«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»
Identity of gender can be addressed by looking at some photographs by Chien Fu-Yu. Being a photographer and the current chairperson of the Awakening Foundation (a centre for progressive feminist activities in law, politics, society, culture and educational change, established in Taipei in 1987), Chien has taken photographs of Taiwanese women from all walks of life, including doctors, artists, sportswomen, musicians, nurses, teachers, chefs, mothers, women working in the rice fields and those worshipping in the temples. These photographs have been published in the Awakening Foundation Magazine, which was first printed in 1982. In the Taipei Biennial 1996, she exhibited several photographs of élite Taiwanese women born during the Japanese occupation [fig 62 and fig 63]. Her subjects include Yao Min-Hsuan, Taiwan's first woman news reporter after Taiwan's Retrocession in 1945, Chen Hsin-His, the first Taiwanese woman poet, who devoted her life to promoting poems about Taiwan after the Chinese nationalists took over Taiwan, and Chan Hsin-Mei. Born as a princess of the aboriginal Taiwanese Tayal tribe, Chan devoted her life to maintaining the traditional handicrafts and culture of her group.26 Chien Fu-Yu thus started her career as a photographer for the first feminist publication in Taiwan and she wrote short articles as introductions to these See Chien, Fu-Yu. Women • History: Sixty-Six Taiwanese Women’s Photographs and Stories. Taipei: Tipi Publisher, 2004, p 6.
M. Turner, © 2008 women. Through Chien’s photographs, the history of Taiwanese women’s images was compiled and the artist captured the changes in women’s modes of dress and fashion from the 1980s to the present. Her works have been gathered together in several albums, showing the different appearances of women in all areas and of different ages. Though having no complicated skills or techniques, Chien took photographs that were vividly familiar to her audience. If globalisation is to rebuild the life styles and ideology of people in Taiwan, Chien’s portrayal of these bodies in her ideology is intensely precious.
They form a virtual genealogy of those moments which have passed and have become history; through her work, traditions and cultures have been kept alive.
Here, I demonstrate that the significance of her works, which present a documentation of the faces of Taiwanese women during the period of urbanisation, have formed an important part of the Taipei Biennial 1996, and have shown to the world both where Taiwanese women have come from, and their location in the history of Taiwan.
Here I argue that photographs are seen as the means, though which Chien has recorded the history of Taiwanese women. The concepts that Chien archived in the faces of women of different generations, professions, classes and even ethnic origins is similar to the attitude of the artists in the first two chapters, who have re-written Taiwan’s historiography in order to rediscover the voices of the hidden women. Additionally, after having taken the photographs in this series for a period of twenty years (from 1982 to 2002), Chien published Women • History: Sixty-Six Taiwanese Women’s Photographs and Stories (2004), a M. Turner, © 2008 selected collection of stories and photographs of sixty-six Taiwanese women.27 Originally trained as a painter in ink and silk paintings, Lin Li-Hua was invited to show her work, Ye Zi-Mei and Mona Lisa (1995) [fig 64]. Through this work, Lin criticised the influence of the press over values in Taiwanese society and how people appreciated the beauty of women. The woman on the left of the image is Ye Zi-Mei, who was a popular Taiwanese film actress. With her ‘sexy’ dress and heavy make-up, worn while posing in front of the neon lights of a nightclub, she displayed a typical kind of Westernised feminine beauty. This kind of Western dressing-up can be traced back to the influence of American culture in the 1950s and 1960s, at which time there were many American soldiers based in Taiwan during the Vietnam War.28 In that period, girls who intended to attract American soldiers would dress up in styles which they thought replicated those of Western women. Even until the early 1990s, the Taiwanese thought that exposing women’s bodies was what people regarded as a Western characteristic. Since the mid 1990s, an increasing number of films and TV programmes from the US have been shown in Taiwan and the impact of these has exercised control over the public’s view towards foreign concepts of beauty. Additionally, heterosexual males’ desires also strengthen this kind of gaze at the female body. The artist, Lin Li-Hua, challenged this Ibid.
