«Visualising culture and gender: postcolonial feminist analyses of women's exhibitions in Taiwan, 1996-2003 This item was submitted to Loughborough ...»
She uses digital techniques to print newspaper cuttings on vinyl, which represents a modern landscape instead of an ancient one. The tones and colours of the newspaper cuttings were similar to those of old ink-on-paper paintings, resulting in a modern high-tech artwork, which created a sense of the antique and the traditional. When looking more closely at the work, the viewers realise that the text comes from recent newspaper cuttings and notice that they reflect the problems and circumstances of modern Taiwan. With the indistinct and intense text of the print, a sense of the chaos and disorder of Taiwan’s current predicament is depicted.
M. Turner, © 2008 A feminist woman artist’s concern has thus gone beyond the gender boundaries, and women, as a subject, have become sufficiently confident to adopt a higher viewpoint and observe matters that transcend gender, society, nature and politics. Examining Lin’s works is like looking at the development of Taiwanese women artists as a whole, and the way in which feminist women artists have acquired a new perspective concerning their environment as gender issues have become a less serious problem. In the development of feminism, ‘first-wave feminism lobbied for enfranchisement and for equal assessment of professions and property for women while second-wave feminism urged for liberation from the oppressiveness of a patriarchal society’.33 Lin’s Beautiful Life has demonstrated that Taiwanese women artists have surpassed the periods of first-wave and second-wave feminism and their focus has gone beyond gender issues to the wider frames of society. Less than ten years has elapsed between the dates when the two works, Antithesis and Intertext and Beautiful Life, were created; I propose that this indicates the fact that the development of Taiwan’s women’s art has accelerated greatly within a short period of time.
The next artist to be considered is Yen Ming-Hui, whose work, A Man and a
Ming-Hui is also one of those women artists who returned to Taiwan after living and studying abroad in the late 1980s. She started her career as a feminist Lin Pey-Chwen’s other work, Baby: Back to Nature (2000), shown in Sweet and Sour Yeast (2000-2001), also echoes this attitude.
See Pilcher, Jane and Imelda Whelehan. 50 Key Concepts in Gender Studies. London:
Sage, 2004, p 144.
M. Turner, © 2008 artist by creating paintings with figurative images of fruits, which are reminiscent of sex organs. One of her most famous works, Three Apples (1988) [fig 71], has half an apple in the middle, while two whole apples are placed in front. The cut apple which is partly hidden at the back shows its core in a triangular shape framed by the two fruits at the front. The three bright-red apples occupy nearly the whole space of the painting, and this gives the viewer a strong sense of fullness and tension. Through the artist’s painting skills, the images are represented in great detail and the core obviously acts as a metaphor for a woman’s genitals and anus.
In A Man and a Woman, the artist illustrates a man and a woman on the left and right sides of the image, separating their bodies into four sections. Here, Rene Magritte’s surrealist style is used to present details of objects. Several other objects are connected to imply complete bodies; roses, a cat, a suit, a portrait of a Western man, a woman’s face with sun glasses, a woman’s breasts, bottom and bare feet are all depicted in this painting. Having been trained in Western painting for her first degree and having received a master’s degree in New York, Yen has good oil painting skills to record details of objects.
In A Man and a Woman, the female’s genitals are not shown, however, a yellow ribbon is tied around a highly detailed penis, reversing the traditional focus, which would normally have the woman exposed and the man hidden. Yen has been described as ‘the first female artist in Taiwan to express an explicitly feminist creative consciousness’.34 As she is the premier feminist artist, whilst expressing her feminist opinions she has encountered a lot of difficulties from Lu, Victoria. ‘Striving for a Cultural Identity in the Maze of Power Struggles: A Brief Introduction to the Development of Contemporary Art of Taiwan’ in Gao, Minglu (ed). Inside Out: New Chinese Art. Exh. Cat, University of California Press, 1998, p 170.
