An Insightful Look at Taiwan’s Explosion of Creativity in the 1980s at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Brian Hioe

“THE WILD EIGHTIES: Dawn of Transdisciplinary Taiwan,” which runs from December 3rd to February 26th at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, is a highly successful look into the artistic creativity of Taiwan’s 1980s. This was the period in which martial law was lifted in Taiwan, resulting in an unprecedented explosion of creative freedoms. 

The exhibition is most successful in trying to draw viewers into the social and political environment of the 1980s. This is accomplished through an initial section that describes developments in performance art during this period, segueing into a discussion of the political and cultural context of the times. 

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

The late martial law period is described as a time in which there was gradual liberalization of cultural freedoms, but in which dangers still remained–events such as the killing of Taiwanese American journalist Henry Liu and the self-immolation of journalist Nylon Deng took place during this time. To this extent, this was a period in which it became easier for Taiwanese to gain information from the outside world, seeing as the KMT had long maintained restrictions on the flow of information, which resulted in significant cultural influences from abroad in the late 1980s. 

The exhibit benefits greatly from the large number of materials gathered from the 1980s, displaying many artistic works. This includes many paintings and sculptures, as well as works of video art and short films from filmmakers. Some of these are hard to find otherwise, but the exhibition has set up a viewing booth near the end of it that makes them easily accessible for the time that the exhibition runs for, while other screens in sections of the exhibit focused on performance art feature recordings of key performances. 

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

The exhibit proves most successful through its pairing of image and sound. Songs from the period are played in many parts of the exhibition. This is designed to envelop viewers, as though creating the sense of transporting them to several decades past. One room in particular features albums from the period with lights set up to create the feeling of a nightclub, while sections of the exhibition play period music as background soundtrack. Another section of the exhibit focuses on singer-songwriter Lo Ta-yu. 

The use of print media from the period is also highly successful. Gathering a great deal of print magazines from the period and putting them on display, highlighting key issues of magazines, shows how print culture played a large role in the 1980s. Namely, magazines served as a vehicle for discourse and the platform where cultural debates took place. 

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

As part of this attempt to recreate the world of the 1980s, another part of the exhibit describes key artistic venues in Taipei. This is positioned alongside a map of Taipei and takes place in a section of the exhibition that highlights individual cultural figures, many of which are still active today. 

If there are weaknesses to the exhibition, it is with regards to that there is still some disconnect between the artistic works and the overall cultural context they are depicted as emerging from. Although works are described particularly with regard to how they link with social issues and protests, such as regarding nuclear waste disposal on Orchid Island, there is insufficient commentary on the form that they took. 

Photo credit: Brian Hioe

Namely, although the exhibition is divided between a number of conceptual thematics, it draws from the notion of “Xirang”—artistic clay, referring to a key group show seminal in the 1980s–this proves somewhat abstruse. The framing of different moments in artistic fission or synthesis comes off as needlessly obscurantist. Likewise, while the emphasis on “transdisciplinary” is featured in the title of the exhibition, it does not really sufficiently highlight the transdisciplinary nature of artistic production in the 1980s and how this differs from previous periods of sets precedents for later periods. 

Either way, “The Wild Eighties” is still a triumph. The exhibit is worth a look for anyone interested in the explosion of creativity that took place in Taiwan during the period, as a well-curated exhibition that goes to great lengths to evoke the ethos of the period, and gathers many materials from the period.