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Issue 192

Spectrosynthesis – Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now

Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei, Taiwan 

BY Alvin Li in Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 15 DEC 17

For a travelling exhibition on Asian LGBTQ art, Taiwan seems a good place to start. Set to become the first Asian country to legalize same-sex marriage following a High Court decision in May 2017, it is also known for its rich history of LGBTQ culture. Modern literature with homosexual themes surfaced in Taiwan as early as the 1950s, while the lifting of martial law in 1987, after 38 years, ushered in a fierce wave of social movements and cultural production, including gay and lesbian-centered rights groups and cinema, alongside queer and postcolonial theory.

Perhaps this context made me expect too much from ‘Spectrosynthesis - Asian LGBTQ Issues and Art Now’, the first art exhibition to explicitly focus on LGBTQ issues in a government-run institution in Asia. Staged in collaboration with the Sunpride Foundation, a private Hong Kong-based non-profit organization that aims to exhibit and preserve LGBTQ art, the show, while admirable in intent, presents a number of problems. The first of these is gender bias. It is somewhat ironic that an exhibition which evokes the rainbow – a symbol of equality and inclusion – in its title and visual identity, should include only three women and one trans person amongst 22 artists. Even if this were due to the lack of female or trans artists in Asia working with LGBT themes (which is debatable), it’s an absence that deserves to be addressed within the exhibition context, rather than ignored.

Tseng Kwong Chi, San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge) from the 'East Meets West' series, 1979. Courtesy: Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York, USA

This exhibition has been positioned, awkwardly, as both public awareness campaign and art-historical survey – and it struggles curatorially to reconcile both aims. Hung at the entrance are two seminal 1960s portraits of androgynous youths by Taiwanese artist Shiy De-Jinn. In the next room, the exhibition jumps to an array of paintings from the 1990s by the West Coast portraitist turned downtown New York legend, Martin Wong. While Wong’s oeuvre is mesmerizing, its link to queer Asia is oblique, and the inclusion of his Ferocactus Peninsulae V.Viscainensis (completed in 1998, a year before the artist’s death) to signify queer suffering during the AIDS epidemic feels more didactic than empathetic.

Together with the psychedelic paintings by Fu-sheng Ku and Tseng Kwong Chi’s ‘East Meets West’ self-portrait series (1979–89), shot in a variety of landmark destinations across the US with the artist in the foreground, dressed in a Mao suit, the works of Wong and Shiy comprise the historical component of the exhibition. However, the art-historical development between these and the newer works in the show, most of which were created after 2010, is barely discussed. That the works are not laid out chronologically across the two-floors of the museum space makes this all the more noticeable. Nor are they thematically arranged, leaving us perplexed as to why, for example, Yan Xing’s The History of Fugue (2012), the Chinese artist’s tribute to the charged chiaroscuro of Robert Mapplethorpe, is facing Samson Young’s Muted Situations #5: Muted Chorus (2014), a video of staged choral composition, minus the music.

Ku Fu-sheng, The Room at the Top of the Stairs, 1983. Courtesy: MOCA Taipei, Taiwan

The legacy of queer discourse in 1990s Taiwan urges us to think of ways to resist homogenization and preserve cultural specificity in queer experience. Several artists’ in ‘Spectrosynthesis’ exemplify this engagement. Xi Ya Die, an artist born in 1963 in mainland China, employs the traditional Chinese art of paper-cutting to narrate his struggle as well as pleasure in gradually coming to terms with his homosexuality. Door (2017) depicts two men engaging in oral sex outside a household; through the window we see a woman – the artist’s wife – in bed with their children. This clash between individuality (the pursuit of pleasure) and heteronormative precept masked as social responsibility (marriage was considered indispensable for those of Xi’s generation) is representative of the queer struggle of many generations across the Sinosphere. Elsewhere, Hong Kong-born, Vancouver-based artist Ho Tam presents several queer magazine series that he designs, edits and self-publishes. The 'hotam' series (2010–ongoing) opens with an issue titled A Brief History of Me, where private photos of the artist, from youth to adulthood, are juxtaposed with brief notes on historic events to form a timeline. For hotam#5: Hot Asian Men (2014), the artist invited 13 writers and artists to contribute texts ranging from personal stories to fiction and poetry, illustrating them with images from his collection of found photos and posters of Asian movie stars from the past. Meant to circulate through book fairs, these experimental publications offer humorous but poignant reflection on how Asian queer culture is increasingly constructed and fetishized in relation to consumerism in today’s neoliberal age.

Sadly, these individual highlights ultimately cannot save the Taipei iteration of ‘Spectrosynthesis’ from being a pedestrian exhibition. With its ambitious scope, it fails to delve into Taiwan’s rich and particular queer discourse, nor does it further current research on contemporary queer practices in Asia.

Main image: Jun-Jieh Wang, “Passion”, 2017, video still. Courtesy: MOCA Taipei, Taiwan

Alvin Li is a writer, a contributing editor of frieze, and The Adjunct Curator, Greater China, Supported by the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, at Tate. He lives and works in Shanghai, China.