M. Turner, © 2008 the art establishment and the public, however, when discussing the history of early feminist arts development in Taiwan, Yen is the one artist who cannot be ignored.
In Yen’s works, fruits, bodies and other objects are treated symbolically so as to express her views of the body and exposure, for which similar examples may be found among Western feminist artists, as will be discussed below.
The American feminist artist Judy Chicago states that ‘I felt myself to be both the image/surface and the artist working on that painting simultaneously. The canvas was like my own skin; I was the painting and the painting was me’.35 By contrast, another woman artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, who spent much of her time painting flowers with a gender metaphor, denied the relationship between her works and femininity. In Through the Flower (1975), Chicago asserts that ‘O’Keeffe […] resisted articulating her commitment to a female art, despite the fact that her work clearly reflects that commitment’.36 In Taiwan, there are also several women artists who have denied the remarks that their works were relevant to feminist or gender discourses, although they revealed the strength of femininity or feminism. For example, Yen Ming-Hui refused to be labelled as a feminist artist but affirms that the fruits in her works are metaphors for
When painting fruits, I often felt as if I was painting a woman, although I was not sure if I was painting another woman or myself. […] Sometimes when men and women were together, men would make women think that they were like fruits: delicious, sweet, soft and juicy. The reason why I Chicago, Judy. Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist. New York: Penguin Books, 1975, p 142.
Ibid., p 177.
M. Turner, © 2008 depicted grapes resembling human breasts was merely by instinct. In my experience, it was like ‘eating grapes’ [when men were with women].
Allow me to say that it was a praise for women!37 By creating images of fruits, Yen expresses the essence and desires of women’s bodies through sensory experiences of sight, taste and touch. By creating figurative fruits and human bodies, she dilutes the suppression and tension of sexual desires. However, the styles of her works have raised controversial debates in the conservative social environment of Taiwan during the late 1980s and the early 1990s.
In Chinese (Han) philosophy, bodies should be covered as much as possible and it is generally discourteous to have any bodily contact between men and women in public. In Confucianism, a proverb, which has been practised for thousands of years, says that ‘no gazing is polite’ (Fei Li Wu Shi). In Chinese philosophy, it is not appropriate to look at women’s bodies, nor to discuss them in the public realm. This value is similar to the tenets of a religious belief and it conforms with Buddhist principles. Buddhist nuns and monks cover up all gender characteristics; no hair is tolerated on the head and only baggy gowns are worn. They seem to repudiate the biological differences among human beings and actually they disregard all of the desires of being human.
However, Buddhists are viewed as those individuals who have the highest morals in Chinese-influenced society and their ideology suppresses Taiwanese society’s wish to view bodies and to express one’s sexuality and desires. As a result, Yen’s works were hardly accepted by many people and Yen Ming-Hui ‘Grapes • Human beings • Glass with Night Lights’ in Hui Huang Shih Tai. Yen Ming-Hui Art Catalogue 1988-90. Taipei, 1990, no page numbers.
M. Turner, © 2008 she was seriously criticised as ‘a yelling, failed and devoured woman’.38 Apart from her artistic style, Yen made her unsuccessful marriage the subject of her works and also published articles in newspapers after divorcing Jang Jen-Yu, a well-known male artist. However, having been called a feminist artist, she insisted that she was a ‘humanist’ artist, as what she is concerned
with is merely humanity rather than sexuality:
A few people viewed me as a painter with a topic of sex; in fact, I am a painter concerned with humanity. Sexuality is a part of humanity.
Having painted women’s breasts or a man’s penis does not mean that I am painting sex (if so, it is like putting the most important part of being a human to the lowest level: biology). What I do is to address the fact that humanity in society has been limited to the frame of sexuality; therefore, both men’s and women’s lives cannot be developed completely and it has sacrificed the meaning of each individual simply to maintain the propagation of human beings.39 Feminism falls under the larger umbrella of humanism, as it seeks what should be provided to women (who are regarded as inferior and subalterns). What Yen argues through her works is that the ‘other’ should be as important as the ‘subject’ and there should be a balance in terms of power in gender issues in society. Sexuality and sexual characteristics, as elements of humanity, deserve to be paid equal attention as integral parts of our lives.