When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, the US President, Harry Truman, intervened and dispatched the 7th Fleet into the Taiwan Straits to prevent the forces of communist China from crossing to take over Taiwan. Taiwan therefore became a military base for the US during the 1950s in its struggle to maintain democracy in the Asia-Pacific region. From 1965 to 1972, American soldiers in the Vietnam War treated Taiwan as a holiday resort. There were about 500,000 American soldiers involved in the War, of which 210,000 came to Taiwan for rest and recuperation. The situation continued until 1980 when diplomatic relations between the American and Taiwanese governments officially ceased.
During the time when thousands of Americans were staying in Taiwan, many nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and shops were opened with help from the Military Assistance and Advisory Group (a part of the American military units). See Formosa Television News, http://www.ftvn.com.tw/Topic/CaringTW/TWnotes/0412.htm, consulted on 2 June 2007.
M. Turner, © 2008 ideology and raised questions about how women’s bodies can be interpreted.
Lin also depicted another image beside that of Ye Zi-Mei, this one being the image of an overweight Mona Lisa. Being one of the most recognisable women in art history, Mona Lisa represents the archetypal noble, educated, middle-class and beautiful woman. What kind of confusion would occur in viewers’ minds when they found that the ideal woman had increased significantly in weight? Does the body’s appearance exclusively determine how attractive a woman is considered to be, and is the power of beauty stronger than a woman’s intelligence and abilities? Through this work, all of these questions are exposed for the viewer to consider.
Lin also showed a further work, which warrants some comment. Time Has Given Us Different Faces (1994) [fig 65] reveals the inner myths of women in modern society. Being a wife, mother and daughter-in-law herself, Lin Li-Hua’s early works depicted pretty young women in a Chinese style. They are reflections of her own image and life and they were created in the form of traditional Chinese silk paintings. In Time Has Given Us Different Faces, the artist placed two women in the background, dressed in the style of the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), an era during which art and culture were highly developed and appreciated. The woman in the foreground, in the black dress, looks as if she is lost in her personal thoughts and worries. The contrast between these women makes the onlooker wonder what has made this young woman so preoccupied. Perhaps the answer comes from the rapid changes taking place in Taiwan’s contemporary environment. In the following section, I aim to address the rapid social changes in contemporary Taiwan.
M. Turner, © 2008 Taiwan’s rapid industrialisation and the precipitate growth of its economy have affected people’s lives greatly. Since globalisation has become one of the most essential Taiwanese government’s policies, traditional ideology and its advocates face the challenge of how to change Taiwan’s appearance to adjust to modern trends. Women, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, are strongly influenced by Confucianism which, for thousands of years, has cultivated the belief that women are inferior to men and that ignorance in women is regarded as a virtue. Taiwanese society expected that women should be clever enough not only to absorb modern knowledge but also to maintain the traditional values. Thus, from the distant past to the twenty-first century, women have constantly had to change their faces and bodies, but challenging patriarchal values has only become a serious task for them in the past forty years.
The next woman artist I shall introduce is Lin Pey-Chwen. The motifs of her work, Antithesis and Intertext (1995) [fig 66 and fig 67], echo those of Lin Li-Hua’s Yei Zi-Mei and Mona Lisa. Both of these works were created in order to question the myth of beauty. Lin Pey-Chwen combined Confucian literature, women’s portraits and embroidery skills to challenge men’s views of beauty in women. In Antithesis and Intertext, the idea of using an arrangement of traditional Chinese fans was adopted to install the work. In the top left-hand part of the work, Lin arranged five images inside water lilies, depicting the conventional notion of beauty in women’s faces in contemporary Taiwan.
