View of “The Wild Eighties,” 2022–23. From left: Ju Ming, Human Cube, 1981; Ju Ming, Tai Chi, 1980. Photo: Hong-Tu Chen, Yung-Jen Chen, and Yi-wen Tsao.

View of “The Wild Eighties,” 2022–23. From left: Ju Ming, Human Cube, 1981; Ju Ming, Tai Chi, 1980. Photo: Hong-Tu Chen, Yung-Jen Chen, and Yi-wen Tsao.

“The Wild Eighties”

Political turbulence is often both fueled by and generative of acts of artistic dissidence; for this, the 1980s was the most consequential decade in the development of Taiwan’s avant-garde. The culmination came in 1987 with the lifting of martial law, the beginning of the end of the Kuomintang-led dictatorship that had cast its shadow over Taiwan since the Nationalists’ retreat to the island in 1949 following their defeat in the Chinese civil war. The fall of the dictatorship would enable the liberalization and democratization of the tiny island nation. But, as “The Wild Eighties: Dawn of a Transdisciplinary Taiwan” made clear, the forces of freedom had already been bucking against the punishing regime of censorship demanded by the authorities, particularly in the interconnected realms of performance, experimental theater, popular music, film, and literature. In terms of information and sensory overload, the exhibition made for as wild a ride as experiencing the decade firsthand must have been.

With respect to global influence, the best-known manifestation of the decade’s expressive fomentations was undoubtedly the Taiwanese New Wave cinema—in particular, the films of Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Tsai Ming-Liang, and Edward Yang—represented in the show by posters, archival photographs, and clips from the omnibus film In Our Time (1983) that effectively launched the movement. But curators Wang Jun-Jieh and Huang Chien-Hung put the emphasis on the performance and experimental theater scenes, far less known abroad. In doing so, they brought to light the work of local mavericks such as Tien Chi-Yuan, whose Critical Point Theatre troupe was crucial in the development of queer theater in Taiwan before his death from AIDS at the age of thirty-two, and the Ruin Circle Theatre, whose seminal performance of October, 1987, in an abandoned open-air shipyard was richly represented via black-and-white photographs as well as a few videos. (The grainy camcorder footage of many performances was somehow still enticing, perhaps because of its very indiscernibility.)

Many artists used performance to take anti-art to new extremes. Lee Ming-Sheng, for instance, urinated and defecated on the floor of the newly opened Taipei Fine Arts Museum, but also conducted rigorous experiments such as Purification of the Spirit, 1983, in which he traveled around the entirety of Taiwan’s main island by foot in forty days. The ’80s also saw the awakening of a new Nativist art movement, in which the so-called naive expression of the island’s indigenous tribes evolved into a high and respected form of folk art, here represented by the “drawing calligraphy” of Hung Tung and the 1980 sculpture Tai Chi by Ju Ming. Then there were those who found their sources of inspiration away from home; the writer Sanmao, for instance, produced travel writings that gave rise to a beloved genre in Taiwan known as “wandering literature.” Finally, Lo Ta-Yu’s rock music, with its pointed political critiques that barely evaded the wrath of the censors, provided the soundtrack to it all.

This exhibition was truly encyclopedic in scope and as unwieldy in shape as its title would suggest. While the portents are currently scant, one can only hope that the turbulence of the present day will give rise to new, equally inspired ways to be wild.