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Mysticism, Nationalist Identities, and Modern/Contemporary Taiwanese Art

Curated by Feng-Yi Chu

ISCP 2024 Spring Open Studio (April 12, 13)



Mysticism, encompassing knowledge systems and practices beyond the bounds of modern science, such as supernatural beliefs, spiritual mediums, astrology, shamanism, and alternative medicine, holds a prominent position within the global art scene, including Taiwan. This exhibition categorizes Taiwan's art history into six stages: (1) pre-1945, (2) the 1950s–60s, (3) the 1970s–80s, (4) the 1980s–90s, (5) the 2000s–2010s, and (6) the period after 2010. By showcasing a variety of Taiwanese artworks through images, the exhibition illuminates how mystical concepts and elements have inspired artists across different eras, enabling them to articulate their concerns and perspectives on various social and political issues, including nationalist identities and even mysticism itself. 


(1) pre-1945

Taiwanese modern art emerged during Japan's governance of the island, primarily expressed through realist paintings and sculptures. Mysticism was among the themes depicted in paintings of the era, often portrayed through religious scenes or objects observed by artists in their daily lives, reflecting the artists’ conceptualization of Taiwanese culture.



Chi-Chun Liao (廖繼春), Tainan Confucius Temple (台南孔廟), 1931. Oil on canva, 38 × 45 cm.


Umehara Ryuzaburo (梅原龍三郎), Scene in Taiwan (台灣風景), 1933. Oil on canvas, 37.4 × 45.2 cm.



(2) the 1950s–60s

After World War II, Taiwan came under the control of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party, also known as the Chinese Nationalist Party, and was given a new name—the Republic of China (ROC). The party's fervent desire to assimilate the local population into a “proper Chinese” identity was clearly demonstrated through its regulations, particularly in the realms of education and culture. Meanwhile, Taiwanese artists—whether they arrived from the mainland during the KMT's retreat or had lived on the island during Japan's rule—were influenced by Western art movements, particularly abstractionism. While they learned and adopted Western artistic forms, mysticism—especially ideas derived from traditional Eastern philosophies such as Taoism and Buddhism—was employed by abstract painters to create a contrast with Western artworks. This desire to establish a collective Eastern uniqueness can be interpreted as a reflection of the construction of Chinese identity, as Chinese identity was often associated with the concept of being 'Easterners' in Chinese nationalist narratives.



Hsiao Chin (蕭勤), Source of Divinity (源神), 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 70 x 90 cm.


Sheng-Jung Liu (劉生容), Work No.1156, 1971. Mixed media and oil on canvas, 116.5 x 91 cm.


Sheng-Jung Liu (劉生容), Work No.002, 1973. Mixed media and oil on canvas, 116.5 x 91 cm.

(3) the 1970s–80s

Despite being honored as one of the Four Asian Tigers for its successful integration into the global manufacturing chain, Taiwan also experienced the negative consequences of modern development: wealth inequality, pollution, labor alienation, rising crime rates, and more. This prompted questions about Western modernity and a growing interest in alternative paths. When Taiwanese art critics became dissatisfied with previous practices—merely adopting Western artistic forms and incorporating Eastern mystical elements for contrast—they began to recognize the rebellious value in outsider art (or naïve art) created by amateur and untrained artists. Not only were the contents of these artworks different, but their forms and use of materials also diverged from Western artistic practices. The enthusiasm for artists like Hung Tung, a spiritual medium-turned-painter, exemplifies this shift.



Hung Tung (洪通), Untitled, year unknown. Ink on pape, 65 x 79.5 cm.



Hung Tung (洪通), Untitled, year unknown. Ink on paper, 54 x 78.3 cm.


Hung Tung (洪通), Untitled, year unknown. Ink on paper, 68 x 122 cm.

(4) the 1980s–90s

When the KMT government lost its seat in the UN and its diplomatic relationship with the US, not only did its ruling authority come under challenge, but also the Chinese nationalist narratives it promoted. This period saw the emergence of social movements and political reforms, including the rise of modern Taiwanese nationalism. Religious scenes, patterns, and activities observed in daily life once again became subjects for artists in Taiwan. They used these elements either as metaphors to convey their attitudes and feelings toward social and political issues, or as representations of Taiwanese culture and identity. This approach to artistic practice continues to the present day. 



