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Art in Taipei

It’s been great to be in Asia and see some exciting contemporary art. My previous destinations have a paucity of this, or it is suppressed.

Opposite Flipflop is MOCA and I was dismayed to find it semi-closed on my first trip. Second time around it is open with an exhibition of painting, photography, video installation fascinating collaborative art.

Particularly good was “Male Hole” by Hou Chun Ming. The accompanying video documentary really helped make sense of the multi-layered participatory paintings hung fluttering in a darkened room. Reminiscent of the tableaux of Gilbert and George but much less mechanical, of Jim Sander’s totems, but more personal and less naive, of political banners, of tombs. The work displayed shows 17 life size interpretations or subjective portraits of gay Taiwanese men. The artist recruited his subjects through Facebook and engages them each in face to face discussion about sex, body, sexuality, and through this they reveal themselves providing the substance for the paintings: Hou draws their outline then embellishes in a provocative colourful way that reflects the psychological frame of mind, personality, foibles, characteristics of each man. A study of the diverse personalities of gay man. The paintings are given over to the subjects who are outlined again on the reverse and are asked to represent themselves. They paint naked. Like animal, Hou narrates. The finished work is thus a 2-sided portrait: self-portrait and artist portrait. The works are hung flanked by texts that, I believe are transcriptions from the conversations. For me, who can’t read this, it reassembled the pairs of slogans hung outside doors to wish happiness or the confuscius analects imparting wisdom in temples and institutions.

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum is a cool white concrete jumble of blocks near the curiously European timber framed Story of Taipei museum (which I didn’t go to, and am not going to write about!). I got there after some heavy rain holed me up at the Confucius temple and subsequent vege buffet. Totally unexpected the exhibition was themed around audience participation and in many cases becoming the art. A yellow cartoon like stage is set and lit, you borrow the props and the costumes, photograph yourself, share the pictures on the growing gallery wall. The work that I found most engaging was a video installation (see below). Video in white cube spaces formalizes and codifies the viewing experience, setting the audience apart from this intangible media, like CCTV. Watching but not touching. Video can be truly mesmeric and immersive when multiple surfaces are utilised and when there is no one privileged position. This poetic work that takes you into a forest, where rain falls heavily, autumn leaves cascade down and a brilliant moon rises, and it’s a forest into which you can enter. The video animation is projected onto multiple layers of fluttering white net fabric (oh, some relationship to the Male Hole here!), and find yourself lost in the dark forest at dusk. The space is quite busy, mainly with Taiwanese teens. It’s good to see their enthusiasm for art and that they get the immersive thing. Perhaps it is second nature to them, as they belong to the generation that thrives in virtual spaces, simulations and fictional worlds. I notice around the city the Chinese trend to pose model like for one another on street corners, in front of some ivy clad wall. They adopt a persona, they perform, they construct something other. Even selfies are a parade of rehearsed and forced poses and expressions. These art works are self-photo opportunities. I think the artists are conscious of this and this makes this kind of work so relevant,

Hualien: street activity

As I’m cycling up the long straight Zhongshan rd (a common name in Taiwan) lined with vertical neon and navigated with civil respectful and kindly driving of scooter, bike, taxi, car, truck, I’m aroused by the childish jingle of an ice cream van. I glance over my shoulder eager to see how these icons of childhood manifest in Taiwan. Nothing to be seen. By the road locals are clasping bulging rubbish sacks and various junk. A yellow truck passes by, and slows as it passes these folk: on a step at the rear of the truck is an operative in helmet and yellow overalls hanging on by one arm snatching the rubbish sacks like the hook on an old fashioned mail train. It’s a refuse truck and the sacks are tossed by him into the perilously close crusher of the vehicle. In fact there are 2, and the second deals with recyclables. Outside a motor cycle accessory shop I see a woman toss into the crusher box loads of old helmets. Creepy to see them pulverised, these should protect heads. Like a kid in awe of a carnival I pursue this spectacle along the road.

Earlier on guolian 5th st the heat of the afternoon is intensified by blazing roadside braziers into which are solemnly tossed huge bundles, even boxloads of yellow paper “money”. I later learn that this is the day of ghosts. I am told this by a temple worker, outside which trestle tables under awnings which barely stifle the heat are being set up by enthusiastic volunteers with identically assembled bags of assorted staples: corn oil, doritoes, canned meat, fruits. These will be later be bought and left as offerings to the ancestors on temporary shrines constructed at the front of each house, often on the sidewalk, where prayers are said and incense burned. Later when I pass again a foursome of costumed old men playing a pipe and gongs finish a parade inside the same temple and fire crackers are let off.

Coping with Taiwan

Weather: be prepared to do very little slowly. Yesterday I set off to Yangmingshan to do the postponed walk from my previous stay here and di a lot quickly! The effusively helpful guy at he visitor centre pointed me out the way to Lengshuifeng for the hot springs, but I elt this as not enough as a day out and decided to take the path up to Qixing Main Peak, which is 1020m. Leaving at midday is not the best time to start walking, but if I was to get the walk done, then no choice. I was well fortified with 2 bowls of rice porridge with pickled vegetables and fried egg sandwich (little did I know that the eggs were reserved for the staff at the hostel), and armed with a 1/2 litre of isotonic electrolyte replacement water plus a bag of assorted baoza from the vege stall behind Taipei Main station. The hike weaves up the mountainside initially through wooded slopes up steps cut into the rock. The shade is welcome but the trees hide the sight of my destination, which in some ways leads to false expectations; each time I see a clear window of sky believing I was near the top. In otherways it means I dont have the daunting sight of the bigger picture of the climb. Each little flight of steps requiring a breather as 35 degrees and high humidity mean that after not very long my shirt and shorts are utterly soaked with sweat. I dont think I’ve ever been so wet without being immersed in a abth or caught in heavy rain. One thing that makes me press on is seeing others coping, but also not without duress. Many (those who I see descending) are in their 60s. There is a wirey sprightly bunch of pensioners here. It is important to ration your water and to take frequent pauses to rehydrate. I am very conscious of what the heat does to me. Copious sunblock is alos doing its magic. No repeat of arm burns from my Hualien cycling. The summit is fringed with silver grass fluttering in the breeze, circled by dragon flies and occasionally partially obscured by drifting cloud. The temperature is certaily not cool up here, but definitely the feeling of achievement, rest, lunch and the gently moving air contribute to a feeling of calmness. At the very slightly lower east Qixingshan peak, I chat to “Jimmy”. A tanned bare chested man in his late sixties at a guess with a white goatie beard. This is his second ascent today. He is doing it to improve his breathing! I summise without probing he has some medical condition which he is trating through vigorous exercise.

The decent to Lengshuifeng is steeper and less shaded. I am passed by some admittedly younger Taiwanese climbing this way, and secretly feel like alerting them to the arduousness. When I get to the centre at Lengshifeng I am surprised to see that all in all I have only been walking (and resting for 3 hours). This gives me plenty of time to check out the hot springs down the road from the carpark. Up the steps past the little orangey pool where tourists dangle and bathe tired feet in 38 degrees sulphurous thermal water is a little house with separate gendered entrances through shabby curtains. I am a little taken aback by how low-key and local the place is (Im the only westerner). There is ¬†alittle bench and some open shelves for depositing your clothes. Nakedness is a must and fastidious preparation before entering the small milky bath is strictly adhered to. I use the provided red bowl cum scoops to rinse myself first with cold water and then water from the hot pool in which linger the white shrivelled bodies of around 8 or 9 Chinese men in their 60s or more. I make a number of faux pas and am scolded for trying to enter the water without scrubbling my body. Use borrow some soap from a large guy with a tiny cock squatting on one of the tiny plastic stools lathering his body. I am then scolded for washing myself whilst sitting on the low wall that rims the pool. A younger (40s?) fleshy guy explains I am “polluting” the water. I go off to thee corner by the cold tap and try and get myself clean enough to be accepted. I am reluctant to get in the pool for fear of losing even more face, but eventually, it seems they tacitly approve of me and an almost emaciated balding guy with as sanguine face, the one who scolded me earlier, calls over and waves me in. Another guy points out that I shouldnt drink the water (I think), by pointing at his mouth. Once in, I relax a little, but dont feel completely blissful. This bath seems to be utilitarian rather than pleasurable. The guys are all strangers who round off a walk, like me, by performing these precious ablutions. After 15-20 minutes each one gets out, washes down with old water from the trough, gets dressed and shuffles off anonymously. What have I learnt? I dont think they were being aggressive, rather preserving the purity of the water. Funnily I think this is the same water that empties into the outside tourist foot soaking pool. Kind of secondhand water from pickled old men. Language would be very helpful here, to understand etiquette. Old Chinese men are very unattractive naked, white flabby skin on skinny frames and mirthless. Hard to reconcile that the firm, well proportioned young Chinese guys with their taught skin and understated beauty may well end up like this. Outside the bathhouse I see such a guy. I wonder if he is going to enter, but it seems not. We make eye contact. I womder what his thoughts are on growing old. I wonder how he sees me.

