‘There is nothing more boring than the story of decline,’ a journalist remarked at an art criticism panel I attended the evening before making the trip to see Art Taipei (26–29 October 2018). As I attended the opening night of Asia’s oldest art fair, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, those words rang in my head. Wandering up and down the spacious aisles of the Taipei World Trade Center, I was struck by how empty the hall was, despite featuring 135 galleries from 13 countries, with a heavy selection from Taiwan as well as a showing of galleries from Japan, China, Singapore, Korea, and Hong Kong.
Taiwan, which is ranked fifth in some global wealth reports, has a zero-tariff policy for primary market artworks (like Hong Kong and Singapore) and a strong history of collecting, with an established and active collector base in the international art market including Rudy Tseng, Patrick Sun, Chen Bo-Wen, and Pierre Chen, as well as an active and thriving gallery scene. Collectors were scarcely evident on the VIP opening night of the fair, however.
It wasn’t just visitor numbers that appeared to be down. A number of top galleries that participated in previous years—such as Lin & Lin Gallery, Ota Fine Arts, Puerta Roja, Tina Keng Gallery, and Eslite Gallery—were notably absent. One visiting Hong Kong art gallerist called this edition the saddest they had seen in the past five years, pointing out a decline that many have pinned to poor management. ‘There has been a lot of internal politics within the Taiwan Art Gallery Association, which organises the fair,’ explained one gallery that stopped participating after 2015.
Magnus Renfrew, the founder of Taipei Dangdai (18–20 January 2019), and the former founding director of Art HK—later acquired by Art Basel’s parent company, MCH Group—clearly identified the need for a top quality art fair in the city, filling in where the pioneering Art Taipei has failed to deliver. Many galleries who have opted out of Art Taipei in recent years have been selected for the inaugural edition of Taipei Dangdai, including locals such as Tina Keng Gallery and Eslite Gallery, along with international names like Edouard Malingue Gallery, Beijing Commune, de Sarthe Gallery, Silverlens, Puerta Roja, Galleria Continua, and Pearl Lam Galleries, who will show alongside established spaces such as David Zwirner, Sprüth Magers, and neugerriemschneider. Many galleries and collectors, when tasked with choosing which to attend, have clearly put their money on Taipei Dangdai.
Nonetheless, some strong presentations could be found. ShanghART presented a 50-piece collection of watercolour on paper works by Chinese artist Sun Xun, whose narrative paintings borrow heavily in style from woodblock printing. Milan, Hong Kong, and London-based Massimo De Carlo showed works by Jim Shaw, Jannis Kounellis, Elmgreen & Dragset, and a work by Hong Kong-born and Taipei-based artist Lee Kit whose poetic practice highlights the ordinary and quotidian. Titled A Perfect Emotion (2018), Lee Kit’s installation was presented in a designated darkened space, having previously been shown in the artist’s summer solo show at Museo Casa Masaccio Centro per l’Arte Contemporanea, San Giovanni Valdarno.
Longmen Art Projects showed a collection of bright neon ink on paper works by Chinese-American artist and poet Walasse Ting from the 1980s and 90s, including a striking yellow vertical landscape painting from the late 1980s titled Admiring the Golden Mountain. Five works, including two colourful odalisque nudes, were conspicuously absent from the gallery’s presentation, with colour prints tacked in their place. ‘Something weird is happening at Taiwan customs; it’s never happened before. We hope to get them by tonight,’ one of the gallery representatives commented.
At ArtDoor Gallery, a series of contemporary black and white gelatin prints by Taiwanese clergyman and photographer Stanley Fung—for whom photography is ‘part of religious contemplation’—were on view, which included portraits and beautiful still lifes, as well as a series of graphic acrylic and gold leaf on canvas works by Taiwanese artist Liao Shiou-Ping.
There was a strong showing of works from Japan, especially of Gutai artists, and contemporary Japanese stars Yoshitomo Nara and Yayoi Kusama. Galerie Tamenaga, which specialises in impressionist and modern artists, exhibited a heavy impasto painting by Kazuo Shiraga from 1987—which was in great condition considering the conservation nightmare such works usually present—with an asking price of over USD 2 million; beautiful black and red ink on canvas paintings by Chen Jiang Hong; and abstract paintings in rivers of gold and black paint by Takehiko Sugawara.
Whitestone Gallery exhibited art fair favourites Yoshitomo Nara and Yayoi Kusama, including a selection of Kusama sculptures, felt pen on paper works, and a yellow on blue infinity net painting from 2013 titled Infinity Nets (PERR), which was listed at USD 1.8 million; Yoshitomo Nara works on paper and large ceramic plate, Is Eternal Life Possible? (2007), and several colourful enamel on canvas works by Gutai artist Atsuko Tanaka. Sakurado Fine Arts also presented a selection of Yayoi Kusama works including a golden flower and phallus floor sculpture (A Flower, 1986) on reserve for USD 500,000.
