While on a trip to Taiwan in April, I was given the fantastic opportunity to interview Dr. Edward Chiu, founder of 1839 Contemporary gallery. It is with the ambition to introduce works made by Taiwanese artists that he opened his space in 2009. This is also the only art gallery specializing in photography in Taipei.
Before deciding on establishing his art space, there hardly were any institutions showcasing photographs taken by local and international artists in the region. The reason behind such a phenomenon ,as Dr.Chiu proposes, seems to be the educational system, which only until recently has started to incorporate photography as part of the curriculum. This lack of awareness was not without impact: people never considered photography as relevant as painting.
Countries such as China and Japan have had a very prominent photography scene, which they successfully assimilated into their cultures. However, unlike its neighbors, Taiwan has not been given its due recognition and suffers from under-representation. Dr. Chiu was the first to take the plunge and seize the opportunity to exhibit photography in his newly-created art space. Yet, familiarizing the audience with this art form has been (and is still) arduous “Here, people view photography as a thing of the past, something easy to do” he adds “ It clearly comes down to the educational system: when you lack the foundations in photography, it’s difficult to comprehend it as an artistic medium”.
Deprived of supportive and passionate Taiwanese collectors, the scene has thrived to grow organically especially in an increasingly grim financial and political climate. In addition, these local collectors seldom purchase artworks for pure aesthetic appreciation of the art piece and its maker, but rather for investment motives: “Before purchasing an artwork, collectors look at the economical value of the country, its size and whether the political situation is stable or not: Taiwan is obviously limited by something that cannot be changed. Also, our local collectors would need to develop their art taste to something more sophisticated – something less all over the place-
Despite intrinsic limitations to its prominence, the Taiwanese photography art scene is lucky to be gifted with talented artists who clearly are able to communicate universal themes and anxieties to local and foreign audiences. Dr. Chiu established Taiwan photo fair 6 years ago engaging local artists alongside international ones. Having successfully broken even last year, the fair is maturing year-by-year hoping to reach international status.
The richness of subject matters in Taiwanese contemporary photography conveys a desire to explore and criticize the local culture as well as to touch upon and reframe the complexities of national identity creation. During the interview with Dr. Chiu, a few photographers were introduced to me alongside examples of their works, which to my biggest surprise explore existent issues with irony and wit.
Wu tien-Chang‘s work above centers on the Taiwanese society being close-knit yet this is shown in an ironic fashion. In the past, Taiwan was a place that foreigners wanted to take –a.k.a Portuguese and Japanese colonization- and then later, the KMT party decided to retreat there. Here, the photo shows how teamwork is crucial for a society to survive: they complete each other, one having the legs and the other the arms.
Chen chao-Liang (1968) ‘s series depicts cargo stages placed in unexpected locations. They have been used in Taiwan mainly for celebrations such as weddings, engagements or parties and have behind them a strong affiliation with religion. The cargos photographed by Chen show a contrast with the original ones: these are colorful, with western settings painted on them; what we would call kitsch to some extent. These photographs very much express the influences brought by colonization to Taiwan and how much there are still relevant nowadays. It also strongly relates to how Taiwanese perceive western cultures as more exciting.
Chen chin Pao is a photographer whose body of work is quite eclectic. Through his lens, he wistfully unveils how the society functions being tangled between tradition and modernity.
The series of photos above depicts young girls selling betel nuts whose harmful effects on health have recently stirred debates. Having had a rough childhood, these girls would start selling nuts dressed provocatively as to attract more customers. Chen Chin Pao offers a striking insight into an industry that is dying pertaining to the fact that people receive better education and are more aware of the risks of chewing these nuts.
Chao Bin-Wen’s body of work focuses on the development of Taiwan, from a prosperous developing rural economy to a modernized country driven by capitalist ideals. These houses used to be rudimentary farmhouses found in the middle of agricultural fields. Although illegal, in the past ten years, farmers have turned their houses into fancy luxurious mansions, which they sometimes use as hotels for extra revenue. This phenomenon has led to a lack of agricultural space, which might, at some point in the future, oblige Taiwan to rely on importation.
1839 當代藝廊 —- No. 120, Yanji St, Da’an District, Taipei City, Taiwan 106