Chin-He Huang had a brief experience of American life and culture in the late 1980s, which strengthened his recognition and affinity for Taiwanese identity. Upon returning to Taiwan, he, like realist artists before 1945, sought renewed artistic inspiration from his daily life. Objects and colorful patterns commonly seen in Taiwan’s folk religion are frequently observed in his artworks.


Chin-He Huang (黃進河), Fu-Lu-Shou, 2017. Oil on canvas, 120 x 200 cm.



This quest didn't end in the 1980s. Artist Chih-Wei Huang, who earned his master's degree in sculpture in Belgium, returned to Taiwan in 2001. He has emphasized on multiple occasions that his primary motivation in art is the search for his identity, exploring what defines Taiwan, and understanding his uniqueness as a Taiwanese. His artworks particularly draw from his personal and sensory experiences of living on the island. The work New Brilliant Abundance employs several baldachins to represent the visual and somatosensory experiences of Taiwanese folk religious festivals.


Chih-Wei Huang (黃志偉), New Brilliant Abundance, 2017. Oil on canvas, 120 x 200 cm.


During this period, artists began to utilize mystical elements and symbols as tools to address various social and political issues in their works. A notable example is Mao-Lin Yang. In one of his series, he portrayed the villains from traditional Han mythologies as protagonists, aiming to challenge the ideological authority of the KMT government from China.


 Mao-Lin Yang (楊茂林), The Fury of Kung-Kung, 1985. Colored pencil, water color, acrylic on canvas, 57 x 77 cm.


Some artists addressed universal issues, including environmental and ecological crises. At the 1993 Venice Biennale, Ming-Sheng Lee's performance art featured a series of funeral rituals inspired by his hometown of Mei-Nung, Kaohsiung. This piece served as a lament for the human exploitation of forests.


Ming-Sheng Lee (李銘盛), Fire Ball or Circle (火球或圓), 1993. Performance photos from  Multiplicity of Folk Art exhibition at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts.

(5) the 2000s–2010s

As Taiwanese identity gradually becomes the major identity for most Taiwanese people, the topic of identity loses some of its allure. Alongside a strong embrace of Taiwanese identity, younger generation artists also possess a significant degree of global identity, concerning and addressing global issues in their artworks. The new era was also characterized by the rise of contemporary art, the advancement of new technologies, and the individualization of religious beliefs and practices. Employing various forms, media, and materials, the new generation of artists no longer view mysticism merely as a usable element, symbol, or metaphor, but also as a real subject for study and exploration by all.



Yu-Ping Kuo (郭俞平), Fragrance, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 35.5 x 26.7 cm.


Yu-Ping Kuo (郭俞平), Dead Water Slight Ripples, 2021. Acrylic on canvas, 19.5 x 26.3 cm.

Yu-Ping Kuo is a female artist from Taiwan. Her series of surrealist drawings, titled "Daughters," vividly convey powerful emotions rebelling against the patriarchal norms in the society. <Website>

Spirit-Writing is a work by Chia-Wei Hsu exhibited at the 2016 Taipei Biennial. The artist requested devotees of the frog god, Marshal Tie Jia, to perform a divination chair ritual, inquiring about the appearance of his demolished temple in Wuyishan, China. The trajectory of the chair and the deity's description during the ceremony were filmed and recorded. Subsequently, the artist created a 3D model of the temple that no longer exists. 

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Chia-Wei Hsu (許家維), Spirit-Writing, 2016. Video installation, dimensions variable.



Tzu-Tung Lee (李紫彤), #GhostKeepers, 2018-2023. Video and mixed media installations, dimensions variable.

Installation image from Mediating Asia exhibition at National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. 

