Tag Archives: photography

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,

Tiantouzhai to Xingping day 16

It’s a bright sunny morning and I’m in a bit of a rush, having had an uncomfortable stomach over night. A bowl of yoghurt and fruit sorts me out, before my final walk down the mountain and into Dazhai where the hard sunshine casts an atmospheric light on old women cooking corn in open fires or spreading red chilliscro dry on their verandas. 

Strangely the bus leaves a few minutes early. The journey to yangshuo is windy, slow and towards the end incredibly bumpy as the bus traverses an unmade road. Even in this pretty rural enclave of China nothing stops progress, as mountains are sliced open and scarred by machinery as it is becoming more accessible to the outside world, which requires speed and direct straight roads, which unfortunately will increase the volume of traffic exponentially. Out bus makes several pit stops, at one, the driver hoses down the bus. The Chinese boy behind me strikes up conversation. I say boy as it is hard to guess his age accurately. He looks about 18 but turns out to be 26. On the bus with  his parents and 2 sisters scattered around the bus. He is sitting alone at the back. He is from shangsha and works in Beijing for a small construction firm. His dream is to build a  huge bridge that will carry his name and be his legacy. As he says nobody remembers who built a tower block. There is a piece in the news today about a glass bridge in zhangjiajie, iconic and making a statement about Chinese technology, which is having to close after a couple of weeks due to high volumes. I show the guy a photo of Clifton suspension bridge and explain its importance in terms of engineering. He is distinctly unimpressed and insists that although this type of structure may have been invented in uk it is China that has developed and progressed it. There seems to be a lot of symbolism in architecture and a certain sense of status in terms of communicating to the world what a society is capable of. He reveals that in Beijing any new development must be at least 6 storeys high otherwise it will not get planning percent. As he says China has too many people. I know this is a mistranslation but an apt one, as “a lot of” and “too” are both communicated by “tai”. That’s an interesting linguistic proposition. Does this mean that a large number is always neutral in connotation? Or the converse?

Language is certainly an inhibitor in trying to accomplish some of what I’m curious about. I have an idea of what my rather privileged Chinese students believe and value (though avian their language isn’t sophisticated enough to really communicate their thoughts), but what about the average and less well to do Chinese? My friend on the bus makes a good attempt to discuss many issues. He has not been to university and travels by bus, so it is apparent he is less well off, however his family are middle class, with his sister working in advertising, and his father a cook. I want to know what he feels about media control. He trots out a line familiar to me that the Chinese government protects its people from “bad information” by censoring the Internet. My friend fails to understand my argument that these restrictions undermine the intelligence of a people, and I fact present them with a controlled view of the world. This guy is a living paradox, as whilst he had no issue with state controlled media he uses a vpn to access Facebook and sees this as beneficial. I see this as dual standards and hypercritical. But this is China. Having your cake and eating it. Dogmatic conforming yet self-interested. A communist state in name but a burgeoning consumer society. As I’m reading about the endemic struggles that women have in Chinese society I ask him about gender roles, and I’m not surprised to hear him support the line that men and women are not equal in skills or abilities and that it is natural that men dominate society. He refers to ability, I hope he means possibility, but the more I hear the surer I am that he means the former. There is no room for debate. He sees things as black and white, is not aware of a world I change and the needs to address traditions that stigmatise and oppress. If I were to challenge him he would retort with “you don’t understand China”. Of course this is true, but one of the frustrating things about the Chinese is this catch-all escape clause, which basically circumvents any critical discussion. I see this in my students too. It’s kind of depressing that these views are so unquestionably held and that people such as this guy are not keen to look at other cultures and see there is something to be learnt from them.

Arrival in Xingping is disorientating and in a not very convenient location. I walk about 30 mins along the highway I construction, past numerous builders suppliers, through a tunnel that penetrates one of the hundreds of pointed limestone peaks that make this area  so unique. A little local bus takes me north up the river li to the small town of Xingping. Popular with Chinese day trippers, or half-day trippers, who come for a bamboo rafting experience, the departure point of which is directly in front of my window. There is a cluster of hutong with bars and tourist shops, which, although geared up for making money do not seem exploitative. The more interesting area is where the locals are. At dusk, a couple play ping pong on a full size outdoor table, elderly people with their wooden doors open play cards or gaze onto the streets, children play on bikes, the bustling market is winding up, but the live poultry area is still active. Some of the sights here are quite unpleasant, birds being plucked, others squeezed into transporting cages, off for someone’s dinner.

