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National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts: Think Global, Act Local

National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (photo courtesy of Weiwuying)

National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (photo courtesy of Weiwuying)

 

With a façade that resembles a spacecraft from an alien planet, the design concept of the National Kao­hsiung Center for the Arts was inspired by nearby groves of old banyan trees with interwoven aerial roots. The center not only looks avant-garde, but the ambitions its management team have for the venue ­really rock too. They hope to grow a flower of performing arts in south Taiwan—once considered a cultural desert—and make their voice heard inter­nation­ally from the island’s southern tip.

 

Long based in Europe, Chien Wen-pin returned to Taiwan to focus on his new work of art—Weiwuying.Long based in Europe, Chien Wen-pin returned to Taiwan to focus on his new work of art—Weiwuying.

After a wait of some 15 years from planning to completion, the National Kao­hsiung Center for the Arts—aka Wei­wu­ying—opened to the public on October 15, 2018.

Speaking to the world

“In fact, for us this is really an historic day. All the preparations and every­one’s energetic collabora­tion notwithstanding, the crucial thing is to make our voice heard internationally,” says Chien Wen-pin, the center’s executive and artistic director.

Born in 1967, ­Chien went abroad for postgraduate study when he was 22, and at the age of just 30 was designated resident conductor of the ­Deutsche Oper am ­Rhein (“German Opera on the Rhine”)—one of the first Taiwanese to conduct a top-flight European orchestra. Fourteen years later, he obtained the tenured position of conductor-­in-residence with the same body. But at 47 he resigned from this permanent post to relocate to Kao­hsiung—long dubbed a “cultural desert”—and lead the National Kao­hsiung Center for the Arts.

Paradise Interrupted: This one-act opera, an international coproduction inspired by a 16th-century Kunqu piece, premiered worldwide in 2015, and will be performed at Weiwuying during the center’s two-and-a-half-month opening season.Paradise Interrupted: This one-act opera, an international coproduction inspired by a 16th-century Kunqu piece, premiered worldwide in 2015, and will be performed at Weiwuying during the center’s two-and-a-half-month opening season.

“Making Taiwan’s voice heard on the inter­national stage was the motivation behind my ­return,” says ­Chien. “I had observed Taiwan’s plight from overseas for over 20 years, and this made me keen to return and do my bit for Taiwan.”

News of the center’s grand opening has spread like wildfire throughout Europe, and to date 70-plus foreign media have covered the center. For example, “Epic Scenes: The Biggest Arts Venue on Earth Lands in Taiwan” reads the headline in Britain’s prestigious daily The Guardian.

The exposure provided by this October’s opening cere­mony is not the only thing to capture global attention for the center. World premieres of productions of Turandot and Paradise Interrupted, international undertakings in which the center participated, took place in 2015. Inspired by 16th-century Chinese dramatist Tang ­Xianzu’s acclaimed ­Kunqu opera Peony Pavilion, the one-act Paradise Interrupted was coproduced by the National Kao­hsiung Center for the Arts, the Lincoln Center of the United States, Spoleto Festival USA and the Singapore International Fest­ival of Arts. But the behind-the-scenes production team for the Taiwan-German coproduction of Turandot—from dir­ector Li Huan-­hsiung to costume designer Lai ­Hsuan-wu, stage designer ­Liang Jo­shan and video designer Wang Jun-jieh—are all natives of Taiwan.

Weiwuying by night: Futuristic, like a scene out of a science fiction movie, and utterly distinct from its daytime persona. (photo by Jimmy Lin)Weiwuying by night: Futuristic, like a scene out of a science fiction movie, and utterly distinct from its daytime persona. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Creating Southern Taiwan’s performing arts ecology

After graduating from university, ­Chien went abroad for further study and resided in Europe for almost three decades. He has spent more of his life overseas than in Taiwan. He often heard Kao­hsiung described as a cultural desert, a term he considers a “myth.” But as a venue operator, ­Chien comments: “We just have to take the market for what it is, accept it, and then ‘consider what we can do with it.’”

“Why can’t we nurture a performing arts style that belongs to Kao­hsiung?” he wonders.

As regards market development, ­Chien believes that at this stage the important thing is to draw the public in to personally experience the venue. He also refers to the cultivation of Kao­hsiung’s arts market as an “ongoing creative work.” In his opinion, Kao­hsiung is Kao­hsiung; it isn’t Tai­pei and needn’t try to be. Instead, creating a ­southern Taiwan performing arts style is in order. In terms of managing the venue, “Seeing an endless stream of people coming to the center, making optimal use of the space—that’s what matters to me.”

Light radiates in via skylights, mimicking the ambience of sunlight filtering through treetops. (photo by Jimmy Lin)Light radiates in via skylights, mimicking the ambience of sunlight filtering through treetops. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

To this end, while preparing for the official opening he brainstormed with his partners. All the customary etiquette employed in a performance venue was open to discussion, including how to guide audiences in appreciating performances, the style of interaction with visitors, audience dress code, vocabulary, dialect, terms of address, and so forth. Just because something is done a certain way in Tai­pei, doesn’t mean Kao­hsiung must follow suit. As an example, he jokes about the typical Kao­hsiung motor­cyclist’s habit of directly turning left at an inter­section, instead of obediently proceeding to a “left-turn box” and awaiting a green light as Taiwan’s traffic regu­lations demand. When dealing with a Kao­­hsiung audience, there is naturally no need to make things sound complicated; the people you are serving are different, and therefore the way in which you serve them should be adjusted to a format that is genuinely appropriate for locals.

