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The New Cultural Diplomacy - Exhibiting Art in Taiwan’s Overseas Offices

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the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture have organized a series of exhibitions of contemporary Taiwanese art for Taiwan’s representative offices in New York, Washington and Singapore. (courtesy of Art Bank Taiwan)
 

Sir Winston Churchill, the late British prime minister, who enjoyed repeated successes in foreign policy, believed it was easier to reach mutual understanding in diplomacy when meeting face to face. In that spirit, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Culture have organized a series of exhibitions of contemporary Taiwanese art for Taiwan’s representative offices in New York, Washington and Singapore. These shows are giving foreigners and overseas Chinese alike a chance to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural depth and diversity of Taiwan, and are also demonstrating great creativity by bringing art into the realm of public diplomacy.
 

At the end of January, more than 100 artists and arts professionals from various Southeast-Asian nations who were in Singapore for the Art Stage art fair went to the official residence of Taiwan’s representative in Singapore, Francis ­Liang. There they attended “Future Allegories: An Exhibition of Taiwanese Contemporary Arts.”

 


“What Do You See?” an exhibition of Taiwanese contemporary art, was held at the Taiwan Academy of the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in New York.

An invitation from Taiwan’s representative

Amid the festive hubbub, ­Liang, who took up his post in Singapore at the end of 2016 after serving as chairman of the Taiwan External Trade Development Council, played the role of exhibition docent, introducing an oil painting by the Taiwanese artist Ho Huey-chih. Once the Southeast-Asian guests laid eyes upon the pineapple flowers and Taiwanese fruit depicted in the work, many immediately felt a strong sense of connection and familiarity, even remarking that it resembled a scene from a Singaporean market. ­Liang said, “The beef noodles and dumplings are all part of life in Taiwan, and Ho delicately captures in her painting a sense of harvest, plenty, peace and joy—which is exactly the impression of Taiwan I would like to pass along to each of our esteemed guests.”

The art isn’t found just at the residence. A total of 37 works by 29 contemporary Taiwanese artists are also on display at the Tai­pei Representative Office in Singapore. ­Liang has asked the office’s staff to take docent training, so they too can serve as guides for the visitors from various countries who come to the office, whether with the intention of viewing the works or on other business.

 


Oil paintings by Ho Huey-chih convey a Taiwan of harvest, abundance, peace and joy.

Chang Ya-wen, an assistant researcher at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts who is the curator of “Future Allegories,” points out that the exhibition’s works, which make use of mixed media and present diverse themes, demonstrate the richness and diversity of Taiwanese society. Taiwan’s similarities to Singapore, a multiethnic and multi­lin­guistic society with a colonial past, make it easy for the works to find resonance with Singaporean viewers.

Upon learning that the exhibit is the fruit of an innovative plan by Taiwan’s government to conduct “art diplomacy,” and that the paintings come from a govern­ment-sponsored “art bank,” the visitors one after another reveal their envy and admiration.

Art shows in diplomatic spaces

The inspiration for this plan came from the United States’ Art in Embassies Program. Henry Chen, who heads the International Information Service at the ­Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explains that the ministry has selected ­representative offices abroad to display works from Art Bank Taiwan. This approach of bringing Taiwan’s art abroad is akin to efforts to find export destinations for Taiwan-made products. Both serve to raise Taiwan’s international visibility. In view of Taiwan’s diplomatic predicament, MOFA must “knock on every door, shake every hand.” Overseas art exhibits are a powerful way to promote Taiwan’s soft power and add nuance and richness to the realm of public diplomacy.

 


The works exhibited at “What Do You See?” piqued visitors’ interest in contemporary Taiwanese art.

Art Bank Taiwan is a project that the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts is managing on behalf of the Ministry of Culture. The museum buys art works with government funding, and then rents them out to public and private-­sector organizations at an attractive rate of 0.4% of their value per month. The program serves both to support contemporary Taiwanese artists and to extend the reach of art into the spaces of everyday life.

New York’s “What Do You See?” exhibit

MOFA and the MOC are altogether overseeing four shows on contemporary Taiwanese art, one each in New York, Washington, Maryland and Singapore. New York is where the United Nations headquarters, the center of global diplomacy, is located. The show “What Do You See?” featuring 16 works by seven artists, opened at the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in New York in November.

Curator Chen Yan-­huei notes that “What Do You See?” included paintings by Hou I-ting that feature human subjects in traditional Taiwanese markets wearing embroidered Western palace finery. The works highlight how culture has been transplanted and reintegrated under ­global­iza­tion. Her paintings attracted the attention of many collectors, who followed up with questions about prices. 

 


“What Do You See,” an exhibition of Taiwanese contemporary art, included Liao Yu-an’s Distracted Life Journal No. 2, which strongly resonated with many viewers.

“Meet Taiwan” at Washington’s Twin Oaks Estate

The second show, “Meet Taiwan,” runs through the end of June at the Twin Oaks Estate in Washington, DC, which belongs to the Tai­pei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in the United States. To protect Twin Oaks, a historic Georgian-revival building constructed a century ago, visits to the show require a reservation.

Representative Stanley Kao points out that Twin Oaks is a building of great cultural and historical significance in terms of Taiwan‡US relations. These contemporary works from Taiwan have also breathed new life into that traditional work of architecture. With this exhibition, many artists and collectors who have never been to Taiwan, such as David Furchgott of International Arts and Artists and Jack Rasmussen of American University’s Katzen Arts Center, have come away highly impressed with the creative vitality of Taiwanese contemporary artists.

“Meet Taiwan” will be at the TECRO Culture Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, from July to November. 

The “Future Allegories” exhibit of contemporary Taiwanese art at the Tai­pei Representative Office in Singapore is running until the end of October. Hsu Yuan-ming, a senior officer at MOFA, points out that the lighting at the venue—like most office lighting—was uneven and overly white, hence TROS specially installed track lights to illuminate the works. Thanks to the grand air imparted by these magnificent pieces of art, what had been a dark and drab corridor has become an elegant exhibition hall.

These exhibitions held at the ROC’s overseas offices and at the official residences of its representatives are serving to introduce and promote Taiwan. Moreover, by displaying Taiwan’s cultural heritage and raising the international visibility of its contemporary art, they also serve to advance the nation’s efforts at public diplomacy.