Two Films by Chang Chao Tang

July 14, 2015
Asia Art Archive in America
Transcribed by Hua-Ting Tsai, edited by Xiaofei Mo

Xiaofei Mo (XM): Thank you all for joining us. We are delighted to have the opportunity tonight to show two films made in the 1970s by one of Taiwan’s most important photographers and documentary filmmakers, Chang Chao-Tang (張照堂) (born in 1943 in Panchiao near Taipei). But first I would like to provide a little background information about Taiwan. I am still in the process of learning about this history, so please feel free to jump in and correct me if I am wrong. I welcome any advice or suggestions you may have, in order to improve my understanding of this period.

One of the key terms for me in understanding this period is the idea of ‘modern’ or ‘modernism.’ It appears to me that the word ‘modern’ became a key word across many disciplines during the late 1950s and early 60s. For example, many of you probably know about the artist Liu Guosong’s effort to ‘modernize’ Chinese painting in the 1950s, and during this time you will also find a lot of publications using the term ‘modern’ in their titles, such as Modern LiteratureModern Poetry, etc.

Against this background, Chang Chao-Tang entered the art scene very early. In 1965, at the age of 22, he had his first show called ‘Modern Photography,’ a two-person show with his teacher at the time, Cheng Shang-Hsi (郑桑溪). In 1966, he participated in the ‘Modern Poetry Exhibition’ and showed a photo installation. In 1967 his 8mm short film Diary was shown at the second screening organized by Theatre Quarterly [劇場], an influential magazine published by a group of artists and writers including Chiu Kang-Chien (邱剛健), Huang Hua-Chen (黃華成), Chuang Ling (莊靈), Liu Daren (劉大任), and Chen Ying-Zhen (陳映真). Please refer to the exhibition ‘Great Crescent’ at Para Site and recently at Mori Museum for more details. In some essays published in Theatre Quarterly [劇場], one can see that there was a debate taking shape over modernism versus realism and Western influence versus that of Taiwan’s own culture and identity, revealing the diverse positions of its editors who were sensitive to the complexity of the situation. Chen Ying-Zhen, Liu Daren, and Chen Yao-Chi (陳耀圻) who were skeptical of modernism, left Theatre after Issue 5. Concerns about originality and identity emerged again in the 1970s, and grew into a much broader discussion, the Nativist Movement. It was a complicated period with multiple parallel threads, on the one hand influenced by leftist discourse, while on the other by the KMT’s (the ruling party’s) nationalistic policy to revitalize traditional Chinese culture (as opposed to what was happening in Mainland China which was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution). Another interesting phenomenon at the time was the recognition of outsider artists, in particular artists Ju Ming (朱铭) and Hung Tung (洪通), who were widely covered by magazines such as Echo (漢聲), Hsiung Shih Art Monthly (雄狮美术), and China Times (中国时报), etc. In 1976, over 100 artworks by Hung-Tung were exhibited for the first time at the U.S. Information Center. It was one of the most-attended exhibitions at the time.

Meanwhile, Chang Chao-Tang had his exhibition ‘Farewell to Photography’ (摄影告别展) in 1974 after which he departed from the avant-garde surrealist aesthetics seen in his early work and started to produce a series of TV documentaries that mixed photojournalism, ethnography, experimental cinematography, and folk rock music. Three of Chang Chao-Tang’s works in the 1970s — Homage to Chen-Da (1977), Homage to Hung-Tung (1978), and The Boat-Burning Festival (1979) — point to various topics that can be found in the Nativist Movement, such as local folk culture, religious rites, aboriginal culture, and outsider artists.

Tonight we will see two works that show the transition of Chang’s artistic language: the first work, Face in Motion, was shot in the early 70s, and re-edited in 1976. The second work, The Boat-Burning Festival, is a wonderful example of Chang Chao-Tang’s TV documentaries. We will have more time for discussion after the screenings. But an important note before we start: tonight’s screening is private because in these films Chang Chao-Tang uses a musical soundtrack for which the copyright is not resolved, so public screenings outside of Taiwan are not advised.

- Videos -

Chang Chao Tang, Face in Motion (1976, 5’30”) and The Boat-Burning Festival (1979, 20’20”). Videos courtesy of the artist.

Audience member: What year was Face in Motion produced?

XM: According to the information we found it was shot in 1973. But the version the artist sent over was probably re-edited in 1976.

Audience member: I am just wondering about the essay film in Taiwan. Were there many film works which [employed an] avant-garde strategy [to an] essay aesthetic at that time?

XM: Based on what I know, access to moving image cameras was limited in the 1970s. I have only found a few artists making what we would understand as experimental or amateur films, such as Lei Hsiang (雷骧) and Chen Tsun-Shing (陳傳興). Chang Chao-Tang also collaborated with a very important writer, Huang Chun-ming (黃春明), on various TV documentary series. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to see these works, which were produced in the 70s in Taiwan. It’s certainly worth digging to find out more about this. Later in the 1980s and 90s there were many more artists working with film, and more independent filmmakers, for example Kao Chung-Li (高重黎), Huang Ming-Chuan (黃明川), and Chen Chieh-Jen (陳界仁), among others.

Audience member: Do you think this film had any political implications when the artist created it? I mean, there was much more freedom during that time in Taiwan, compared with Mainland China, but it was still under the martial law.

XM: It’s a pity that the artist is not here today to answer your question. From what I understand, there was a broader Nativist Movement as well as a government policy to incorporate local Taiwanese culture. For instance, during the 1970s [the government] started to hire as government officials local Taiwanese people. Previously government positions in Taiwan had been almost exclusively held by Mainlanders (i.e. people who had arrived in Taiwan from Mainland China after 1949). The artist was also working at a state-owned TV station, and many of these documentaries were aired nationally on TV. However, in my opinion, looking at folk culture, aboriginal people, and things very much marginalized in society is in itself a political gesture. I think reality is always complex and requires constant negotiation.

Audience member: The concern he seems to be addressing is not just that of the Native Taiwanese Movement in relation to the Mainland Chinese culture, but as it relates to freedom of speech. For instance: the Free China Documentary (自由中國). The government still had a lot of power over all kinds of publications or media.

Jane DeBevoise (JD): In addition to films, there were print publications that recorded and celebrated local folk culture, for example, Echo magazine (漢聲英文版) of which we have many copies in our collection. While I went to Taiwan to study (high) Chinese culture and often visited museums like the National Palace Museum, I was also fascinated by what I saw on the street. That is the reason I collected these issues of Echo magazine, interestingly published in English at the time.

XM: This is the first copy, sponsored it seems by China Airlines. An interesting aside, the founder of this magazine, Huang Yongsong (黃永松), was in fact the headless figure that you saw earlier in Chang’s photographs.

Audience member: Taiwan was a huge R & R (rest and recuperation) destination for American troops during the Vietnam War at the time. And that’s another part of Taiwan’s really complicated and rather fraught relationship with the United States. [This situation was] like a semi-colonial relationship, [and that was] not appreciated by certain people in Taiwan.

Audience member: On one level this film could be seen as an advertisement to attract tourism to Taiwan. Yet at another level, it could be said to present a culture that was distinct from Mainland China. In other words, in addition to the commercial or mercantile opportunities that tourism could attract, there might have been political objectives as well.

Audience member: Could it be said that the politics of Taiwan were [controlled by] a mercantile [agenda]…

JD: During the 1960s and 70s Taiwan self-identified as the representative of true Chinese culture, and that included high level and popular Chinese culture. That is what the leadership of Taiwan believed it could offer [the world], in contrast to Mainland China, which they insisted offered nothing culturally worthy at the time. It is important to remember that the U.S. recognized Taiwan as the ‘official’ China up until diplomatic relations were established with Mainland China in 1979.

Audience member: I was in Taiwan when the Vietnam War ended. It was probably the only place on the planet where there was a massive demonstration in the city against the ending of the Vietnam War. The rest of the world was like, ‘Finally the Americans are going to leave Vietnam.’ Everybody was very happy, but not in Taiwan.

Audience member: Why?

JD: The American troops were protecting Taiwan from the ‘evil’ Communists.

Audience member: The Vietnam war was an anti-Communist war.

JD: Are these rituals still going on in Taiwan? Does anyone know? During the 1970s, after I graduated from university, I traveled to Taiwan and lived in a Japanese style house with a Mainland Chinese family (外省). All kinds of festivals took place and quasi-religious rituals were performed right outside my bedroom window, almost to my irritation! Because these activities took place regularly, they were very noisy and went on for days…

Audience member: In 1998, I spent six months there, in a northern suburb of Taipei. Our small street had a temple at the end of it, and there were wonderful gatherings…

Audience member: Tong-ji? [shaman]

Audience member: Yes, Tong-ji. Yes, at least once a week, there was a gathering.

JD: Well, I’m afraid we have run out of time. We organized a screening series at Columbia University this spring called ‘Documentary Aesthetics in East Asia.’ For this series we screened works from different parts of East Asia that responded in some way over the decades to the documentary form. But the works we screened were not necessarily documentary films; rather they stood somewhere between documentary, film, and art. The films we looked at today also stand somewhere between documentary and art, but as Xiaofei said, we were unable to include them in our Columbia event because of copyright issues. So thank you all for coming to this private viewing, and we look forward to seeing you at our future programs.

Image credit: Chang Chao-Tang, Face in Motion, 1976, 5’30”. Image courtesy of the artist.

This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.


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