“For me, this is a major creative undertaking. It’s not a matter of efficiency above all. It’s about creating a performing arts ‘ecosystem’ that is centered around Kao­hsiung,” emphasizes Chien.

“Everyone’s Art Center”

In 2015, ­Chien proclaimed “Every­one’s Art Center” as the center’s positioning.

This slogan echoes the design concept of the center’s Dutch architect, Francine Houben. Inspired by the local banyan trees, she designed a flat roof consisting of a single undu­lating structure that resembles the canopy of a grove of the iconic trees. Hollow spaces formed within the interwoven aer­ial roots became passages and resting spots under the roof. Light radiates inside via skylights, mimicking the ambiance of sunlight filtering through treetops. Meanwhile, the network of linked ramps and municipal park pathways surrounding the center natur­ally channels the public into Banyan Plaza, where they can enjoy the comforts of this semi-outdoor space. 

Weiwuying has also organized movie screenings that allow spectators to recline casually in Banyan Plaza while watching a movie projected onto the curved steel-plate wall.Weiwuying has also organized movie screenings that allow spectators to recline casually in Banyan Plaza while watching a movie projected onto the curved steel-plate wall.

Under the streamlined roof, the interior space consists of four venues: the Concert Hall, the Recital Hall, the Opera House and the Play House.

The Concert Hall is the only one in Taiwan to adopt a “vineyard-­style” design, in which the performers are entirely surrounded by the audience. Berlin Philharmonic Hall, Walt Disney Concert Hall (Los Angeles), Suntory Hall (Tokyo), and Paris Philharmonic Hall all feature a similar design.

As a performance venue for chamber music and recitals, to obtain optimal acoustics the walls of the Recital Hall are lined with sound-reflecting wooden panels, with sound-absorbing drapery behind rhombic openings in the panels around the upper half. 
The Opera House is the largest theater in Taiwan. Domin­ated by the color “Taiwan Red,” the horseshoe-shaped seating layout can accommodate audiences of up to 2,260 people.

The Play House is decorated mainly in Delft blue. Depending on the demands of a specific performance, the stage can be configured as a single-sided framed stage or a projecting three-sided stage. The latter positions the audience close to the performers, allowing theatergoers to experience the tension of the drama more intensely.

The Opera House: One of the new center’s four international-class performance venues, with “Taiwan Red” as its thematic color.The Opera House: One of the new center’s four international-class performance venues, with “Taiwan Red” as its thematic color.

Southern Taiwan certainly deserves to enjoy world-class performance venues, but Chien does not wish for art to be put up on a pedestal. “I hope this will become a ‘place’ where every­one likes to come, and not a ‘temple.’” So they organize activities in Banyan Plaza such as inviting people to practice yoga or for children to play on swings. They have also organized movie screenings that allow spectators to recline casually in Banyan Plaza while watching a movie projected onto the curved steel-plate wall.

While strolling in the center’s “Time Gallery,” I read the detailed history of Wei­wu­ying, and only then did I learn that this vast space served as a key military site from the Qing Dynasty through the era of Japanese rule and beyond. In 1979 the military relinquished claims to it, and in 1992 the Wei­wu­ying Metropolitan Park Promotion Association, founded by poet and physician Dr. ­Tseng Kui-hai, promoted the site’s conversion into a muni­cipal park. In 2003, the central government approved the “Weiwuying Art and Culture Center” plan, reserving ten hectares of land within the park for the art center, which was completed in 2018. As stated by President Tsai Ing-wen at the grand opening ceremony, its completion represents the fruits of efforts to strive for cultural equality and liberate space in the post-martial-law era.

Where’s the main entrance? Kaohsiung’s new center for the arts doesn’t have one! Its space is open to all. There are many ways to get familiar with it—play on the swings, watch a movie and more.Where’s the main entrance? Kaohsiung’s new center for the arts doesn’t have one! Its space is open to all. There are many ways to get familiar with it—play on the swings, watch a movie and more.

Let’s party

The center’s opening season runs for two and a half months, and the programs chosen represent the fruits of the past three years of effort by the management team at the Wei­wu­ying preparatory office. Since 2015, the Kao­hsiung City Government has staged the Kao­hsiung Spring Arts Festival in the first half of each year, while the Wei­wu­ying team has organ­ized the Wei­wu­ying Children’s Festival and the Wei­wu­ying Arts Festival in the latter half of each year. Kao­hsiung’s art and culture audience has been gradually nurtured. Especially worth mentioning are the Wei­wu­ying Circus Platform and the Taiwan Dance Platform, both inaugur­ated in 2016. The annual circus platform is a venue where circus performers can interact. The Taiwan Dance Platform has also entered into a partnership with Aerowaves, a European networking platform for young choreo­graphers, thereby becoming the first organization in Asia to formalize col­labora­tion with that body.

The establishment of the “Taiwan Dance Platform” has sparked dialogue between Taiwan and the world’s dancers. Pictured is Medium, a work by Indonesian choreographer Rianto. (photo by Wannes Cré)The establishment of the “Taiwan Dance Platform” has sparked dialogue between Taiwan and the world’s dancers. Pictured is Medium, a work by Indonesian choreographer Rianto. (photo by Wannes Cré)

If a musical metaphor can be used to describe the center, ­Chien doesn’t hesitate to put it like this: “Of course, it’s a symphony!” All kinds of musical instruments have their place in a symphonic composition, just like the center’s stage exists for all sorts of people. Each person can find his or her own place here. 

“The center is so massive that we really must rely on every­one to shoulder it together,” insists ­Chien. “And as ‘Everyone’s Art Center,’ on another level of meaning it signifies that all of us must grow together.”