Art on the Beautiful Island

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Yao Jui-chung, Recover Main-Land China : Action (1996)

As an outsider the Taipei art scene can be difficult to access. The dearth of information in English and the lack of an international profile – compared to other countries in Asia – can make it appear a mysterious black hole. And perhaps that’s precisely the appeal. Amidst the increasing standardization of the global art world, somehow Taiwan missed the brief. As usual it was left out of the loop.  

Not officially recognised as a country – after it was abandoned by its allies and booted out of the UN in 1971, as the body instead came to recognise the Communist People’s Republic of China – Taiwanese life seems characterised by diplomatic and cultural isolation. I remember living in Taiwan during the SARS epidemic of 2003 when, as Taiwan is blocked from attaining membership of the World Health Organization (WHO), the island was refused medical expertise and information. Eventually the U.N. body sent over an expert, only he became infected with the disease and had to leave. The front page of the newspaper showed a photograph of him walking back to the airplane, dressed in strange protective clothing, looking like a displaced astronaut. Once again Taiwan was left to its own devices.

I’ve heard it said that the uncertainty of Taiwan’s future leads to a kind of nihilism. I first encountered this dark vision when I watched Tsai Ming-liang’s feature film The Hole(1998) shortly before I moved to Taiwan in 2000.  The film is set in Taipei in the final days of 1999. A strange virus has spread throughout the city causing its infected persons to writhe on the ground in cockroach-like movements. An evacuation order is ignored by the residents of an apartment building who decide to wait out the storm. One of the residents answers a knock at his door to encounter a plumber who has come to check the pipes. The resident leaves to open his small grocery store and upon returning home discovers that the plumber has drilled a hole through his concrete floor. The man begins voyeuristically using the hole to observe his woman neighbour who lives below, but eventually the hole becomes the only means of human interaction the two neighbours have. The film is bleak and claustrophobic, mostly set at night in the city where it seems to never stop raining. But the darkness is broken by occasional jolts into wild and colourful musical scenes, hopelessly nostalgic and desperate in their overexuberance...

 

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Kowloon Walled City Lives On in Videogames

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1989 German documentary on Kowloon Walled City (English subtitles, Part 1 of 4)

In Kill Screen, Michelle Young writes about Kowloon Walled City as an inspiration for game level designers. The fortress-like Hong Kong settlement once contained 35,000 residents within its 6.5-acre enclosed space. A labyrinth of alleyways, staircases, and 250 sq ft apartments; much of it poorly lit makeshift spaces with unstable construction; it was also largely a lawless enclave with thriving drug trade, mafia, and other black market activities. It was demolished in 1993:

Often, aspects of Kowloon’s architecture and environment are used to impart a sense of repression, confusion, or loss. In videogames, the mafia and undercurrent of illicit activity provided ideal storylines amidst dank and mysterious backdrops. The cramped businesses in the inner alleys, and the jumbled exteriors of Kowloon, gave videogame designers a rich visual vocabulary.

The characteristic that most set Kowloon Walled City apart from other slums was its high-rise, skyscraper form. Videogame design has capitalized on the city’s verticality. In the opening sequence of Shenmue II, we are transported between the normalized architecture of Hong Kong to Kowloon and enter the city as if falling upside-down from the sky into the depths of the Walled City. The distance between Hong Kong proper and Kowloon is greatly exaggerated with hills and wide plains separating the two, likely an attempt to emphasize Kowloon’s “Otherness.”

 

Kowloon was an anomaly in modern urban construction not only for its organic formation, but also for its reversal of standard building aspects: interior versus exterior, street versus roofs. Its ad-hoc construction engendered a maze of narrow alleys and staircases. Think of single apartment units being stacked over time like Jenga pieces—except that the façades don’t have to be match or be in-line with ...

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Religious Miracle and Technologic Effect

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This is a painting of Nyai Roro Kidul, Queen of the Southern Sea of Java in Indonesian mythology. This image is fan art essentially, painted by a 33 year old physical trainer who studied art abroad, and blogged about it. Notice the motion blur and lens flare that seem to radiate out to the viewer. As Karen Strassler, author of Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java, said at a talk at MIT in April, the image "literalizes the strong affinity between the religious miracle and technologic effect...Mysticism is now represented by media." 

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