Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
A few years ago, art lovers in Taiwan began to spread the news that a museum had opened in an out-of-the-way corner of the island. Notwithstanding its difficult access, the museum is so impressive that everyone who has been there looks forward to the day when they can visit again.
What makes this museum so captivating? Is it its architecture, which combines grandeur and beauty? Or is it the unique and exquisite objects on display there? To experience the museum’s charm, let us leave behind the hustle and bustle of the city and come to the foot of serene Mt. Jiujiu in Nantou County’s Caotun Township.
A museum in the mountains
The Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art is situated in Caotun’s Pinglin community, which has only 400 households. There are mountains in the distance, farmhouses dotting the landscape, and an abundance of grapes and lychees growing on the fertile farmlands. The museum is at the end of a narrow rural lane. Few souls are to be seen along the way, which makes you wonder whether you are in the right place. When you finally arrive, no grandiose building greets you.
Admitting no more than 180 visitors per day and requiring advance booking, the museum has introduced these stringent rules in the interests of quality control. It wants to serve those who would appreciate it. First, you walk through a corridor, a fine example of béton brut lined with shady bamboos. At the end of the winding path you emerge into daylight. As you climb the stairs, more things slowly come into view until, at last, the main exhibition building presents itself.
The façade is grey and unpretentious, its simplicity exuding an air of modernity. Despite its low profile, there are subtle details at every turn. Of the 2.5 acres of ground, only a third has been used for building. The rest teems with greenery. This warm and soothing landscape evokes an elysian mood, offering a resting place for the soul, something we all yearn for.
Lee and Ye
The Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art has not had a chief curator for more than a year. This long vacancy is a silent tribute to Lee Chu-hsin.
Lee was a painter and educator. He was also the visionary dreamer who conceived the museum. In 2010 he bought land in Caotun as a site for a studio of his own. The tranquil Pinglin community attracted not only Lee but also fellow artists such as Ko Shih-chung, Ko Yao-tung and Yu Shou-chung. Coincidences coalesced into ideas, which gradually came together in the thought of opening a museum there one day.
Lee and Ye Yu-hsiu first met at a Rotary Club, where Ye took painting lessons from Lee. Subsequently Lee became better acquainted with Ye and her husband Hour Ing-ming, an entrepreneurial couple who have long been art patrons. Always venturing where angels fear to tread, Lee boldly proposed the idea of a museum to Ye. Her affirmative response was a pleasant surprise.
After they had purchased the land, construction got underway, and the museum gradually materialized. But no one can predict the vagaries of life. Just two years after building had begun, Lee was diagnosed with cancer. The outlook was far from promising. In 2016, the museum opened. Lee passed away in 2019.
Lee’s last efforts were all dedicated to establishing the museum, which Ye has vowed to “keep under her wing for the rest of her life.” The chief curator is no longer there, but the museum carries on as before, hosting one world-class exhibition after another. In addition to exhibitions, it tirelessly advances art education by organizing events and workshops. Lee’s spirit still lingers in the museum, never departing.
Janet Laurence’s artistic touch gives Taiwan’s flora a poetic charm. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
The museum currently features the Australian artist Janet Laurence’s solo exhibition: Entangled Garden for Plant Memory. The curatorial process took two years, during which time the museum and the project curator worked hard with Laurence on the installation of her artworks. Laurence brought a small number of her images and specimens of wood, minerals, plants, and animals from Australia, but most materials were gathered in Taiwan and transformed into artworks locally.
Each of the exhibition’s three floors features a theme. The first floor focuses on “roots,” the second on “leaves,” the third on “habitats,” the themes interacting and complementing each other. Through installations, recorded images, and living and dead specimens, the exhibition poetically explores the relations between human beings, other species, and the environment, which is especially relevant in a year overshadowed by COVID-19.
Small but exquisite
Visitors are often amazed by the exhibitions at the Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art. This irresistible allure must be ascribed in no small measure to Ye’s open-mindedness: she gives both artists and visitors the space they need. It also has much to do with Lee Chu-hsin’s vision of turning the museum into a hub for “contemporary realism.”
“Realism” is not as narrow as most people may imagine. Neither classical nor unadorned, it is far from obsolete. Realism is not only a basic element of art, but also directly reflects what the mind perceives. For viewers, realist art—because of its relationship with life and living—is easier to understand and relate to than the typically obscure and fragmented images of abstract and conceptual art.
Grounded in this solid principle, and benefiting from the team’s strong sense of mission, “we may be small, but we are committed to fully realizing the potential of each area,” says Huang Hsiang, the museum’s director.
Size-wise this is indeed a middling museum, but its ambition is not trifling. To be invited to exhibit their works, artists—be they local or from abroad—have to be of the highest caliber. Curatorial preparations are meticulous, often taking years. The exhibition space can be reconfigured to accommodate the needs of each artist, so that the artworks may be fully integrated into their surroundings.
Janet Laurence’s Entangled Garden for Plant Memory, currently on display, is perhaps the museum’s most painstaking project to date. A year before the exhibition opened, Laurence came to Taiwan to familiarize herself with the place. After she went back to Australia, the museum approached National Taiwan University’s Museum of Zoology, Herbarium, and Geo-specimen Cottage, as well as the Council of Agriculture’s Endemic Species Research Institute, to loan the objects Laurence had specified. It was not until two weeks before the exhibition was due to start that the artist returned to Taiwan to set up the exhibits. The daunting challenge has turned out to be a brilliant success.
Practical art education
The Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art has a less widely known mission: promoting art education for schoolchildren from far-flung places.
This is also Lee Chu-hsin’s legacy. “Go and plant trees: Sow the seeds of art in every child’s heart, because one day they may grow into magnificent trees.” This wish is found in one of the manuscripts he left behind.
It was this vision of Lee’s that initiated the museum’s project of hosting art classes on site.
Education is a long-term investment. With an eye to the future, the conscientious team has applied the museum’s characteristic attention to detail to the cultivation of young minds. Every aspect receives meticulous care, from designing lessons that tie in with current exhibitions, through communicating with schools before the events and training instructors and volunteer guides, to post-lesson contact and follow-ups.
The team hopes to inculcate the polite manners that are expected in a museum context and to offer appropriate guidance to help children enjoy and appreciate artworks. The aim is for children to realize how interesting it is to visit a museum, so that a love for art may take root at an impressionable age. “What we seek is not so much to give something to children as to enable them to discover something here,” says Liu Hsin-yun of the museum’s education and communication section.
Take one of their past exhibitions, Tranquil Vastness, for example. The artist, Yang Pei-chen, created wood sculptures that were almost indistinguishable from real Boston bags, antiquarian books, and leather clothing. These simulacra of old objects had a mellow appearance, as if they had been washed over by time. They also quietly evoked the ineffable bonds between things and their owners.
After viewing the exhibition, the instructor invited the students to make observations and to think about questions such as “Who owned that bag?” These questions served to stimulate the children’s minds, encouraging them to step outside their comfort zones, giving free rein to their imagination, and ultimately supplying motivation for creating art. Begin with “observation.” Then activate the “imagination.” And finally, set about “practicing art.” All creative practitioners share this process.
These on-site art classes are integral to the founding vision of the Yu-Hsiu Museum of Art. They are intended to disseminate the idea that art is for everyone to appreciate. Beauty originates in our attentiveness to life. By the same token, if we know how to appreciate art, what we gain from it will ultimately enrich our lives.