The world is in the middle of a devastating pandemic, the USA has had a terrible week with riots in the Capitol, the UK is in chaos with Brexit and lockdown. And meanwhile, in Taipei…..
A Banksy Exhibition has just opened at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall. From Wikipedia, Banksy is an “pseudonymous England-based street artist, political activist, and film director, active since the 1990s. His satirical street art and subversive epigrams combine dark humour with graffiti executed in a distinctive stenciling technique. His works of political and social commentary have appeared on streets, walls, and bridges throughout the world.”
This is only the second Banksy Exhibition to be held in Taiwan, the first one was held in a Taipei shopping mall in March 2019, organized by Phillips Auction House. It consisted of 25 of Banksy’s pieces arranged in a small gallery and as there was free entry, so lots of people – and especially young people went to visit.
This new exhibition, which runs until April 5, is much bigger, with 60 artworks on display, and with an introduction attached to each one, written originally in Chinese and translated (sometimes not too well, it has to be said) into English. Some are enlarged photos of the original work in situ, others are displayed in settings designed to look similar to the original, and still others show ways in which the original work has been adapted for use on record covers, posters etc. It’s all artistically laid out and the displays are professional and sleek. But it comes at a price, unfortunately, and the entrance ticket is steep, NT$ 350, so not surprisingly far fewer people seem to be visiting. And despite Banksy’s own disdain for gift shops, there is of course a real ‘Exit via the Gift Shop’ experience for those with lots of money and a desire to buy something with the ‘I love Banksy’ logo….
Much as I admire Banksy’s work, I cannot subscribe to the ‘I Love Banksy’ logos, mugs and T-shirts etc etc. Much of his work is completely unlovable, and that is surely part of his intention. His aim is not for us to love him or even like him – or his art works. Instead he wants to challenge, convict and change our thinking – and of course that of the establishment too – and then act accordingly. His themes are mostly political and social, against war, authoritarianism, greed, poverty, hypocrisy, despair, power….
The exhibition is hardly beautiful or a pleasure to the eyes, but it’s not intended to be that way. Banksy’s works originated mostly as street art, and really they belong on the streets, not in an exhibition in a country and culture far away from their original setting. Much of the information around each piece goes into explaining why such a piece might be necessary in the first place, meaning the context and background. While some political and social themes are common worldwide, such as war and poverty, others are much more localized, eg supermarket giants like Tesco taking over UK high streets. Such art is thought-provoking, yes, but pretty, no.
Which brings me to the real reason why I was intrigued by this exhibition. It’s not the content as such. Or the artistic layouts and displays. And certainly not the commercialism of the brand name. It’s the setting itself. The exhibition is being held in the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall, in downtown Taipei. If you’ve ever visited Taiwan, you may well have been there to view the honor guard performances that take place every hour on the hour in front of that huge bronze statue of Chiang Kai-Shek on the top floor.
Quoting from Wikipedia, Chiang Kai-shek (1887 –1975) was a “Chinese Nationalist politician, revolutionary and military leader who served as the leader of the Republic of China between 1928 and 1975, first in mainland China until 1949 and then in Taiwan until his death….. In 1949 Chiang’s government and army retreated to Taiwan, where Chiang imposed martial law and persecuted critics during the White Terror. Presiding over a period of social reforms and economic prosperity, Chiang won five elections to six-year terms as President of the Republic of China and was Director-General of the Kuomintang until his death in 1975, three years into his fifth term as President and just one year before Mao’s death.
One of the longest-serving non-royal heads of state in the 20th century, Chiang was the longest-serving non-royal ruler of China having held the post for 46 years. Like Mao, he is regarded as a controversial figure. Supporters credit him with playing a major part in unifying the nation and leading the Chinese resistance against Japan, as well as with countering Soviet-communist encroachment. Detractors and critics denounce him as a dictator at the front of an authoritarian regime who suppressed opponents”.
So now, 40 years after the CKS Memorial was built, here we are in 2021, no longer with a Kuomintang government; instead President Tsai Ing-Wen and the Democratic Progressive Party are in power. They are doing much to uncover the truth of the White Terror era, and working for transitional justice and reconciliation. Controversy surrounds what to do with the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall Building, with that huge bronze statue upstairs, while downstairs there is a large permanent exhibition showing photos and artifacts with labels praising every aspect of Chiang’s life. Outside on the Freedom Plaza are where all sorts of protests and gatherings take place. The government is now trying to transform the hall into a national center for “facing history, recognizing agony, and respecting human rights” and there have been several exhibitions held that are critical of Mainland China, in earlier days some also critical of Chiang Kai-Shek himself. Also on display, mixed up among all this politics, and in a bid to attract visitors – especially families, is a whole host of weird and wonderful alternative displays, ranging from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to a massive set of 3D paintings…
And now, ironically, the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall is hosting an exhibition of artwork by Banksy, exactly the kind of political activist that authoritarian leaders – like Chiang Kai-Shek – always detest so much. If Banksy were really here in person, the CKS Memorial Hall may be the kind of place he’d start with for some of his protest art, stenciling up a picture long after dark. After all, what the building represents is way more than just a memorial to a fallen leader. It’s ironic really on so many levels, that instead of undercover street graffiti done in the dead of night, Banksy’s artwork has gained pride of place in one of the exhibition halls of the actual building, with a huge price tag to go in. Such is life in modern consumer society. In so doing, his subversive street art has become almost mainstream. A dark irony too, as sadly, mainstream art often loses its purpose somewhat of being a voice to challenge, convict – and change.
Of course, this could be purely a financial arrangement between the company who are curating the exhibition – and the CKS Memorial Hall, and maybe it’s just pure chance that the Banksy Exhibition happens to be showing there, rather than anywhere else – in that they had a free space at the right time and right price.
But then again maybe not. Almost certainly the government would have to give permission for what is shown at the CKS Memorial. Maybe the government is showing the world again that free speech and peaceful protest are marks of a well-developed democratic society, and that there’s nothing to fear from those who challenge us to turn from war and hatred ~ and instead to strive for justice and peace in this often dark world.
In the context of praying for a peaceful transition of power in the USA, and for God’s mercy for all those affected by Covid-19, lockdown and Brexit, then the above picture is appropriate. This is Banksy’s work, usually referred to as ‘Girl with Balloon’, but its actual title is ‘There is Always Hope‘. I like that. Think about it as you look at the picture. Ultimately, what it means for you, of course, is up to you to decide for yourself. That’s art. ❤️