Tzu-Tung Lee is a young artist whose works often incorporate various forms of technology, with a focus on topics such as political violence and social justice. Her work #GhostKeepers is participatory art that utilizes new-media technology, employing social media as a form of 'digital witchcraft' to evoke the spirits of political victims sacrificed by governments worldwide. During the exhibition, three participants from different regions created three fictional Facebook accounts, assuming the roles of political victims on social media and engaging with each other and other users. <Website>

Jia-Jhen Syu’s I collect a piece of you / you collect a piece of me is a participatory artwork. She turned her diary into 52 fortune-telling cards and used them to tell fortunes for participants. The artwork re-creates and performs an ancient religious or spiritual activity of mankind. Yet, the purpose of the artwork is not to discuss whether fortune-telling or other forms of spiritual communication are true or not, but to present how complicated are the mechanisms of different dimensions involved in fulfilling the mystical process. <Website>


Jia-Jhen Syu (許家禎), I collect a piece of you / you collect a piece of me, 2019-2023. Video, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Installation images by Sean Wang from Relocating Divinity at Waley Art. 


In Notes on Psychedelics III: 2-19-20, Yin-Ju Chen employs the techniques of "binaural beats," playing two different frequencies simultaneously to induce delta waves in the brains of the audience. Delta waves are said to appear during meditation. Through this technique and the mystical visual effects she creates, the work leads the audience on a shamanic journey of consciousness transformation. The exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum featured an FRP sculpture of a snake, single-channel videos, binaural beats of shamanic drumming, and a red light effect. <Website>


Yin-Ju Chen (陳瀅如), Notes on Psychedelics III- 2-19-20, 2021. Video, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Installation image from Modern Exorcist exhibition at Taipei Fine Arts Museum. 


Yin-Ju Chen (陳瀅如), Sonic Driving, 2021. Video installation and workshop, dimensions variable. Images from 13th Gwangju Biennial. 


In her work Sonic Driving (2021), which was commissioned by the 13th Guangju Biennial and the V-A-C Foundation, Yin-Ju Chen collaborated with a Taiwanese shaman to lead a spiritual workshop. Guided by the rhythm of drums and the instruction of the shaman, participants embarked on a transformative journey of consciousness, exploring the three shamanic realms: the upper world, the middle world, and the lower world. Their objective was to connect with their power animals and seek insights into the implications of technological advancements, such as AI, genetic engineering, and nuclear power, on the future of humanity.
   In the 13th Guangju Biennial, the artist presented four short videos showcasing workshop participants' reflections (projected on four walls, symbolizing the middle world), a video piece (15’20”) representing the upper world, a watercolor depiction symbolizing the lower world, and shamanic drumming. Here in the open studio, I am only presenting one video of participants' reflections from the AI workshop. <Website>


Yin-Ju Chen (陳瀅如), Sonic Driving, 2021. Video installation and workshop, dimensions variable. Images from 13th Gwangju Biennial. 


Ting-yu Liang's series, The Beheaded Stream Art Project, explores the historical conflicts between the Han ethnic group and indigenous communities in Taiwan. In his film, he employs the method of throwing divination blocks to inquire of the local deity about the details of past conflicts, such as how the incidents occurred, their locations, resolutions, and casualty figures. In essence, the artist employs mystical tools to conduct oral history research, blurring the boundaries between modern science and ancient mysticism. <Website>


Ting-yu Liang (梁廷毓), The Beheaded Stream Art Project, 2019. Video installation, dimensions variable. 


Jui-Lan Yao’s Cooper, Venus, Value Tec-objects is a research-based work consisting of video and several installations. In the video, the artist employs "mining" to draw connections between the history of copper mining in Taiwan and the energy consumption associated with Bitcoin production in China. The artist then utilizes “copper” to bridge Greek mythology, particularly the story of Venus and the island of Cyprus, highlighting the close link between materiality and human value systems. Additionally, an installation made of wafers is featured in the exhibition room, with yellow ambient light echoing the color tone of the wafer laboratory, exploring the new myth of wafer foundries as Taiwan’s national protectors, and the strategic international status that they offer to the island. <Website>


Jui-Lan Yao (姚睿蘭), Venus, Copper and Objects of Value, 2021, video, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable. Installation images by Sean Wang from Dear Block Chen exhibition at Solid Art.


(6) the period after 2010s

The study and exploration of mysticism lead to its second wave of disenchantment. By comprehending its essences, mechanisms, and effects, we can utilize mysticism as a tool to address individual and social problems, applying it within various contemporary theories and social/art movements, such as feminism, ecofeminism, and futurism, to produce innovative insights and solutions. 

after 2010s
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