The latest exhibition at The Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) will be of interest to anyone interested in Taiwan’s relationship with authoritarianism. Titled “The Wild Eighties: Dawn of a Transdisciplinary Taiwan,” it’s an attempt to show what happens when the strict reality of an authoritarian regime ends and people can express ideas (relatively) openly. The main period covered is the 1980s, though some of the work on display comes from the 1970s and 1990s. This is because the end of authoritarianism in Taiwan was a process, not an event. For example: Political magazines were being published before rival parties were allowed to contest elections, viewers are shown.
As the title suggests, the exhibition’s main point is to celebrate the explosion of creative energy that was released in different directions when access to information increased and restrictions on expression decreased. Within this, some individual works are direct political reactions against the rigid old regime, while some are a more general celebration of having room for expression for its own sake. An example of the latter is Lee Ming-Sheng’s (李銘盛) performance art piece “Lee Ming-Sheng=Art.” Made up of seven parts, one involved him defecating in the TFAM exhibition “The World According to Dada” (this is not explicitly shown). An example of the directly political is “Dysfunction No. 3” by Chen Chieh-Jen (陳界仁). This is a video recording of chained prisoners with bags on their heads being paraded through a busy street. The lesson on offer is that as well as taking in different mediums, genuine freedom of expression took in the trivial, the wild, the profound and much in between.
The exhibition also notably takes care to emphasize how culture in this period was influenced by both the inside and outside world. A section called “Local, Global, and Identity” describes an “oscillation” between different influences and identities after Taiwan lost diplomatic recognition from the U.S. in 1979. This is seen as an attempt to “re-initiate” dialogue with the rest of the world. Connections to European artists such as Swedish director Ingmar Bergman or French actor Marcel Marceau are drawn out with photographs and information packages. Photography influenced by the aesthetics of a Chinese painting style is also shown. The popularity of Hong Kong cinema is given space. Literature from the Taiwanese Nativist art movement is displayed. Here, the medium is the message: Freedom of expression involves the ability to move inside and outside at will.
In combination, then, the end of authoritarian restriction is presented as a kind of carnival. That is carnival in the traditional sense, in which the most important aspect was the mocking of the powerful. Carnival acted as a pressure relief valve for the lower classes. Chaotic energy was released to challenge unhealthy taboos and old ideas, in both light and dark ways. And clowns stood outside of the established order to critique it. TFAM’s “Wild Eighties” experience pitches the artistic release from old authoritarian rules in the same way. The atmosphere of “anything goes” is presented as the vibrant response to years of many things being unsayable. Much that previously could not be said was allowed to burst out in exciting waves of creativity. Some of that was light. Some of it was dark. And artists went to outside cultures in order to return to critique and enhance their own.
Of course, like any decent freedom of expression piece, “Wild Eighties” also engages in self-critique. It includes a section on Taiwan New Wave directors selling out by working on the 1988 film “Save Everything for Tomorrow,” which was commissioned by Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense. It alludes to some works not having popular appeal. It shows that the Taiwanese art world was not always immune from the concept of taboo, with a story called “The Red Star Incident.” The sculpture “Finite to Infinite” was repainted for a year to avoid the accusation that it looked like the communist red star. The exhibition also points out that some of the subversive energy was eventually channeled into manipulative advertising ventures. Free expression and commercialisation came together.
That critique could go further. A lot of the art covered was and is very middle-class in its reach. Taiwanese New Wave film director Edward Yang once explained to The New Left Review that he deliberately targeted the “art-house” cinema market. Additionally, as it emphasizes different outside influences, the exhibition offers viewers an equilibrium which is perhaps too neat. Look carefully, and outside of its “Local, Global, and Identity” section, it’s notable how many of the artists went to study in the U.S. rather than anywhere else. And of course for a long time Taiwan has been criticized for marginalizing indigenous culture.
These are all reminders that other forms of power exist, even once authoritarian restrictions on expression are pulled apart. All the same, the exhibition succeeds in presenting the latter process as fun, cool and exciting for those involved. And, at a minimum, even if there has been some recent flirtation with political nostalgia, no politician at the recent local elections was calling for a return to the days of prescribing which languages could be spoken in public or deciding which books were banned.