Sunset from the roof of the hostel is pretty. Once the day trippers have gone the hostel area settles down to a slow intimate rhythm and after a wood fired oven pizza (really), an odd experience in China, which doesn’t quite work, as this is a dish that is simple and requires the best quality simple ingredients, and China is not known for tomatoes or mozzarella, I have s lengthy talk with Agnes and Christian from Stuttgart. This covers brexit, the meaning of travelling, the changed nature of dreams when we travel, the philosophy and function of photography.

This feels relaxing here. I’m enjoying this trip a lot.


In summary

As I look at my pictures, I realise they show little understanding. Pictures of people who I don’t know and will never know, and who, in general, have much of what I realise is missing from me: company, happiness, comfort, fulfilment, presence, who are needed and have a role in society and other people’s lives. Pictures of gestures, behaviours, places I superficially survey, signs I fetishise as abstract and unreadable. I stand on the outside. The only means I have to avoid disappearing is to take photographs, to intrude in lives. It serves no function, yet keeps me alive. I notice people and immortalise them. Nobody notices me. I have no role in anyone’s life. At the end of all this, I am aware that the more I see, the more it reinforces who I am, and how my life is awkward, problematic, unfulfilling and isolated. Conversation is more rewarding, yet this is fleeting and difficult, with a language barrier, and through the fact that I am a demanding conversationalist. My cynicism of human behaviour must be some kind of envy. Who am I to judge? Who would rather be me? I would rather be someone else, but who? I would rather have another life, but what? Is that what this is all about?

Tiananmen, Forbidden City; the dynamics of power and governance.



It’s 8 days later and I’ve been on the square where it all happened and mentally tried to reconstruct and place the events of the day. Except this time it was windy, wet and full of tourists desperately pulling on hastily bought translucent pink and yellow ponchos and persisting with selfies. One small boy actually approached me and asked to have his photo taken with me. There are entrepreneurial people with cameras and laminated blow-up posed shots of happy members of the public in front of qiananmen gate, offering their services to take a similar ghastly shot of you. A man offers me a Chairman Mao watch (the hands of the watch are his arms, saluting his people). The set from the show is still there: A topiary Great Wall, enormous yellow 1945 and 2015 cut-outs on either side. A floral bed guarded by a bored miserable looking policeman under an umbrella.

The enormous air brushed portrait of Mao benevolently watches over from the gate that leads to the Forbidden City. The scene couldn’t be any different. Today the government haven’t controlled the weather. My thoughts wander back to June 4th 1989 and the suppressing of the student demonstrations. These are events that the teenager I met on the train to Xian had never heard of, and ones that Eric didn’t know the details of. Apparently the square that can hold half a million people was re-paved in the aftermath of the military actions, whereby the people army started shooting the people, to remove any residue blood stains. I wonder how many people in the square today with me are aware of the history of their country, or indeed were involved in these events. It all seems quite recent to me.

Dutifully I queue to visit the ugly white mausoleum of the great helmsman, the man who is responsible, among other things for destroying temples, imprisoning intellectuals and turning China into a one party state. I have deposited my bag in the bun fight of the left luggage building and the queue snakes in past po-faced green uniformed guards, first into a hall with a vast seated white marble statue of the great man positioned in front of an idealised frieze of a Chinese landscape. He is surrounded by a huge garden of potted ferns. Many of the devotees have bought white flowers, wrapped in cellophane, which they religiously deposit at the altar to this man, having bowed in the style that Buddhists employ at temples. I wonder what happens at the end of the day with these thousands of identical flowers. Binned to make room for the next day’s? The piece-de-resistance is of course the embalmed corpse of this despot. He is draped in a soviet flag and entombed in a glass box. The only part of his body that is visible is a shiny waxy head picked out by a spot light. It looks unreal, and probably is. The moment of solemnity is broken by some stupid woman’s phone ringing. I thought the guards would jump on her, this being totally taboo, but they let it pass.

The photo gallery is here….

The Forbidden City is of course no longer forbidden and is teeming with umbrellas and coloured ponchos. The place is of course vast and strikingly grand with courtyard after courtyard of palaces, chambers and gateways. It’s very orderely with uniform brick red walls and yellow and green tiled roofs with curly dragon motifs. You cannot enter any of the chambers and there are crushes to peer through doorways over heads and past iPhones on poles into the state rooms each containing thrones, long fans on poles that would have been waved at the emperor’s behest by some pathetic minion, pithy calligraphic banners proclaiming political thought, and all without any artificial illumination, so they are dim and dusty spaces. It seems to be the visitors duty, no matter how big the crowd, how poor the light and how awful their photographic skills, to make a token recording of each room they come across. I wonder with Eric how many millions of photos will be taken here today, where they will end up and who will see them. I am quite fascinated by photographing this behaviour, and wonder how many other people’s photos I will appear in, whether they will scrutinise my behaviour and invent stories about me as I do with the images I have of them.

This is of course a dead space. The institutions that resided in them, the form of governing they conducted and the draconian power they whealded are history, though not quite ancient history, as the curious anomaly of the Emperor’s telephone switchboard, deemed a necessary concession to modern technology in order to combat the British during the so-called opium wars testifies. Nevertheless these are monuments and relics of a feudalism which in turn was replaced by a new form of absolute power, not at all accidentally symbolised by the austerity and imposing vastness of the opposite-lying tiananamen square, patrolled by uniforms and surveyed by CCTV. It’s an intriguing phenomenon, that this place, once off limits to the public is now swamped with the everyday citizen, and they wallow in the prettiness and majesty of the indulgence and rigidity of an imposed order set out to control and oversee them in a less than benign manner. Yet it would be weird to be here without any tourists. At the end of they day as the glistening courtyards begin to empty the whole place takes on a sad, empty and rather meaningless air. At least as a tourist attraction it has some kind of function.


The photo gallery is here….

We are directed out of a west facing gate and are compelled to walk for at least 45 minutes, hemmed in by the wall of the city on one side, and the 50m moat on the other side until we actually have a choice about what direction we can take. After trekking through a shopping district full of oversized western branded stores we are finally able to get a subway to the Lama Temple stop, where I take Eric to the Lucky Lotus vegetarian restaurant, for my 4th visit. It’s not exactly the best restaurant, but has, out of ease to get to, become my default reliable meat-free food provider. They have the rather unconventional habit of making you pay before your food arrives. Over a long dinner of pumpkin soup, fried sprouts, a mushroom dish and a potato and mock pork spicy hotpot I learn a lot about Chinese school from Eric. How class monitors are like spies for the school and report on slack teachers. As head of the discipline section of the school, at age 15, Eric had a role like a prison guard, confiscating food, phones and stopping pupils leaving the premises. I also learn about the Chinese tradition of speech making competitions, which apparently Eric was very good at. What happens there? Students recite prepared and memorised speeches usually on patriotic themes. A good speech should show very positive emotions, and negativity results in a poor grade. One of Eric’s themes was “Why I love China”. This, he tells me, is a very popular topic to choose.

The subway trains all have TV screens and are now playing on an infinite loop the rerun of the 3 September parade, the lines of missiles and mechanical marching plus the endearing image of the premier gazing from his hole in the roof of his black Hong Xi limousine are becoming another piece of wallpaper, along with the advertisements and recorded information about the route the train is taking. Eventually these images will have been subsumed into subconscious of every single Chinese and accepted as normal. On reflection, how disturbing it is to see such blatant and aggressive propaganda wherever you go.

