(In)visible: The Spiritual World of Taiwan Through Contemporary Art
At the UBC Museum of Anthropology until April 3
To enter the show of contemporary Taiwanese art at the UBC Museum of Anthropology is to be immersed in the otherworldly. A long passageway, winding from the gallery doors well into the exhibition space, is draped in tall, undulating sheets of delicate white fabric covered in tens of thousands of delicate white cut-paper forms. With their rounded, scalloped, and dangling shapes, they conjure both folk-art tradition and a fairy-tale world of water sprites.
This work, which poses ethereality against monumentality, suggests water cascading down an unseen cliff face into the deep pool of our unconscious minds. Or perhaps, as we make our way through this work, we are sharing a primal journey through a birth canal with little fluttering spirits who lend their memories and their magic to our existence.
The installation Water Fairies Reproduction Project is by Chiu Yu-Wen, one of seven artists represented in (In)visible: The Spiritual World of Taiwan Through Contemporary Art. Organized by MOA curator Fuyubi Nakamura, the show explores the complex weave of religious traditions that inform everyday life in that island nation. In the slender exhibition catalogue, Nakamura writes about the blending of indigenous beliefs and those introduced, over millennia, by waves of trade, immigration, and colonialism. The various faiths, philosophies, and spiritual practices embraced by the Taiwanese people, she observes, range across Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, Chinese folk religions, and aboriginal animism.
Works on view include Anli Genu’s painted panels combining references to his Christian beliefs (he is a Presbyterian pastor) and his aboriginal heritage; Tu Wei-Cheng’s Confucius Dancing Mambo, a relief sculpture in artificial stone that seems to mock the influence of religion on education; and Charwei Tsai’s video Sky Mantra, in which the artist meditates on the Buddhist concept of emptiness.
Walis Labai’s Invisible Project: Whispering With Spirits, a video work in which found images of aboriginal people from around the world have been projected onto natural settings such as a rock face, a bamboo forest, and a rushing river, is weirdly reductive. It appears to explore the idea of natural places sacred to indigenous people, but ultimately conflates widely diverse peoples and cultures into a single unnamed and undifferentiated aboriginal entity.
A far more specific and convincing use of Taiwanese aboriginal reference occurs in Yuma Taru’s Convolution of Life, an installation consisting of three large, beautiful woven sculptures. Seeming to float in the air like clouds, their curling forms register the weaving traditions of the artist’s Atayal ancestors, while also invoking a wondrous metaphor. In her statement, Yuma says that for the Atayal people, every human life is a fabric “that is continually woven in the heavens”. The photos of this work reproduced in the MOA catalogue were taken in an earlier installation and depict a more open and dynamic configuration. Here, the weavings are more tightly furled, suggesting lives still in utero, not yet fully realized, although still symbolically receptive to connections and possibilities.
The most visually engaging work here is Li Jiun-Yang’s big, complex, multicomponent installation, Miao. Li often affixes “Ingenious craftsman” to his name to indicate his background in popular and folk traditions, from billboard painting to temple art to puppet theatre. This broad experience is evident in Miao’s hundreds and hundreds of carved and decorated puppet heads and hundreds more charcoal and graphite drawings, created over a period of 20 years.
The work is installed to resemble a Buddhist temple, with “scrolls” of surreal and sometimes monstrous drawings of human heads hanging at one end of the gallery and vast crowds of puppets and puppet heads mounted on rough wooden scaffolding at the other. (It is unfortunate that MOA’s awkward exhibition layout prevents entrance to the installation from the end that would make the most sense, visually and conceptually.) Larger drawings of hybrid deities, from sea turtles to sorceresses, are mounted on walls around the room.
It’s a truly captivating installation, immersive and, in many ways, overwhelming—and impossible to see or comprehend in one visit. Given the theme of this exhibition, this is as it should be.