ART JOURNAL: The good, the bad and the baffling

The Kuandu Arts Festival features one group exhibit and solo exhibits by artists from Taiwan and abroad

By Noah Buchan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Wed, Oct 07, 2009 - Page 15

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Honore de Balzac’s multivolume The Human Comedy vividly dissects the manners, customs and people of the tumultuous age in which he lived — from the French Revolution to the Bourbon Restoration. Taking the French writer’s corpus as inspiration, the National Taipei University of the Arts has put together a group exhibit titled Comedies, part of its Kuandu Arts Festival, which purports to follow Balzac’s project by presenting portraits of contemporary society.

“Two centuries ago, a remarkable French playwright, Balzac, described the human nature of [his country] in the 19th century in detail. We hope that, with visual codes, we can convey, shape, construct and deconstruct the spirit of comedy in contemporary times,” the exhibition blurb states.

The festival, held at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts (關渡美術館) and Aigrette Down (鷺鷥草原), includes two solo shows — one by Australian installation artist Jayne Dyer and the other by Taiwanese sculptor Chang Tzu-lung (張子隆). But the festival’s main emphasis is the group exhibit.

Citing one of the 19th century’s most insightful novelists as the foundation of an art exhibit is a risky venture because it creates powerful and far-reaching expectations.

Aspiring to emulate Balzac’s approach is an achievable goal, as for example, dozens of local artists have created multi-layered characterizations of Taiwanese society.

Huang Chin-ho’s (黃進河) paintings from the 1990s blend religious and folk symbols with the kitschy glitz of Taipei to critically portray the conspicuous consumption of contemporary society, while Hou Chun-ming’s (侯俊明) woodcut prints from the same period parody the power of folk beliefs. Both artists created tapestries of Taiwanese culture by employing symbols culled from the past and present.

Comedies, however, fails to formulate any nuanced depictions of, or comments on, society — whether humorous or not. This probably has something to do with the exhibit’s setup. Four established artists curated the show and chose a “team” of younger artists to exhibit

their paintings, installations and sculptures within the confines of one of four subthemes: Real Comedy, Innovative Hybrid, Multiple Characters and Non-Academic Artists.

Although the categories were intended to focus the artist’s (and the viewer’s) attention, they are so vague that the works within one could easily be transferred to another without any loss of thematic coherence because there wasn’t any in the first place.

Hung Yi’s (洪易) sculpture of a dog emblazoned with a variety of red patterns taken from various cultures, for example, could have easily been placed in the Innovative Hybrid section rather than the Multiple Characters grouping where it is found.

In Chen Ching-yao’s (陳擎耀) display of figures (also located in the Multiple Characters section), characters are dressed in costumes right out of an American Western movie and posing in what appears to be a New York diner. How it “represents Taiwan at its foundation,” as the exhibition literature says, is beyond this reviewer — unless the point is to show that Taiwan is made up of posses of cowboys hanging out in greasy spoons. Had it been placed in the Innovative Hybrid section, Cheng’s point that Taiwan is a mixture of cultural identities and styles might have been more apparent.

Some of the works, however, successfully illustrate their section’s theme. Chung Kun-i’s (張崑逸) documentary, set in South Africa, intimately charts a social movement’s struggle to turn tragedy into comedy. Ji Hyun Ahn’s animated shorts, which picture a group of relatives gorging themselves on food, comically reflect on the human desire to consume. Both are displayed in the Real Comedy section.

For the most part, Comedies is baffling because it isn’t thematically cohesive and doesn’t construct an incisive Balzacesque panorama.

Australian-born, Beijing-based artist Jayne Dyer, on the other hand, is in full control of her medium and the themes she wants to convey. Her installation, The Book Project, examines our changing relationship with knowledge and information as illustrated through the written word.

Dyer instructed the museum to collect discarded books over the past year for her installation. She then pieced the work together and suspended it from the museum’s ceiling.

I asked Dyer if the installation was meant to evoke the tree of knowledge. “Pillars of knowledge, actually,” she said. “The nature of a pillar of knowledge is that it is valued at a certain place and certain time and in another place and another time it might not have meaning. So there is that shifting notion of what is fact and what is fiction.”

Novels, works of philosophy, music texts and scores and children’s books are among the 2,500 volumes that went into constructing the 8m-tall structure. Dyer said that she was fascinated by the fact that the majority of the discarded books were computer manuals — a sign perhaps of local preoccupations.

“This is Taiwan’s history,” Dyer said. “But it could be another history in another place.”

Like Dyer, Taiwanese sculptor Chang Tzu-lung uses recycled material to fashion monumental and abstract works,.eight of which are on display at Aigrette Down.

The Spirit of Organicism (有機之靈) is indicative of what Chang is trying to accomplish. The 3m-high structure resembles an aviary. The door, however, is open and formed to look like a bird’s wing — it’s as though the whole sculpture could take flight at any moment.

By slightly altering the appearance of the “birdcage,” Chang completely changes our expectations of what its function could be. No longer a receptacle for animals, the cage itself becomes a metaphor for freedom.

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