These are Western women’s faces with large blue eyes, thick eyebrows, blond hair, high noses and full lips. In the bottom left-hand part of the work, Western women with large breasts are shown, whilst high-heeled shoes are presented M. Turner, © 2008 in the water lilies above. In the top right-hand section of the work, five representative Oriental women’s faces grow from the water lilies, illustrating the stereotypical view of ancient beauty. Such Oriental beauties were said to have ‘willow eyebrows, apricot eyes and a cherry mouth’ (these were the terms used to describe a beautiful woman in classical Chinese Literature). Lotus shoes are placed in the central part of the right-hand section. Such shoes served as the tools by means of which women in both China and Taiwan, obtained the small feet that entitled them to lay claim to beauty and a superior status.
Some passages of text have been screen-printed and inserted amongst the images in order to emphasise the metaphors of the images. The text shown on the left gives instructions suggesting methods for enlarging the breasts such as ‘increasing the height, enlarging the sizes, re-sculpting the shape of the breasts and lightening the colour of the nipples’.29 The text on the right is
about a woman’s (Chin Shu Hsin’s) experience of foot-binding:
I lived in a village called Font Head in the Ping His region, when I was a child. Small bound feet were always seen as a symbol of beauty in my village. My mother performed the binding for me when I was only six years old. My feet were washed firstly in warm water and my four toes were forced to bend inwards to the centre of the foot and then bound with strips as tightly as possible […] I felt sick and was unable to walk […]30 The text and images refer to a practice whereby women’s bodies were Lin, Pey-Chwen. The Position of Women in Taiwan’s Social Structure Reflected in Contemporary Arts Practice, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Wollongong, Faculty of Creative Arts, Australia, 1996, p 117.
Ke, Chi-Sheng. Three-inch Golden Lotus Shoes. Taipei: Business Information Magazine Publisher, 1995, p100. Also cited in Lin, P. C., ibid.
M. Turner, © 2008 reconstructed in an artificial way in order to be seen as a beautiful object. The text presented by means of embroidery on satin has a strong link with the metaphorical content of this work. Lin Pey-Chwen criticised women who followed the public values by deforming their bodies in order to meet the social standards of having a perfect and beautiful body. By challenging this male-oriented ideology and the influences of the mass media, her works gave rise to a debate in a still conservative Taiwanese society in the mid 1990s.
In Lin’s doctoral dissertation, she confirmed that what inspired her to work in feminist research was her own experience of gender oppression in society.
Lin’s impulse to be a feminist artist is typical of the early post-martial law Taiwanese women artists, most of whom had endured difficulties due to
patriarchal hierarchy. She states that:
I finally realised that although with all my best intentions and personal efforts to overcome traditional female submission, I still could not change the fixed and conventional definition and role of a woman. For example, I suffered misunderstanding and took the blame from my husband because I put more time and energy into my artworks instead of into childcare […]31 Being one of the first Taiwanese feminist women artists, Lin’s earlier works were created primarily to challenge patriarchal values in Taiwan. From Antithesis and Intertext, she criticised the ‘materialised female bodies’ and the male’s gaze in modern society, which was restricted within Confucian values.
After the feminist movement was launched in Taiwan in the late 1980s, Taiwanese feminist artists argued that gender issues should be the main
M. Turner, © 2008 theme of their works, but they have recently shifted their attention to the underprivileged parts of society, such as to the working-class women, as demonstrated above, in chapter two. In Lin Pey-Chwen’s recent works, the artist has switched her focus away from essential feminist issues to a consideration of the subject matter related to society. The purpose of discussing this work is to illustrate the fact that contemporary feminist women artists have expressed their concerns and criticisms with regard to wider parts of society, instead of merely to gender issues.
Lin’s Beautiful Life (2004) [fig 68 and fig 69] was created for a group exhibition called Nexus: Taiwan in Queens held at the Queens Museum of Arts in New York in 2004. Through this work, the artist transferred her concern from gender issues to express a more wide-ranging social conscience. Beautiful Life was a large-scale installation and was shown in the traditional way of Chinese paintings, whereby paintings are hung from the ceiling and supported by wooden poles at the top and bottom. This work resembles a Chinese landscape painting produced during the Northern Sung dynasty (960-1234).