Voices from the past

By Tang Hsiang-yi  /  Staff reporter

Sun, Dec 15, 2013 - Page 12

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM,台北市立美術館) is currently showing a large-scale retrospective exhibition on the life and work of Taiwanese photographer Chang Chao-tang (張照堂).

Time: The Images of Chang Chao-tang, 1959 to 2013 (歲月/照堂:1959-2013影像展) presents over 400 objects covering the photographer’s career from 1959 to the present.

The exhibition contains six sections, four of which are arranged chronologically; the other two exhibit portraits, installation works, sketches and manuscripts. Black and white photography comprises the majority of the work, with one exception — The Sleepwalking Before … (夢遊—遠行之前…) — a montage of abstract photos in color, a style Chang began to experiment with after 2005.

Images of Youth and Existential Voices showcase Chang’s early works. Panchiao, Taiwan (板橋) shows the back of an undressed plastic doll attached to a pull-up bar in the park. Chang was a teenager when he shot the staged image, demonstrating a fertile mind adept at composition.

Chang came under the influence of existentialism and surrealism in his early twenties, further refining his unique style. These images are intentionally out-of-focus, blurred or, in the case of the portraits, headless. Later, he will make a person’s face or head blurry, covered or hooded in a plastic bag, yielding a sense of suffocation.

He uses the idea of faceless figures in the series Taiwan — And then Nuclear Disaster (台灣 核災之後, 2005-2013), which shows phantoms standing in the wilderness in black robes, their faces overexposed as though reflecting the violent flash of a nuclear explosion.

In Social Memories / Inner Landscapes, Chang dabbles in realistic street photography and eery landscapes that often include statues of animals.

Chang wasn’t just a photographer, but also a documentary filmmaker, typically shooting works that examine Taiwan’s rich folk culture. The Golden Bell Award-winning The Boat-Burning Festival (王船祭典), for example, was made in 1979 in collaboration with cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Chang later cut the original one-hour film down to about 20 minutes, got rid of all sound and added music.

The exhibition also features Chang’s photo collages, manuscripts, sketches and two reconstructed art installations: Happy Birthday (生日快樂) and Unfinished (未完成). The former adds dimensions to a horizontal photo by attaching them to a chair, broom and bucket while the latter has a stack of scorched remains of books and newspapers on a canvas.

For this reviewer, Faces in Time is the most interesting section of the exhibition because it displays photos of cultural figures and celebrities that Chang shot between 1962 to the present. The wall of fame includes author Kenneth Pai (白先勇) and choreographer Lin Hwai-min (林懷民), among many others in their younger days.

Time: The Images of Chang Chao-tang is an enjoyable exhibition, providing an exhaustive, though at times exhausting, look at the evolution of a photographer. Indeed, the sheer number of objects displayed creates an almost assembly line atmosphere; TFAM could have exhibited half the number of photographs and fulfilled their hagiography of the photographer. As it is, without a theme, one walks out of the museum feeling somewhat dizzy with information overload.