommon pictures are part of the opening exhibition launched in December last year by a group of young cultural workers and local residents under the name of Togo Rural Village Art Museum (土溝農村美術館).
“The idea is to see the village as a museum, its landscape and way of life as art. It sums up what we have been doing here for the past decade,” said Lu Yao-chung (呂耀中), one of the organizers who has lived in Tugou for nearly 10 years.
In the beginning
But turning the rural space into an exhibition space hasn’t been easy. With a population of approximately 1,000, Tugou, like most farming villages in Taiwan, has long suffered a “youth drain” — those who move away for school and work, leaving the elderly and youngsters at home. Houses are abandoned; weeds grow everywhere. In 2002, a group of locals in their 30s and 40s decided to take matters into their own hands and established the Tugou Rural Cultural Development Association (土溝農村文化營造協會).
“Our village was declining. There was no sign of development. Not knowing anything about community development, we decided anyway to take responsibility to improve our environment,” said Su Chao-chi (蘇朝基), who has served as the association’s director for many years.
It didn’t take long before Lu, then a student at the Graduate Institute of Architecture at Tainan National University of the Arts (TNNUA), came to the village, having followed the advice of his professor Tseng Shu-cheng (曾旭正), who believed Tugou provided a chance for students and villagers to work together for mutual benefit. Soon, a group of students from TNNUA moved into the farming community.
The first major collaborative effort took shape in 2004 when the students sought help from villagers to build a shed for the village’s last remaining water buffalo, reviving a traditional technique that involves making bricks from clay and straw. A series of community-based projects followed, including the much-praised transformation of a disused pigpen into a public lounge area outfitted with a communal kitchen and a small library-cum-playroom for children.
Another well-known undertaking involved renovations in Jhuzihciao (竹仔腳), one of the six small settlements that comprise Tugou. The project met with success, winning a prize in 2006, awarded by the now defunct Council for Cultural Affairs.
But villager acceptance of the young outsiders didn’t come easily. Lu said it was earned through conflict, friction and eventually compromise.
“The first day Lu came to the village, asking what he could do to help, we didn’t pay attention to him. The second day, he chatted with us and made himself useful to the farmers. Then we began to talk about the projects we could work on together,” the 48-year-old Su recalled.