A virtual sea change in art

The Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts surveys the emergence of Taiwan’s video art over three decades in a timely and comprehensive exhibition that features 57 works by 17 artists

By David Frazier  /  Contributing reporter

Mon, Oct 19, 2015 - Page 12

Twenty or 30 years ago, video art was still very fresh as an artworld medium, signaling cutting-edge newness and contemporaneity. Now, just a generation or so later, it already seems, like many other “old” technologies, to be rapidly receding into a historical period of its own.

This is made clear in a new, scrupulously researched exhibition, Rewind: Video Art in Taiwan, 1983 to 1999 (啟視錄:臺灣錄像藝術創世紀—預告片), at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts in which curator Sing Song-yong (孫松榮) has traced the emergence of video art in Taiwan through 57 works by 17 artists, plotting a course from the first video works to the end of the analogue era in the late 1990s.

The videos are by and large experiments, including several early triumphs as well as more than a few failures, yet they present an extremely interesting history of the new possibilities of video.

The earliest works, according to Sing, were created by artist Kuo I-fen (郭挹芬), who in 1983 placed television sets playing specially created videos into piles of leaves, sticks, dried herbs and other objects as parts of three installations: In the Corner, The Last Party and Quiet Sound.

These videos, where images of clams spitting sand or human faces serve as abrupt stand-ins for living things, were created in Japan under faculty guidance at the University of Tsukuba and only later exhibited in Taiwan. They now seem to be clumsy efforts bogged down by vague symbolism, but at the time they were groundbreaking.

In 1984, Kuo also published an article, The World of Video Art: The Expansion of Visual Environment, in a local arts magazine that served as a sort of manifesto and opened the gates to a new creative territory. Several video works by other artists appeared in Taiwan in 1983 and 1984, and in the years that followed, a trickle of video production grew into a stream.

The artists in this exhibition were all born between 1949 and 1974, so they personally experienced the emergence and early propagation of television (Taiwan’s first television station was launched in 1962). They were also the nation’s first artists to come upon the cameras, camcorders, editing stations and other tools for creating and manipulating video.

For the most part, however, their first access to video technologies did not take place in Taiwan. Eleven of the 17 artists in the exhibition studied overseas in Japan, the US or Germany and would not have been able to work with video otherwise.

“At that time, Taiwanese art schools were very conservative. There was no access to video and it was very difficult to get information on what was happening outside Taiwan,” said Wang Jun-jieh (王俊傑), one of the participating artists and now a 52-year-old associate professor of new media at Taipei University of the Arts.

“Traditional media like painting was not very satisfying to us,” Wang added, “and we wanted a new form with which to express ourselves. With new media, we could take advantage of both temporal and spacial dimensions. That was very appealing.”

As an undergraduate student seeking to broaden his horizons, Wang wrote a letter to Nam June Paik, known as the founder of video art who was then teaching at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, where Joseph Beuys was also an instructor.

“Nam June Paik wrote back to me asking to see some of my works, but by that time, I’d already decided to go to Berlin because it was a more exciting city,” Wang recalled. “I arrived in 1989, and a few months later the Berlin Wall came down, so I was unexpectedly a witness to that bit of history.”

Sing divides Taiwan’s early video art into three main types — video installation, video sculpture and single channel works.

Video installation, like Kuo’s TV sets nestled among leaves, combined one or more videos with other objects to create an environment. A more interesting example is Chen Cheng-tsai’s (陳正才) Melting Love (1996), in which an image of a mouth, its tongue licking its lips, is projected onto ice crystals that form and melt on a refrigerated metal plate suspended in the gallery. The lips appear to be licking the icy screen like an ice cream cone.

Video sculpture tended to use TV sets and the video that played on them as sculptural elements — often the TV sets stood in for eyes, mouths or other body parts. In Yuan Goang-ming’s (袁廣鳴) Out of Position, a TV set shows the head and torso of a swimmer as a video image, while a sculpted pair of legs stick out of the side of the TV set to complete the figure. In another video sculpture, Fan (1992), a real, immobile electric fan sits on top of a TV set showing a video of the same fan in motion.

The artistic problem for Yuan, Kuo and others was finding a way to integrate video into a world of real objects. They used TV screens as windows into virtuality but still struggled to show the deeper paradox of virtual images — namely that video images could be both real and fake at the same time.

The third type of early video art is the “single channel,” a video that you would watch on a screen like a television show or film. Single channel works were shot and edited like films, television programs or any other videos. Sometimes they were abstract montages or experiments with editing technology, like the work of Lin Chi-wei (林其蔚). Other single channel videos were structured around narratives and basically just short films, like several early videos by Wang Jun-jieh, which borrowed the aesthetics of B-movies, kitsch, pop art and advertising.

Single channel video also crossed-over to other categories of time-based art, like performance art and process art, where it served as both documentation and a commodifiable product that could be sold in a gallery.

Lin Chun-chi’s (林俊吉) I Wanna Talk to You (1995) is a documentary of a performance in which Lin wore a long, white cone-faced mask. The cone was extremely long, at least a meter and a half, with a small opening near the pointy end. As Lin tried to talk to the audience, he was also in danger of stabbing them with the end of the cone and forced them to shy away.

While the exhibition offers an excellent chronology of Taiwan’s first waves of video art, it leaves us wondering how video technologies influenced artists and what new ideas artists were trying to express. Questions of identity seem rife, and there is a prevailing coldness to the way virtual images represent people, often the artists themselves.

In one of the final galleries, some wall text proposes that this exhibition proves video art to be an “independent” genre. This is a mistake. From its very inception, video art, as an artistic form, already overlapped with installation, performance art, process art and other trends in post-1960s art.

One cannot however deny that video art has been part of a sea change in Taiwanese contemporary art. These pioneers have gone on to establish and teach in the media arts departments at universities, all of which were established after 2000. Others that don’t teach, like Chen Chieh-jen (陳界仁) and Tsui Kuang-yu (崔廣宇) have become some of Taiwan’s most internationally famous artists, and seeing their rarely exhibited early works in this exhibition is a treat.

Though Rewind leaves many questions unanswered, it is a timely and important survey. As a category, “video art” is even now often reclassified under more expansive labels, like “time-based art” and “digital art,” so it is ready for its chapter in the history books. But this is not to say that video art is finished yet. Only that as its legacy grows, its origins become all the more interesting.