Wanderer’s Love

Taipei Dangdai x Taipei 101 commission by Michael Lin. Photo: Taipei Dangdai.

LANDING AT TPE ON JANUARY 16, just five days after Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen’s triumphant reelection, I was ready for a jollier mood than what had loomed over the capital during my last trip. That was during the Taipei Biennial two years ago, when I witnessed the Democratic Progressive Party’s defeat in the local elections, followed by Tsai’s resignation as the party leader. Now, on my ride to the hotel, I immersed myself in the view outside. The beauty of Taipei’s built environment—rows of slightly worn office buildings elbowing restaurants, Japanese lettering against the backdrop of a far-flung mountain silhouette—resides in its special blend of nostalgia and stasis, a vaporwave freeze-frame par excellence. Everything has changed; nothing does.

Later, at a dinner at Si Zhi Tang, hosted by Edouard and Lorraine Malingue (a gallerist couple with outposts in Hong Kong and Shanghai and a presence at this year’s Taipei Dangdai, and who show quite a few Taiwanese artists), I found myself talking about futurism with two other guests, one Taiwanese and the other from Hong Kong, where the political quagmire has, in this recent election, fueled Tsai’s comeback. “It’s always been a process oscillating between left and right, but that’s what a mature democratic society should look like,” artist Lai Chih-Sheng said about Taiwan’s political trajectory since the lifting of martial law in 1987. Afterward, he took us to a piano bar tucked away on the side of a busy street, and we sang songs to the owner’s acoustic obbligato. Over Lai’s cover of “Wanderer’s Love,” rocker Wu Bai’s classic ballad, HOW Art Museum Shanghai deputy director Zoe Chang, who is Taiwanese, explained that this style of karaoke belongs to a waning tradition called nakashi, a style of performance that emerged in teahouses and pubs during the Japanese occupation of the 1930s. She leaned in to spill the tea: “A lot of Kuomintang (KMT) supporters come here.” When I asked her how to tell a KMT (who favors closer ties to China) from a DPP, she winked at the older, suited fellows sitting at the table nearby. “Just listen,” she said.

Sunpride Foundation’s Michael Chen, Emmanuel Tsuwan, founder Patrick Sun, and Sean Chang. All photos unless noted: Alvin Li.

I woke up the next day prepared for a more idiosyncratic game of identifying good and bad—or, as I like to think of it, “critical window shopping.” Taipei Dangdai returned in its second year with a roster of ninety-nine participating galleries, a couple numbers up from its first edition. As hinted at by its slogan—“Taipei’s Global Art Fair”—the promise of international prestige is its main appeal. Aside from blue chips such as Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner, which you find at all such “global” fairs, Taipei Dangdai is marked by a different regional dynamic. While there were nearly thirty galleries from Korea and Japan this time, Chinese galleries took up only one tenth of the program, similar to last year’s ratio (I didn’t attend). After strutting around for a few hours, I could spot only a few mainlanders, including fellow fair directors Zhou Tiehai, from West Bund Shanghai, and Bao Yifeng from Art 021. This had as much to do with a ban, issued by China, on solo tourist visas to Taiwan—effective since July 31, amid cross-strait tensions—as well as the fair’s proximity to Chinese New Year. Codirector Magnus Renfrew didn’t seem too upset with the situation. “It’s a fair for Taiwan,” he told me. A few displays stood out, including Wada Fine Arts’ solo presentation of the late Tetsuya Ishida, and Richard Saltoun Gallery’s presentation of the late émigré Li Yuan-Chia, alongside some of his peers, including Antonio Calderara, from the Punto movement. Among the younger artists showing, I was taken by a few canvases from Chen Ching-Yuan’s “Card Stunt” series at the TKG+ booth, where, inspired by North Korean card stunt events, he paints imagined, allegorical portraits that tap into tensions between the personal and the public.

Artist Yu Cheng-Ta, curator Freya Chou, artist Fan Hsiao-lan, and artist Ming Wong. Photo: Chen Chi-pan.

At other venues across the city, I was most excited to catch the final weekend of Au Sow Yee’s solo exhibition, “Still Alive,” at TheCube Project Space. The Malaysia-born, Taipei-based artist is known for exploring the regional history of Southeast Asia through whimsical video installations based on meticulously composed scripts (Au has a background in theater arts and experimental filmmaking). Take Prelude: Song of Departure, Part of the Extreme Journey of Perwira and the Calm Sea: In 3 Acts, 2019, one of the three works on view, which collages several songs from Taiwan’s colonial history and contemporary pop culture into a karaoke ballad, and serves as a teaser for a forthcoming series on Southeast Asian oceanic exchange told through the little-known story of the Japanese spy Tani Yutaka. I also made it to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s survey at the Taipei Fine Art Museum, at the opposite end of the city, but ended up spending just as much time marveling at the spectacular large-scale calligraphies on view at the Taiwanese Tong Yang-Tze’s retrospective, “Moving Ink.”

Saturday at noon, I sat down with the Taiwanese rap producer Razor Chiang for a conversation as part of the fair’s Ideas program on crossovers between the country’s art and pop culture, taking hip-hop as a case study. (Cocurated by fair codirector Robin Peckham and public intellectual Chang Tieh-Chi, this year’s talk program—“Islands, the Straits Between Them”—centers on four themes: technology, ecology, pop and tradition.) Our discussion revisited the brief history of hip-hop in Taiwan, from its emergence following the lifting of martial law (before which folk music had reigned, due to a nationwide ban on dance clubs) to its local adoption by underground rappers and subsequent incorporation into the mainstream by the end of the century. I again found myself reflecting on the local-global counterpoint, that perennial ’90s theme, lingering still. Some say history ended in that decade. In Taiwan’s case, that’s far from true: The same questions remain, but there is movement too. Step by step.

Taipei Dangdai codirectors Magnus Renfrew and Robin Peckham.

Artists Michael Lin and Heidi Voet.

Project Fulfill Art Space cofounder & Director Peggy Lin.

David Zwirner Hong Kong Director Leo Xu.

Hauser & Wirth Hong Kong senior director Lihsin Tsai.

Edouard Malingue Gallery Directors Edouard and Lorraine Malingue.

Gallery Vacancy Director Lucien Tso.

Artist Lai-Chih-Sheng.

Finola Jones and David Godbold of Mother’s Tankstation.

Artist Chen Ching-Yuan.

Commonwealth and Council Partner Kibum Kim.

Art 021 cofounder Bao Yifeng.

Bangkok CityCity’s Akapol Op Sudasna, Supamas “Louktan” Phahulo, and Commonwealth and Council’s founder and partner Young Chung.

Domus Collection’s Rosy Wu, Mine Project’s Emerald Mou, and Gallery Exit director Anthony Tao.