A genial atmosphere permeated the crowded basement galleries of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) on Saturday for the opening of Art From the Underground (地下藝術), a retrospective exhibit on the work of Taiwanese artist Tsong Pu (莊普). The exhibit’s title, an unambiguous reference to the subterranean placement of the show, suggested that Tsong, 63, was going to use the launch as a platform to criticize the museum’s perceived policy of relegating Taiwanese artists to “the underground.” The protest, however, was mostly muted.
As university-aged art students wandered the space wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with phrases such as “I don’t like Yoshitomo Nara,” “I detest Takashi Murakami” and “I hate Cai Guo-qiang (蔡國強),” Tsong, sporting his trademark goatee and dressed casually in jeans and an un-tucked dress shirt, commented on his relationship with TFAM.
“My first exhibit was held in this space 20 years ago. It seems that I haven’t improved much over that time because 20 years later I’m still ... underground,” Tsong said.
“Hopefully my work will improve in the future so that I can be elevated to the first floor,” he quipped.
Tsong’s concerns, ironically expressed, about Taiwanese artists being relegated to the basement follow increasingly vocal complaints from the arts community and media that TFAM is marginalizing Taiwanese artists in favor of international ones. (Cai Guo-qiang is Chinese, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara are Japanese.)
Galleries D, E, F and G, or the basement venue, typically house group or solo exhibits by nascent or established Taiwanese artists. Prominent artists grumble (usually in private) that they are rarely given the opportunity to exhibit on the first floor, missing out on the big budgets and press that this entails.
Art From the Underground displays more than 100 of Tsong’s sketches, paintings and installations dating from 1978, complete with a documentary on his artistic development over the past 30 years.
“At least there’s one picture of Tsong’s hanging on the first floor,” said Yang Shun-wen (楊舜雯) of TFAM’s promotional department when asked about the exhibit’s location. She giggled a little sheepishly, as if aware of how lame this sounded.
To be fair, TFAM seems to be heeding its critics because it’s completely altered the basement space. The four galleries have become one large showroom (where the installations are given prominent display) and two anterooms (for the paintings).
Gone is the maze of walls that caused museumgoers to feel as if they were part of a psychology experiment. Removed are the boards that covered the floor-to-ceiling French windows, transforming what had been a gloomy space into one with considerable natural lighting and unobstructed views of the outside courtyard.
According to the press release, Tsong’s abstract art is “richly poetic and replete with utopian ideals.” Perhaps, but there is the sense when looking at his work that not all is well in the artist’s imagination.
We sense this with The Sound With No Name (無名的聲音), a 1982 sketch that hints at the style and themes Tsong would develop in his later paintings and installations. A matrix of penciled lines is interspersed here and there with scribbles and patches of ultramarine, magenta and yellow. Tsong’s obsession with uniformity and perfection — a utopian gesture on paper — is obvious. And yet, the addition of color, randomly placed throughout the work, suggests fallibility in the grand design.
With the acrylic paintings, Tsong abandons graphite for chop-like grids of color or black and white. In one part of the exhibit’s 15-minute documentary, Tsong is shown carefully affixing these chops to a matrix of pre-drawn lines, a style evident in all his paintings.
In Chasing the Horizontal Across Space (橫向憑空追追追), each of the squares is stamped with these colored chops and overlaid with dabs of white paint. At certain points on the canvas, however, the vertical, horizontal and diagonal rows are disrupted by elements that resemble pixelation on a monitor.
Whereas many of the paintings reveal slight disjunctions in an overall geometrically cohesive framework, the installations emphasize the opposite by showing that fractured parts can make up a perfect whole.
Backyard in June (六月裡的後花園), for example, is a large installation on the gallery floor arranged in the shape of a disc. Within the circle, shards of terracotta brick are concentrically positioned around several points, each of which is topped with a hammer. From a distance, it resembles a perfect form. Up close, the viewer perceives the fragmented nature of the construction.
Tsong’s canvases and installations, with their struggle between perfection and imperfection, could serve as an emblem for the current controversy at TFAM. A target for the many interest groups it’s perceived to serve — government, artists, critics, galleries — each party assumes that the museum should live up to a different ideal of what a museum is supposed to be. And though TFAM has yet to “elevate” Tsong to the first floor, Art From the Underground offers an exemplary look at one of Taiwan’s top artists.
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