A rich hometown spirituality and nostalgic sentimentality has always infused the artworks of Su Wong-shen, indeed, comprising an extremely vital core characteristic of his work. He based his 1993 work My Old Home on his own childhood memories, depicting the family home constructed by his grandfather in Chiayi. While the surrounding area has long since changed and the old house is no longer there, Su continues to harbor fond memories of his hometown of bygone days.*[i]
Su Wong-shen (1956–) was born and raised in Puzi Township (now Puzi City) in Chiayi County. His father’s career as a civil servant left Su with indelible memories of the spatial experience of Japanese-style dormitory accommodations. Around 1992 to 1993, those impressions led him to create a series of works titled Official Residence, in the process recapturing the feel of the residences of Taiwan government officials left behind since the days of the Japanese colonial era. This type of architectural space has faded into history as such structures have decayed or fallen into disrepair due to the ravages of the years and the changing of the times. Through the flourishes of his brush, Su has left a kind of visual testimonial to a bygone era that also stands as a sort of mourning ritual of that era.
Su spent his adolescence attending National Tung-Shih Senior High School not far from Puzi. It was during his high school days that Su’s interest in artistic creativity was inspired and brought forth under the tutelage of the venerable Taiwanese artist Wu Mei-ling (A.K.A. Tian-min, 1897–2004). Wu had artistically come of age during the Japanese colonial period, when Nihonga (painting considered the Japanese national style, also known in Taiwan as “gouache painting” or “colloid painting”) was in vogue; after the KMT regime later took control of Taiwan, his work gradually evolved toward mostly ink painting, the “Chinese national painting style.” Perhaps due to Wu’s influence, Su for a time dabbled in some works leaning toward the characteristics of ink painting during the years from 1982 through 1986 as he groped for his own individual painting style. These works also approximate traditional ink painting in their dimensions and vertical spatial orientation.
In 1975, Su passed the national joint entrance examination to earn a seat in the Fine Arts Department at College of Chinese Culture (now Chinese Culture University). Su has previously modestly declared that it wasn’t until his junior year in university that he finally began to gradually master the art of sketching. There were two relatively key influences on the young artist during this period, the first being the artist Li Mei-shu and the other an exchange professor from the United States. Su got a firm grounding in the techniques and materials used in oil painting from Li, while his subject matter remained mostly limited to traditional themes such as the female nudes and landscapes. The visiting American professor opened Su’s eyes to abstract painting, in particular so-called “hard-edge painting” and “minimalism” styles. Su also notes that Taiwanese abstract painters returning to the island from Europe around this time, including Chen Shih-ming (who returned in 1976) and Richard Lin (returned in 1982) were also considerable sources of enlightenment. Additionally, he received inspiration through books and viewing the works of numerous Western abstract artists.
The 1980s could be said to have been Su’s stylistically dabbling years as he at various times tried his hand at a variety of different expressive styles, including “hard-edge” and minimalism while also attempting to incorporate some of the form and characteristics of the aforementioned ink painting into his works. Post-1985, he took another stylistic turn toward “expressionism,” adding powerful distortion and alteration to real world imagery.
Even as Su sought out a viable creative path betwixt the formal structures of the concrete and the abstract, he never as a consequence abandoned his scrutiny and contemplation of the real world. In 1982 as he sought expound upon the theme of Taipei City roadways he at once transformed them into a work of abstract aesthetic while intentionally retaining the essence of their intrinsic social significance in the title of the work. Actually, in 1979 during his senior year of college, Su had previously produced several similarly abstract works with roadways as a theme. As Su himself has pointed out, during his college days he lived in the Shipai area and had been inspired by his frequent encounters with road construction in the area.
Scenes of road construction and repair are pretty commonplace in rapidly developing urban Taiwan—in short, not terribly remarkable. At the same time, however, they suggest the state of a developing society caught up in the volatile throes of constructing its basic infrastructure. Although Su was not necessarily revealing any particular social opinion through these works, he did convey his peripheral observations of a Taiwan society in a state of perpetual change.
On July 15 1987 ended the 38-year reign of oppressive martial law rule in Taiwan. That same year, Su’s works began to take a relatively more direct approach toward social issues in both substance and titling. For example the work Shouting (1987) used an image of a microphone to allude to the chaotic brawling within the legislature of the time. As the political climate continued to loosen, Taiwan society’s clashes and attempts to tear down the rigid system became increasingly commonplace, even to the point of becoming an unstoppable deluge. From 1988 onward, imagery involving cats and dogs began to overtly appear in Su’s works, indeed becoming the central characters in some works. Su himself has said he did not wish to express his own individual critique of Taiwan’s political happenings in any overly direct manner and thus chose to use the cats and dogs as a metaphor.
Between 1988 and 1990, Su’s works gradually came to depict a world where dogs and cats reigned supreme. Residing in Tamsui at the time, Su not only embarked upon a broad observation of the behaviors of dogs and cats, he also began to incorporate many of charming sights and features of old town Tamsui into his works. Unlike his earlier street scenes from the early 80s, which mostly employed a somewhat elevated albeit parallel point of view, these works were executed with a lofty, slightly askance bird’s eye view. In comparison, the earlier works are flatter; the latter works not only convey a deeper, more convex spatial feel, the forms depicted are more visually challenging with a richer and with more variegated perspective. Even more importantly, the skewed bird’s eye view readily prompts reflection within the observer, as it is an angle that we in human society seldom see and thus produces the effect of a kind of visual suspense and alienation. This visual angle also gives the observer the feeling of being a detached spectator, looking down from far above or even the sensation of flying. This sort of aloof perspective is indeed much like a bird’s eye view, we need not intervene: although we may feel some measure of sadness or nostalgia, it is tough to conjure up any real sense of sympathy or pity.
Although cats and dogs had begun to occupy more and more of Su’s works, between 1990 and 1992 he once again returned to try his hand at expressing the human form. As Su tells it, however, once he set about visually expressing the human form he felt stymied by their very form, He felt restricted, ill at ease and found it difficult to achieve any sort of variety. Consequently he went back to using the behaviors of cats and dogs to depict people.
Thus it was perhaps not by accident that from at least as far back as 1993 Su gradually began to blur and amalgamate the originally relatively clear forms of the dog and cat images in his works. Of his creative consciousness, Su has said: “My use of cats and dogs to symbolize people was initially relatively clear, later becoming just ‘animals’ and not specifically representing as cats or dogs.” In Su’s paintings, the town of Tamsui continues to prompt a gentle nostalgia and the surrounding humanistic atmosphere remains palpable, except that “animals” have collectively replaced the “people”—could it be that the people have already been assimilated amongst the animals? Even as Su remains restrained in his commentary, the tone of his critique of contemporary Taiwanese society and politics is far from soft and lenient.
Su spent much of the 1990s in Tamsui, although he moved his studio to different locations within the town several times. Whether or not Su’s extreme fondness for painting the town’s night scenes is the reason his works convey their dreamlike sensation with such a high degree of self-consciousness, meticulousness and embellishment we cannot know. Despite that, this sort of sweet backdrop frequently conceals a seemingly shocking dreamscape. His works depict Taiwan, in particular those places, scenic spots and landmarks encompassing his everyday life. Not only was he accustomed to working at night; the darkness of night was further the jumping off point for the narrative within his paintings. His paintings feature no people, with cats and dogs instead serving as the primary subjects. The observer is prompted to reassess Taiwan’s human society through the tracks of these animals in the dead of night.
The world within Su’s paintings also usually exudes a sometimes powerful, sometimes subtle message of death. The observer’s bird’s eye viewpoint seems to be looking down upon the human world through the cold eyes of some otherworldly spirit. Taking the 1992 work Boundary Stone Beneath a Tree and Concession—Expat Cemetery from 1994-1996 as examples, both paintings deal with “boundaries.” Whether it’s a boundary stone or a foreign concession, they both serve to draw fixed boundary lines. Although no people are seen in Boundary Stone Beneath a Tree the clearly man-made boundary marker is visible within the space. Su uses dogs as a metaphor for people here. For the sake of land, economic benefit, and securing their own interests, people are forever delineating boundaries among themselves. Similarly, there is also an ongoing struggle and seizure of the upper hand within the world of dogs. A pack of dogs surrounds the tree and the boundary marker, seemingly sizing one another up for the impending struggle. The multitudinous essences of death concealed in the background of the boundary marker are actually not present in Concession—Expat Cemetery, a surrounding wall delineating the graveyard.
What leaves one pondering about the world in Su’s paintings is how death usually only gradually manifests itself as a sort of sweetness in character. In Concession—Expat Cemetery we see the vastness of death and in the background of all that death there is seemingly no ray of humanity to speak of, only loneliness and desolation. From 1990 onward, the scenes of Taiwan seen in Su’s paintings always depict a sort of shabbiness, gloominess, dread or even heartlessness.
Nevertheless, Su is not a person without feelings. He actually executes his paintings with a fullness of warmth and emotion. The vast majority of hometown sentimentality and nostalgia in his works emanates from chronological or historical sense borne by the scenes or objects depicted in his works—cultural forms such as historical structures, trees, walls, boundaries and markers. Su refers to these types of historical artifacts as “memorial objects.” These memorial objects are the vehicle for the collective memory of humanity and are inseparably connected to history. “Historical markers and tombstones are really not all that different,” Su once said. “Both are a kind of totem to a seemingly bygone memory.” “The significance of these markers may be a kind of gratitude and they may have a kind of mystical effect or perhaps provide a path toward emotional reconciliation.…,” he elaborated.
Even trees he sees as a sort of “natural memorial object.” The intrinsic difference being that trees are living things that continue on toward a day when, with the passage of changing or tumultuous generations, all the historical structures and markers disappeared or been abandoned the only thing that will remain is the lofty old tree, still providing the shade under which people may reminisce of times gone by.
Su has previously expounded upon the theme “Tree Piercing a Wall” on several occasions, a theme not only deeply pondering time but furthermore an offering of heartfelt expression of feelings toward history. The historical lifespan of the wall is limited while the pitiless tree makes the wall itself a witness to history. Through reflection upon memorial objects, perhaps Su seeks a certain exclamation of the widespread propensity among Taiwanese to forget history despite their courage in the struggle for their rights and interests.
In 1998, the central government sacrificed the preservation and pace of life of old Tamsui for the planned development of the new township of Danhai. Su thereupon decided to move out of Tamsui. The same year he tried a move to southern Taiwan. In 1999 he formally leased quarters in Mingde New Village, a military compound for general officers in the Zuoying Naval District in Kaohsiung City. Despite retaining its earlier architectural and spatial character, it is another traditional hamlet in its waning days. Faced with the reality of Taiwan’s bustling, profit-oriented society, Mingde New Village may ultimately find it difficult to escape the fate of demolition. Nevertheless, Su has to date been living there for a decade since moving in.
After moving to Zuoying, not only were the living conditions and general atmosphere completely different to his previous residence in Tamsui, there was also considerably more distance between neighbors. Consequently, Su came to ridicule his state of affairs as “practiced autism.” The ironic thing, however, is that beginning in 1998 Su has been painting themes involving the general public and political campaigns. From the 1998 legislative and Taipei/Kaohsiung mayoral elections to the presidential election of 2000, his depictions of the politicians of the different parties based upon their strategic operations intending to highlight the contradictions within Taiwan society. Additionally, there is the omnipresence of various broadcast media manufacturing a collective social mood to the point of inciting people.
The animal world depicted in Su’s paintings was inevitably soon influenced. In two 1998 works, Pets on the Commandant’s Platform and Hequn New Village, all of the animals depicted have been completely mobilized: the former having the appearance of “animal chess” and the latter having entered a emergency state of battle readiness. Su’s brush has ultimately transformed democratic electoral campaigns into an island-wide drumbeat of war.
Between 1998 and 2001, Su expounded upon his earlier themes of the nightly struggles of cats and dogs. The stage in these works was taken a step further from the originally relatively tangible scenery of Tamsui to a political stage of the artist’s own construct; although sometimes incorporating scenes from the real life world of the Zuoying military village, they mostly incorporate a relatively conceptual and theatrical figurative stage. This approach meanwhile was reflective of Taiwan’s political development, having earlier shed the fundamental needs of reality and transformed into a sort of vaudevillian performance enterprise and even lost all moral perseverance and humanistic compassion. Additionally, through such works as Nightly at 8:05 P.M. (1999) and The Media (2000) Su expressed his revulsion and disgust with Taiwan’s unruly mass media.