After dinner we head for the lake near the Drum Tower, which is ringed with an assortment of up-market bars, each with some kind of live music, often a dreary singer on a stool accompanied by a loud recorded backing track. Unusually, and perhaps refreshingly there is no recognisible western music, though I’m sure one or two acts were singing in English. So, no Bob Marley, no Beatles covers. Chinese love ballards. Most bars are quite empty and have touts on the street desperately trying to usher you into their premises. We end up In a fancy looking bar with a deafening band that played a disparate mix of styles from an approximation of funk to an emotionless blues. The side acts that appear during the break are 1, a pair of female violinists in slit-legged low-cut tight fitting dresses, standing back-to-back in a cloud of dry ice playing feverishly over the top of some generic loud disco track. Their indifference to their performance is emplified by their behaviour as they finish which is, rather than to acknowledge the crowd, who, by paying through the nose for cocktails made with cheap alcohol, are giving them an income, to pick up their phones and to walk off through the bar texting their boyfriends. The follow-up act is a pair of scantily clad pole dancers, which boils the testosterone of some of the men here, who scramble for space to film these ludicrous women on their phones. The customers in the bar need to be pretty well-off, and this is illustrated by the ridiculous symbols of extravagance available. To the table behind us two trees of fruits are delivered. What do I mean? – well in a dish full of liquid nitrogen (I guess, as it is producing clouds of smoke) stand a tree branch with many twigs shooting off in all directions (a mini tree of about 50 cm height); on the end of each twig prong is a piece of fruit: chunks of star fruit, pear, small bananas. The theatricality of these absurd objects being paraded across the floor of the bar draws all the wanted attention to this group of well off young Chinese. Meanwhile the barman is spinning bottles and tossing cups in a pretend indifferent performance of flairing. A cocktail in a glass the size of a goldfish bowl with an artfully spun candifloss on a stick protruding is sent out to the table the other side of the stage. The menu has prices that I cannot rationalise into sensible pricing; bottles of brandy for hundreds of pounds, beer at 10 times the price of a local bar. Suspended from the ceiling are multiple TVs all screening a woman’s volleyball match. Very tall Chinese women in a tightly contested match against very tall Russians. This bar is so loud that we can only talk when the bands have stopped. This has been an experience and the conclusion I reach is that the place has a rather dubious idea of taste and some Chinese have a peculiar idea of style. Time to go home…


It’s quite messy, chaotic, under- developed in many ways but you sense a kind of peacefulness, acceptance, tolerance, rather than a disquiet of various groups of people’s circumstances.

I’m staying on a back street with 3 backpacker type hostel/ hotels amidst a local community of hole in the wall eateries: at night small groups sit on squat stools around little tables eating hotpots, the flames casting a cheery and conspiratorial glow, or trays of skewered meat and bowls of dips. Old men sit on their steps and slowly follow you pass by. At the end of the street is a soya milk bar and a number of open air stalls who dip fry a kind of pitta then let you fill it with your choice of veg, tofu or meat, all mixed up with a chilli paste. On the street corners in the heat of the day, unemployed drivers of 3 wheeler cycle trucks laze and doze in their trailers.

The Muslim quarter is over the main road,and this is a totally different kind of China. Xian being the terminus of the Silk Road has historically been the home for traders and other races. The narrow streets are a riot of noise, hubbub, smells, tastes, sights. You are swept along by the calls of the kebab stands trying to entice you in, the rhythmic hammering of young men pounding sesame paste with wooden mallets. The smells are cumin, coriander, pepper. The men wear little white skulls caps, the women headscarves. I have hand squeezed pomegranate juice, a slice of yellow rose flavoured jelly, some spicy twice fried baby potatoes and some fried tofu. You eat on the go and walk and walk, it’s intoxicating.



The Muslim quarter borders on the Bell Tower which is the central landmark here in the ancient city. It’s a Qing dynasty 4 tiered structure with the characteristic pointed gabled roof. At night it’s lit up and is an incandescent red, yellow, blue and very beautiful. Somehow it’s been absorbed into the modern city and now sits isolated from its sister drum tower as a roundabout where 4 busy roads intersect. This roundabout is 6 lanes wide and has an additional fenced off cycle lane. Watching the traffic is engrossing, and I’m glad I’m neither driving nor a passenger at this place. Buses thunder on to the roundabout, in the full knowledge that they are the biggest and that if anything tries to get in their way they will come off the worst. Then there are the modern cars, with drivers demonstrating a directness that suggests an arrogance and aggression. Pity the two wheeled riders, but somehow they all career on without a thought for mortality. Knackered old push bikes with pillion passengers, scooter riders checking their mobiles, mopeds with dogs in the foot wells, families of three including babies on one bike, woefully under-powered electric scooters with tiny wheels struggle to break across 5 lines of traffic. By the way, not a helmet in sight. A couple clatter across on their 3 wheeler bike towing a trailer that serves as their food stall, the cooker still steaming. An old man with a hand cart laden with boxes pushes his way across the road. A three wheeler taxi drives clockwise, that is against the flow, from one road to the next. A guy parks his car for 5 minutes in the outer lane. A mountain biker storms across with nerves of steel, or no nerves at all. Having lights appears arbitrary. Somehow there are no accidents, nor any hesitations or mis calculations that might lead to one. It works. It’s dangerous, scary, but works. There is absolutely no comparison with the UK. How many traffic laws have been broken here?