In Yen’s works, she likes to juxtapose objects to form a balanced arrangement.
Hou, Yi-Jen. ‘Are the Hidden Voices Heard: A Discussion about Art and Life with Yen Ming-Hui’ in Hou Ke International Art. Yen Ming-Hui Art Catalogue. Taipei, 1995, p 5.
Yen Ming-Hui. ‘Water, Moon, Dream and Shadow: On a Solo Exhibition of “Empty Flowers Series”’ in Hou Ke International Art, op cit, p 10.
M. Turner, © 2008 For example, in A Man and a Woman, the images of the male and the female figures are arranged evenly over the whole area of the painting, and other objects are balanced with each other by their colours and shapes, implying that the world is composed of both simple and complex binary relationships. Yen addresses the fact that men’s and women’s bodies both exist in nature, although males are granted the central position, both in Eastern and Western traditions. Her works do not comply with society’s traditional expectations of what women artists should create - usually landscapes, still lives, flowers and nature. On the contrary, her works are so powerful as to unveil women’s bodies, by which a certain power is exerted to force society to inspect the hidden, inner force, nature and mystery of bodies.
When Taiwan’s society was still very conservative in the early 1990s, artists began to give expression through their paintings to issues relating to the body.
Accordingly, some artists chose to address this topic in an indirect way, that is, to manifest it through an imaginary body rather than realistic images of the body. In this category, another artist and painter, Lai Mei-Hua, exhibited her work Face of a Woman (1995) [fig 72]. Lai Mei-Hua’s works are different from Yen Ming-Hui’s, even though they both use body as a theme for their works.
Although she was one of the artists who started to create works relating to gender and bodies in the early 1990s, Lai did not receive as much criticism as Yen owing to the fact that she used illustration skills to present sexuality symbolically. Both Yen and Lai received their bachelor’s degrees from the National Taiwan Normal University but they have each created their own styles according to their different characteristics and methods. Unlike those by Yen, Lai’s works are suggestive of illustrations for stories, full of imaginary colours, M. Turner, © 2008 de-constructed shapes and fairy-tale creatures, such as, for example Happiness (1990) [fig 73]. In Face of a Woman, the artist twists and deforms the shape of a face, so that it looks as if it is scowling and distressed. The artist herself describes this work in the following terms: ‘Face of a Woman: the hopeless souls, full of desires, sadness, suffering, anger and despair. To tear the well-known face and to further explore the complicated inner world of women’.40 In this painting, heart-shaped lips or labia can be seen at the centre of the painting and the eyes which are depicted to their right, look resignedly at the viewer. The painting looks as if it was the artist’s dream, a dream in which the whole world was turning round, and furthermore, it resembles the thoughts of a woman in pursuit of her memories. According to the artist’s statements, this is a woman’s face showing sadness and this sadness perhaps results from the suppression of her sexual instinct.
For feminists, oppression comes not only from men but also from other women including their mothers, sisters and colleagues, who drag them back in obedience to their traditions and insist on the acceptance of domination. For those feminist artists who initiated the debate about gender and body in the early and mid 1990s, their battle was fought both with their male counterparts
example can be seen in Lai’s experience. In Power of Women’s Creation (1994), Lai asserted in an interview that ‘[o]ne day I created a painting. After Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Mind and Spirit: Women’s Art in Taiwan. Exh Cat., Taipei, 1998, p 119.
M. Turner, © 2008 seeing it, my Mum said “disgusting” and then went back home. She never came to see my exhibition’.41 Although martial law was lifted in 1987, the Taiwanese artistic field did not respond to the political changes spontaneously because Taiwanese society was not completely liberal. According to Wang Yako, Chiang Wen-Yu, a
Taiwanese scholar, explained that: