Our crashed economies, fossil fuel-based energy consumption, and changing natural environment and climate are just a few examples that prove that our current systems are broken in many ways. For the last 5 years curator Yasmine Ostendorf has been undertaking research across Asia and Europe on artists proposing alternative ways of living and working -that ultimately shape more balanced, sustainable and resilient societies.
The research is based on over 200 interviews with artists, curators and cultural managers across the continents. The reason for this is the author’s desire to tap into an untapped stream of practical knowledge and local wisdom. In this series she will highlight three Asian countries and give examples of projects and artists giving a fresh perspective on art and ecology. This month: Taiwan.
The development of Taiwan’s contemporary art has been closely linked to its national ideologies. When Taiwan was under Japanese rule (1895-1945), a lot of artists embraced the international outlook that was embedded in the Japanese interpretation of ‘modernity’ during the Meiji restoration. This appetite for modernisation and curiosity for the West continued to shape the post-war development of Taiwanese art. However, in 1971 China joined the United Nations and Taiwan, -not officially recognised as a separate country by China-, lost its membership. This disconnected Taiwan from the rest of the world. Furthermore diplomatic relationships with Taiwan were stopped in the 1980’s, which resulted in fewTaiwanese artists going abroad for their education or career and very limited opportunities for Taiwanese cultural institutes to establish international bilateral cultural collaboration and exchange.
Taiwan is a unique island: The influence of different cultures; -Japanese, Chinese, indigenous, Western-, created a mix of traditions, liberal values and diverse beliefs that undoubtedly contributed the open-mindedness of the people.The islands high international rankings in terms of freedom of the press, public education, economic freedom, and human development formed the basis for an empowered civil society. In modern day Taiwan communities are active, grassroots initiatives are plentiful and people are not afraid to criticise the government and speak up. In the 90’s the Taiwanese government responded to civil society demands and formulated policies such as “Integrated Community Building” and “Community Cultural Development,” enabling artists to go into communities to create work with government support. The lack of diplomatic international cultural collaboration had a positive side-effect: it allowed governmental funding for culture to stay in the country and support a wide range of smaller local arts initiatives.
Artist and curator Wu Mali has been a pioneering figure in the Taiwanese art scene addressing social and environmental issues ever since the 80’s and 90’s. From 2010-2012 she worked on ‘Art as Environment, a cultural action at the Plum Tree Creek with Bamboo Curtain Studio. This programme was aimed at restoring the ecology of a contaminated creek in New Taipei City by engaging the local community in a range of cultural activities in collaboration with Universities, water conservation units and urban farming associations. Activities included eco-education for school children, urban planning sessions and highly popular breakfast meetings attended by locals and made with local harvest. Every last weekend of the month artists, experts and residents would meet somewhere along the creek to discuss different issues over breakfast; from flooding of the creek, industrial waste in the creek, enzyme production, fertilizers to pig farming. People were invited to share their solutions, ideas and experiences living with and around the creek. The programme lasted for 17 months, was followed by an exhibition and distinctly changed the attitude of the locals towards the creek. It won the Taishin Visual Arts Award, the first time this prestigious art prize was awarded to a community art project. 
‘Environmental art’ as the genre is called in Taiwan, is popular. Curator Chien Hung Huang states: ‘In Taiwan environmental policy failed with the democratisation. We have followed neoliberalism and now we find big difference between salaries after a very short period of good economy in the nineties. Artists care about the environment because the business changed the natural environment a lot. The industries took away the resources of the people and there was no benefit for them. The artists feel this injustice very strongly.’ This might be the reason why projects such as the ‘Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Programme’ and ‘Guandu International Outdoor Sculpture Festival’ are praised by the Taiwanese. The Cheng Long Wetlands International Environmental Art Programme was establishedwith the aim to help the village of Cheng Long, located in Yunlin county. There had been big changes in the village since 2009; due to destructive typhoons and structural over-pumping of groundwater the land started to sink. Salt water entered the area making it hard to maintain rice farming and agriculture.In the whole of Yunlin groundwater is systematically over-used by the industries, making the sinking land a problem that is affecting the wider region. The Cheng Long International Art Programme invited international artists for a residency programme to make monumental art installations using local and natural materials. Selected artists learned new skills and were invited to participate in workshops from bamboo masters and local craftsmen. They foraged their materials locally and turned the wet fields into a sculpture park. Every year new artists are invited for this residency.
The Guandu Nature Park, a bird conservation area in New Taipei City, follows a similar concept, where artists are invited to work with natural materials, mostly found in the park. Often this includes bamboo and clay and after typhoons (which are frequent in Taiwan) there is always a lot of wood that needs to be cleared.
Guandu International Outdoor Sculpture Festival was founded in 2005 when avian influenza (bird flu) was around and the nature park was suffering from declining visitor numbers as a result. Curator Jane Ingram Allen developed the proposal for a festival and the nature park was happy to try it. Visitor numbers have been growing ever since and in 2015 the festival almost fell victim to its own success, with 20,000 people attending the opening day. It being an art festival, located in a nature park, these numbers exceeded all expectations. Director Nelson Chen: ‘The good thing with ‘the incident’ in 2015 is that we never get the governmental advice anymore to attract more people. We have forever ticked that box.’
Taiwan has a distinctive way of engaging with environmental issues; engaging wide audiences, with attention for the complexity of the local situation, and is consistent in its environmental message all the way through: including materials used. Comparing that to some international ‘environmental artists’ that fly ice-blocks around the world or produce huge climate-controlled museum exhibitions, it might be time for a reversed Meiji restoration; a re-thinking of the neoliberal system and a Western curiosity for the East.
Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) is an independent researcher/curator with over ten years of professional work experience in the international cultural field. She researches, curates, stimulates, connects, facilitates and writes about art, design and culture that positively contributes to society; i.e work that explores, questions and addresses our social and environmental responsibility. In 2013 she founded the Green Art Lab Alliance (GALA), a support network of 18 cultural organisations across Europe engaging with environmental issues, funded by the European Commission. In 2015 she established, in collaboration with Bamboo Curtain Studio in Taiwan, a sister GALA network in Asia. GALA Asia connects artists and activists from Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Korea and the Philippines and supports them in their fight for a more sustainable future.
The Meiji restoration, spanning from 1868-1912 marks the transition from Japan being a closed, feudal society to it opening up to the world, introducing a capitalist and industrial market economy and experiencing further influences from the West. The translation for ‘meiji’ is ‘enlightened rule’. More on the Meiji restoration: http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/special/japan_1750_meiji.htm
 Zheng, Bo, Interview with Wu Mali. http://field-journal.com/issue-3/an-interview-with-wu-mali
 Wu Mali has worked with communities on rediscovering the river (Of the River 2006), on the topic of urban development and climate change (Taipei tomorrow as Lake Again 2008) and festivals and public service (Tropic of Cancer Environmental Art Action 2006-2007).
As stated in a personal interview with Chien Hung Huang on Dec-04, 2015.
In both projects curator Jane Ingram Allen played a key role in setting them up.
As stated in a personal interview with Nelsen Chen and Yi-Fen Jan on 17– March 2016.