All this revolves beneath the bell tower, set in an ocean of neon, and curiously less Chinese signage than western: KFC, McDonald’s, Bell Tower Hotel Xian. The surrounding pavements are full of hawkers with trays of those green plastic hair stalks which seem to be de rigeur right now, slices of watermelon, micro SD. Cards. In the subway underpass below the tower alone legged man is selling plastic flower tiaras. There is a square between the two towers with steep steps at the bottom of which play a busking group with guitar and hand drums. Overhead a remote control plane lit with red and blue lights soars, dives spins and skims the tree tops. Makes me think back to the Shoreham disaster. Even though it is small, I’m sure this stunt flier could cause serious injuries if it hit the crowd at these speeds.The video screen that dominates the square plays the trailer to the Minions film and perfume commercials. It’s all beginning to feel like Blade Runner. There are mobile Police vans, which seem to be merely a place for the policemen to hangout and watch videos on their mobiles, rather than a control centre. For a control state, I have to say the police are virtually invisible, and their is no sense on intimidation. Meanwhile passers-by photograph themselves and the tower. Awful photos. Their best smiles. Smiles to themselves. This is how they want to remember themselves.


Flags and lines and groups

These are some themes of China as far as I can see. In so many areas of life I have seen conformity and obedient following. There is little individual culture. You can see this dating back 2200 years with the building of the emperor Qing mausoleum and Terracotta battalions. Built by slaves over 36 years, and the row upon row of impassive warriors somehow echoes the September 3 parade. Visiting this attraction also has its codes and conventions. The Chinese like to go in groups, and follow tour leaders with little coloured flags. The engagement is through smart phone, rather than real time pondering and reflection, ie photographing themselves and each other in front of the excavations, the museum buildings, the trees in the park. I watched a little boy of about 8 in the museum of bronze relics, passing from one splendid vessel to the next snapping ill composed shots of each one. Obviously he had learnt by observing the adults do this, and like them will end up with hundreds of meaningless images cluttering up some device or other.

Photo gallery

At the station this morning, in a stressful search for the bus to the Warriors museum I encountered more of this group mentality. Tomorrow is the start of university and the station square was rammed with gangs of newly arrived students pulling along their cases on wheels following leaders, again with little flags, to the bus that would take them to their school.

It’s quite tiring here. The scale of things is immense. It takes a long time to do anything,and due to this, heat, sore feet and reluctance to waste time trying to go places that are further than I thought, I’m scaling back my plans.

Confuscious temple

I don’t understand the selfie or the rituals people enact when they go places. Is visiting a place such as a temple like putting yourself on a stage in a new theatre to perform to your camera. Only this is a closed loop. Theatres have an audience. The selfie audience is yourself, and hence it provokes narcissism of the highest order. From photo opportunity site to photo opportunity site. Everyone does the same preening, posing and gesturing. This is me, I’m here. Actually the here doesn’t matter too much. The this is me, and oh aren’t I happy and isn’t my life full of the craziest moments is what is happening here. Jumping through some little gate at the confuscious temple, pulling the v-sign. Those stupid plastic green antenna that girls are wearing in their hair.

Maybe I should be less cynical. Is there anything actually intrinsically that interesting in this place. The codes of confuscious ism are dead. The structure is pretty, but it doesn’t have a lot of relevance beyond a pleasant place to visit and spend time away from the mundanity of everyday life. So why not perform some act to remind yourself you are still alive and that things are not so bad after all.