1890s – 1940s | Japanese Colonization
1940s | Kuomintang (KMT) of the Republic of China (ROC) government took control of Taiwan
1950s | Cold War
1950s – 1970s | Enhanced connection with the international art world
1990s | Inaugural Taipei Biennale and first representation at the Venice Biennale
Taiwan has been ostracized by the international community in various fields of the profession for a long time due to political reasons. Challenges encountered by visual arts practitioners in Taiwan were not experienced by professionals in other developed countries. Modern art from the West was introduced to the island during Japanese Colonization, which began in 1895 and prompted modernization in various disciplines. As subjects of a colonial regime, Taiwanese artists at this time had limited access to other Japanese colonies and were confined to conduct exchanges with Japan. A few artists managed to travel to Beijing and Paris, but such singular endeavors were not sufficient to internationalize the field of the arts.
The 1940s is one of the most turbulent periods in the history of Taiwan. Japanese Colonization ended in 1945 following Japan’s surrender in World War II, and the ROC government, headed by KMT, took control of Taiwan. In 1949, KMT lost the Chinese Civil War to the Communists and fled to Taiwan, making the island the only territory under ROC’s rule. Loyalty to the Japanese Empire and state-imposed hostility towards the Americans drastically shifted overnight, while violent conflicts broke out between Taiwanese people and the new administration. By the 1950s, Taiwan had become an US ally in the Cold War, carrying out policies aimed to establish connections with America’s allies in Asia. In early 1950s, artists who traveled abroad were mostly educated during the Japanese era. Since the late 1950s, however, the government had turned its arts spectatorship towards the West and concentrated its support on a group of abstract artists who incorporated Chinese imageries in their works. Exhibitions, including the São Paulo Biennale, became tools for the ROC government to promote its artistic modernity.
International exchange with prominent art scenes in the West came to a halt in the 1970s. Taiwan’s withdrawal from the United Nations as well as its break in diplomatic relations with the US had left the nation in complete diplomatic isolation. Despite its hardship in international relations, the country experienced a total transformation from late 1970s to early 1990s – the martial law was lifted and the authoritarian regime overthrown, and Taiwan became an economic power in the field of computer technology. Dramatic social and economic change had a lasting impact on the development of the arts. The first wave of the powerful contemporary art movement in Taiwan was unfortunately met with international neglect, overlooked and unnoticed in diplomatic isolation. Taiwan has become the most democratic and open society in Asia after years of political transformation.
Public Institutions and International Exchange
Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation resulted in perpetual desperation to seek international recognition. This sense of urgency is reflected in the country’s arts and cultural policies. Arts and culture were gradually recognized as a soft diplomatic power following the democratization movement and economic growth in the 1990s. Before then, the international travel ban was inflicted upon Taiwanese citizens, making the idea of internationalism a pressingly needed yet foreign concept. Government-initiated international exchange in the 1990s comprised mainly of the participation in important exhibitions abroad, and the organization of Asia-based international exhibitions. As a result of democratization, local officials with opposing political views to the administration were elected. The political tug-of-war between local governments and the ruling KMT, as well as the ongoing social movements advocating for Taiwan’s identity had fueled a series of international exchange projects highlighting themes of local diversity and national identity in the 1990s.
Under the impetus of the Taipei City Government, the National Pavilion of Taiwan was inaugurated at the Venice Biennale in 1995. In 1996, Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) held the first Taipei Biennale titled The Quest for Identity; in 1998, Taipei Biennale became an international biennale, and Japanese curator Fumio Nanjo was invited to realize a large-scale exhibition featuring works by artists all over East Asia. Originally hosted by the government of Taipei County (now New Taipei City), the national exhibition Taipei County Art Exhibition became an international showcase titled River: New Asian Art – A Dialogue in Taipei in 1997. During the 1990s, the Ministry of Education negotiated a long-term contract with Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris, providing a funding and collaboration model to support Taiwanese artists in residency programs abroad. The founding of the National Culture and Arts Foundation (NCAF) in 1996, as well as the establishment of various funding programs and artist residency sites in the 2000s have made international exchange a prevalent practice in Taiwan’s arts and cultural scene. International politics, however, continues to affect Taiwan’s representation on the world stage – in 2003 Taiwan was removed from the National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale under pressure from China, and since then has been exhibiting as TFAM in the parallel exhibitions.
Private Sector and International Exchange
Contemporary art in Taiwan has deep and early roots in the private sector. In 1986 a group of artists, including Chen Chieh-Jen, curated an exhibition titled Living Clay at an apartment in Taipei, marking the beginning of alternative art spaces in Taiwan. Soon after, IT Park was established as an alternative art space in 1988. Individual artists began to engage in international exchange without government involvement, creating a cross-cultural network more experimental than any government-initiated exhibitions. Taipei Post-industrial Arts Festival in 1995 is an example of such an exchange featuring a range of experimental performances. International collaboration initiated by the private sector thrived after the year of 2000. Since the 2010s, alternative spaces and arts organizations have joined in forging alliances with organizations across Asia and the world, producing new exhibitions and performances with diverse forms and contents.
In times of diplomatic isolation, international exchange carried out by independent artists and arts organizations in Taiwan has played an important role in creating and maintaining multinational networks in the arts. It has also steered the development of contemporary art towards a more issue-based, project-oriented, and community-participatory direction, providing the groundwork for public funding strategies. However, policies aside, arts practitioners in Taiwan will always have to invest extra energy in their work in order to achieve matching international successes when compared with their foreign counterparts. This reality has haunted the Taiwanese art scene for a long time. The ways in which funding for international exchange is distributed and put into use have been at the center of public discussion. The contemporary art scene in Taiwan is at its core strong and full of potential. It needs, however, assistance from the market and the academia to gain more international visibility and to form mutually beneficial coalitions with international platforms – a goal that may perhaps be achieved in the 2020s.