Lack of information and labelling was a general problem throughout the fair; and where there were labels they were usually in Chinese. Behind a black curtain hung over a doorway, the sound of throbbing music could be heard coming from an installation of suspended neon light squares rhythmically changing colour to sound. I later found out that this was Enigmatica (2010/2018) by Kit Webster; it formed part of the fair’s exhibition The Enigmatic Museum—part of a group of curated presentations organised by the fair, which also included a booth dedicated to the works of Taiwan’s pioneering modernists titled Resonance. Loop. Art in Post-War Taiwan. Here, some standout works by Lee Shi Chi, pioneer avant-garde artist Chuang Shih Hei, and bold geometric paintings by Taiwan’s father of modern printmaking, Liao Shiou-Ping were on display.
As art fairs and events around the world multiply, and monolithic machines like Art Basel take the spotlight, it can be a relief to stroll down art-filled aisles at a slower pace and enjoy a more regional and less predictable show, where the focus isn’t on art world stars and luxury brand sponsors. But the presentation at Art Taipei was more reflective of a sad decline than strong regional talent. Despite the quality of some of the art on view, the preponderance of vernacular art—there was an inexplicable abundance of large sculptures of ceramic animals, paintings of whales, and hobby-ist landscapes—sadly felt more fitting for a hotel lobby.
Around the fair, galleries seemed more focused on preparing for the upcoming Taipei Biennial: Post-nature—A Museum as an Ecosystem (17 November 2018–10 March 2019). Still, there were numerous exhibitions to see across the city. Lin & Lin Gallery presented Lai Chiu-Chen’s solo exhibition of acrylic on canvas works, Bubble Kabushiki Kaisha Taipei (13 October–24 November 2018), which bring together anime and cartoon characters that the artist integrates into geometric interwoven frames, fusing artistic references from Josef Albers to René Magritte. These multi-layered and cleverly textured works were skilfully composed, divided into sections that display fragments of what the artist has seen or remembered from popular culture to everyday life, including textiles, cartoons, and nature.
Tina Keng Gallery and its contemporary platform TKG+ staged three shows. The former presented a solo exhibition by Taiwanese artist Ava Hsueh, whose series of drip paintings, supposedly based on a reconstruction of text through painting, had all the originality of designer Virgil Abloh’s collections, borrowing so heavily from Jackson Pollock that on a cursory glance, one could be forgiven for mistaking several of the works for those of the abstract expressionist (Between Shuttles, 29 September–9 December 2018).
TKG+ presented a group show of work by Taiwanese artists examining Taiwan’s ongoing struggle for national identity (Reality | Undercurrent, 6 October–25 November 2018), including Lee Hsu-pin, Tsai Wan-Shuen, Yang Chi-chuan, and Yang Yu-chiao. The artworks respond to the writings of the 1960s Li Poetry Society, which strove to express local Taiwanese culture as a form of resistance in the face of martial law imposed by Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and lasting almost four decades, and mainstream Chinese culture. Yang Chi-Chuan’s Nine Lines (2018), an installation of tangled overhead powerlines and utility poles—a familiar sight in the bustling alleys of her neighbourhood—evoke chaos, home, and a sense of poetry to be discovered in the everyday.
Downstairs, Thai artist Mit Jai Inn was setting up his solo exhibition of brightly pigmented works, Light, Dark, Other (27 October–25 November 2018). The artist, who previously showed at the 21st Biennale of Sydney (16 March–11 June 2018), was busy pouring and flicking paint into a container that covered a large canvas with a shallow layer of water, a look of concentration on his face and cigarette dangling out of the corner of his mouth. The painting Light, Dark (pool) (2018), a meditation on light and time, is in a constant state of evolution and creation as the pigment floats and mixes, rippling and reflecting light. As the water evaporates over a month or so, he explained, the canvas can be hung after drying. Elsewhere, larger swathes of canvas, daubed and painted with colourful abstract shapes, were suspended from the ceiling and laid out on the floor for visitors to walk on.
At the impressive Kengo Kuma-designed Whitestone Gallery, Play Around the World (6 October–11 November 2018), a solo exhibition by Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman (whose giant inflatable yellow duck has graced harbours around the world from France, Brazil, Japan, and Hong Kong) filled the space with colourful cartoonish sculptures, wall installations of animals, and large glass eyes. While the experimental Project Fulfill Art Space staged a solo exhibition by Japanese artist Yuko Mohri, titled Same As It Ever Was (29 September–3 November 2018): found objects such as kitchen utensils, plastic bottles, and boots, formed into assemblages that borrow from early-20th-century Japanese philosopher Soetsu Yanagi’s concept of the ‘beauty of use’ when it comes to hand-made folk-crafts made by unknown craftsmen for ordinary use.
With Taipei Dangdai about to disrupt the Taiwanese art scene, presenting a threat—or challenge—to the future of Art Taipei, perhaps the fair might consider what beauty of use—in terms of organisation and functionality—could mean for its future.