There is  curious system for waiting for the mini-buses that link the park with civilisation. I didnt undertstand the significance of the row of neatly lined assorted umbrellas on the pavement in front of the bus shelter at first then all becomes apparent when I see a man count them before laying his bag at the end of this line before disappearing to he cool veranda behind the information centre. As it turns out this line is redundant as the shuttle bus turns up first and there is a bundle to get on this bus instead. As the sun sets over Taipei, with glimpses of the towering 101, the bus winds down the mountain and I drift in and out of a dozing state.

Classical Chinese

Taiwan Provincial City God Temple, No. 14, Section 1, Wuchang St, Zhongzheng District, Taipei City, Taiwan 100

Saturday afternoon is the busiest time in this traditional Taoist temple. This buzzing place is a colourful spectacle of layers of gold, red, smoke. Smart old men making offers of fruit, young women bow with smoking incense sticks clasped to their brow. I watch a strange ritual dropping of pairs of orange segment shaped red wooden pieces. A deep in prayer and concerned looking 20 year old girl does this several times. I can't even guess what this all means. Older people are sitting filling red envelopes with stacks of yellow prayers. Another woman is building a large ornamental boat and covering it with yellow pieces of paper printed with the red backwards swastika symbolising love. There is a long glass window similar to that of a bank at which some kinds of transactions are being made.

A short man of about 40 in a green shirt approaches me and begins to tell me about the temple. He then hits upon inviting me to a class of Classical Chinese. Why not, I say. He leads me though a sliding door, through a kitchen and up some stairs into a hushed classroom where around 40 men and women in their 50s and above are following pages of printed Chinese characters and repeating them rite fashion as the teacher calls them out and indicates them on a video screen. I am compelled to join in with the chorus, though have no idea what I am saying. My friend, Charles is marking the sheet in pinyin and indicating the tones. He attempts to whisper and explain to me by drawing a c clef and musical notation to explain the relativity of the tones. This works differently from mandarin pronunciation. The drill then becomes harder as the class now read the characters as phrases, and this is where the tones descend to create a flowing music. We are reading classical tang poetry. Charles is a teacher of Classical Chinese, like some of the others here. For him it is essential for the Taiwanese culture to perpetuate this form of the language. I suggest that this is like learning Shakespearean English. He expresses disdain of the simplified Chinese of the mainland. The group is serious and committed. They are excited by a short visit by the director of the temple who shakes my hand warmly then makes a little speech in Classical Chinese. I have to say that the whole experience was quite eye-opening and in spite of Charles eager coaching and explanations that this is worlds away and something that has no function or relationship with anything I could ever do!

Taipei first impressions

Let's be disingenuous and contrast with China. Well the people seem relaxed, confident and don't have that impassive coldness in their faces. Whereas the Chinese youth are as one lost in or hidden behind their mobiles and their peculiar taste in fashion labels and design, the Taiwanese have more cultured passtimes like reading, holding conversations and art. I think an interesting indicator of their sophistication and intelligence is the low rate of smoking and hawking up phlegm.

The 7-11 stores on every block are a treasure trove of bottled teas, plum being my favourite, exotic juices, chilled coffees, soya milks, rice milks and more. I didn't even notice Pepsi or coke. They function as snack bars too with hot buffets of sausages and cauldrons of tea eggs The guys at the counter will microwave things up and you can sit on a stool in the window. Family mart is the same. Meanwhile there are kiosks for buying train tickets and charging the Taipei card which functions as a pre-pay card like the octopus in hk.

You forget what the weather is outside, lost in the labyrinthine multi-layers of malls beneath the main station and running the length of Zhongshan. This is wondrous for the seemingly high number of elderly in motorised wheelchairs, and a pleasant shady place for the groups of youths practising cheerleader dancing and hip hop in the mirror walled arcades. Not a cop or security guard in site, clean, peaceful, lively but no sense of rowdiness or shouting. Between Zhongshan and songshan is a long stretch of book stores with kids, teen, adults and elderly browsing and meditatively immersing themselves in the printed word. I bet there is a damn sight more variety of writings here than in the people's republic…. The mall under the main station is less highbrow, with games arcades, astrologers, an Indonesian corner, ice creams (yes I had one, and although big was not up to gelato standard), stalls selling games figurines. As the place closes for the night I emerge on the street at the bottom of Zhongshan only to find typhoon style rain. By the Jeff koon style silver balloon dog sculpture, the first on a line of interesting small scale outside pieces that line the white brick undulating walkway that follows the Zhongshan metro mall overground (including robots, snails and rabbits), shelter the guys who usually sleep the streets here and guys taking a break from scootering through the deluge. The plastic bag translucent yellow and blue ponchos are not enough tonight.

More to follow. I plan to chill out and write now I'm in Hualien.