The works Su completed between 2002 and 2003 were a continuation of his wave of earlier works targeting themes involving political elections. Markedly different in this set of works, however, is the depiction of a kind of disturbing imagery. From the perspective of social critique, the machinations of political parties have ultimately degenerated linkages, encirclements and oppositions normally associated with gangland powers. As we can see in Twin Hilltops (2002), the vicious struggles of political gangs have succeeded only in creating a graveyard amidst an island of death. This is probably the bleakest of all Su’s works in this series. The form of the island as graveyard prompts associations with an abandoned wasteland endless strewn with bones, the gloomy darkness seemingly eternal.
Post-2004, Su seems to have opted to lighten up a little. Perhaps because of that, he produced extremely few works in 2004. In 2005 he began using variety shows as a theme, continuing to provide the animals in his paintings with a variety of platforms from which to perform. In a seldom seen move, he chose “Acrobatics Club” as the title of his own solo exhibition. Perhaps it is precisely as Su himself has said, that he had initially hoped to engage in artistic creation with a relatively relaxed approach but somehow, somewhere along the way his own social consciousness crept into his work, possibly without him even noticing. Consequently, it is unavoidable that “Acrobatics Club” should draw connotations of the additional moniker “Political Circus.”
Whether strictly a vaudevillian performance or painstakingly spanning the political circus, the works on display in the “Acrobatics Club” solo exhibition will surely put people fully at ease and are full of clever humor. Su’s seemingly taciturn nature has apparently presented those that know him well with an illusion that he puts into full play here. In some sense this is a form of emotional transference and self-amusement fashioned from the remains of political heartache.
In terms of spatial expression, the great majority of the selected works expounding on acrobatic and vaudevillian themes fall back on a sort of illusory spaciousness. More precisely, the animals depicted in their acrobatic act are each unsettlingly suspended within some unnamed, undefined space. This offers a sort of precariousness or danger to offset the nebulousness.
Between the Clouds (2006–2007) is one of Su’s most recent works. The performances of the animal acrobats in the painting seem to have elevated them to a higher plane. Whether floating high in the clouds or prancing on a towering, far off tight rope, the highly skilled animals are each balanced with incomparable skill full of elegance and grace. But in contrast with the most assured force of gravity present in the real world, no doubt is left as to whether the abilities depicted in the fantastical skills seen in Su’s painting are those of some exquisite fantasy—consequently the enormous divide between fantasy and reality becomes even more marked.
In new works following Between the Clouds Su not only amalgamates the previously seen procession of animals and variety performances, he simultaneously makes greater use of balloon forms to express a phenomenon of floating in groundless suspension. In the eyes of the viewer, these animal acrobats have undergone a rigid training regimen and their skills are masterful; compared with the actual state of contemporary Taiwan society, however, this sort of lofty swaggering is the paradox of reaching the great heights.
Tracing back to the beginning, Su continues to provide his animals with all sorts of stages on which to perform, from turf battles and vaudevillian political elections to his latest involving acrobatics and floating, it’s all there; and virtually none are not in some way a microcosm of Taiwan’s bizarre political and social phenomena over the past 20-odd years.
Whether it’s been in Tamsui, Taipei County or down south in Kaohsiung City’s Zuoying, wherever he has moved his studio Su has always stood by to act as the detached observer documenting these changes on the edges of urban Taiwan. He continues to harbor a kind of distant, semi-detached eye, offering a slightly soaringly skewed or bird’s eye view of humanity below. In his paintings, the dark of night habitually supplants the light of day and there are no human traces in this world where four-legged critters join forces to rule the streets. Conversely, it is through this juxtaposition of day and night, the reversal of the roles of human and animal that Su has expressed his feelings of deep melancholy and ongoing contemplation as regards contemporary Taiwan society.
[i]*The quotes from Su Wong-shen regarding his life and artistic experiences that are used in this article and all other articles in this book are excerpted from an August 14, 2008 interview conducted by the author with the artist at his Zuoying studio.