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

Wed, May 18, 2011 - Page 14

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.”

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.

Black-and-white photos of women sewing inside a factory, raucous street scenes and building projects reveal how Taiwan was emerging from its rural and feudal past. A section on the powerful Lin family symbolizes how Taiwan’s gentry “Westernized” along Japanese lines, while still retaining vestiges of its Chinese heritage. In one photo, a young scholar poses in a Western-style suit; another shows a hunting party, and a third depicts the elder Lin receiving artists in the front yard of his large compound of Chinese-style buildings, his servants still wearing queues.

Related to Japan’s efforts to mold its Taiwanese subjects into proper citizens is the Victorian-inspired curiosity of “the other” as documented by Japanese photographer and ethnographer Torii Ryuzo. Ryuzo traveled the country between 1896 and 1900, conducted ethnographic studies and left a fascinating visual record of Taiwan’s Aboriginal tribes, including the Amis, Tao, Puyuma, Pingpu, Rukai, Atayal, Bunun, Tsou, Paiwan and Kavalan.

The photos selected for this section present a sympathetic portrait of Taiwan’s disparate tribes. Each image is partnered with detailed explanations, presumably based on Ryuzo’s own ethnological data.

The vicious, even sadistic, dimension of Japan’s rule is laid bare in a photo by Fang Ching-mian (方慶綿). It shows a group of Sediq Aboriginals lined up in front of a police station following the 1930 Wushe Incident (霧社事件), a violently suppressed uprising against Japanese colonial rule. A row of decapitated heads are lined up in front of each of the Sediq, and the Japanese expeditionary police force that “subdued” them stand behind.

Though the curators don’t shy away from showing the brutality of the Japanese, they are more circumspect when it comes to the KMT after it took control of Taiwan following World War II. Indeed, looking at the images it would seem that a veritable renaissance — both economic and cultural — was in full swing under the party’s rule.

One photo shows a man eagerly making ROC flags. Another depicts children holding large portraits of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) while riding bicycles — a parade for the dictator’s birthday celebrations.

The bulky cameras used by the likes of Thomson and Ryuzo placed restrictions on the movement of photographers and thus limited their human subjects to rigid poses, but the increased availability of smaller, handheld single-lens reflex cameras in the 1950s freed photographers to work wherever they wanted, resulting in more action-oriented pictures.

Several well-wrought images illustrate Taiwan’s transition from an agricultural to an industrial society — sometimes within the same frame. One shows children frolicking in a pond with water buffalo. A woman in another somehow manages to fit four children on a bicycle for a ride through a field of rice patties. A peasant carrying baskets suspended from a long stick walks away from four stationary steam locomotives.

Urbanization is also in full swing: One 1960 photo shows a man delivering lunch boxes, while another features a group of office workers on small stools at a roadside eatery, slurping back noodles.

The gradual shift from black-and-white film to color in the 1980s and the early stirrings of digital photography beginning in the 1990s broadened the number of photographers, the subject matter and styles. No longer were photographers interested in simply documenting their society. They turned inward, as demonstrated by the large section on art photography, with its installation, avant-garde assemblages and abstract forms.

There is much to see at Eye of the Times and for the most part it is a tremendous achievement covering Taiwan’s major historical periods over the past 140 years. Unfortunately, some of the ideas implicit in this exhibit — like other shows at Taipei’s public museums over the past three years of KMT rule — are adumbrations of an increasingly apparent policy to glorify the nationalist rhetoric of the past. This omission of important events is tantamount to conscious forgetting.