Art Histories of a Forever War is an exploration of modern art in postwar Taiwan and its enduring resonances. To understand this historical milieu, the exhibition unpacks and contextualizes Taiwan's modern art as part of a Cold War convergence of art, design, and technology.1 On a global scale, and in relation to the American military-industrial complex and its attendant neo-imperialism (Immerwahr 2020: 13–144), the post–World War II and early Cold War period of the 1940s–60s has been described as “a period of accelerated commercialization, of decolonization and—in the context of advanced aesthetic practice and thought—of considered reassessment of the effects and legacies of the modernist avant-garde” (Martin 2005: 4). Modernity in this period was transformed by wartime techno-scientific developments and the competition for cultural supremacy between the United States and the Soviet Union.
From the design of boardrooms to visual anthropology to cultural exchange programs based on the belief that art could be a medium for building diplomatic understanding, cultural production in this period was motivated by an interest in shaping human subjectivity. While pertinent to American art history,2 these policies had a global effect: the Cold War competition between the US and the Soviet Union to ideologically determine what progress and modernity meant for the world had an effect on how these ideas were employed in campaigns to win “hearts and minds” (Krenn 2005). In this way, the exhibition's reference to the Cold War is not a simple periodization demarcating the period after World War II; instead, the Cold War symbolizes a worlding process of imaginatively and technologically modulating oneself as part of an international competition to define what was “modern.”
To further elaborate, we unpack the argument via three interconnected sections of the exhibition. “Cosmotechnics after Space” interrogates the specific cosmotechnics of modern art practices in Taiwan in light of the technological developments that arose out of the space race, such as satellite photography and the moon landing. Cosmotechnics, a term coined by philosopher Hui Yuk, refers to the unification of moral and cosmic orders through craft or art making.3 In this view, art practices, like tools and technology, do not just produce things but are world-making processes.
“Global Domestic” focuses on the emergence of a shared global experience mediated through home appliances and crafts. This thread takes an expanded view of how art and craft from Taiwan, supported by American economic aid as a strategy to strengthen Taiwan's economic development and to develop them for export, contributed to the construction of a “global domestic.”
“Aesthetic Networks of a Free World” examines the internationalization projects of Taiwan's modern artists in this period. The free world, a phrase often used in propaganda, refers to the Western bloc and the network of countries allied with the United States. The Republic of China in Taiwan, being the “free face of China,” represented one of the front lines of the Cold War. This geopolitical position afforded artists in Taiwan exceptional opportunities to develop their artistic practices across the free world, and it colored the reading and development of aesthetic movements associated with artists from Taiwan. Even as the US Information Service advocated for art communities in Taiwan and championed them as the “ideal” Chinese modernism internationally, Taiwan's modern artists navigated these opportunities. They developed their own international communities and definitions of modern art.
For instance, the exhibition illustrates this point with several canonical works from the Punto International Art Movement (fig. 9), including Li Yuan-Chia's Untitled 16 (1963), Untitled 17 (1963), and Untitled 18 (1963). Produced during Li's engagement with Punto International Art Movement in Italy, these three folding-scroll pieces embody Li's integration of the “spatial and temporal freedom of Western abstract” with his training in Chinese calligraphy, especially in his use of brushstrokes (Hsiao 1991: 358). This body of work has been well received and discussed by art communities in Taiwan. While the exhibition explores Taiwan's modern art through these three distinct threads, it is essential to keep in mind that these themes are to be read in terms of conjunctural dynamics. Cultural theorists Stuart Hall and Doreen Massey's (2010: 57) notion of conjuncture refers to a “period during which different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape,” producing a crisis. By situating these themes within a conjunctural analysis, the exhibition promotes an examination of the complex entanglements of this historical period and privileges the agency of the artist in navigating their sociopolitical context and writing history on their own terms.
Nowhere is this curatorial approach of intervening into a global history of a “forever war” more apparent than in the reappearance of several artists across themes. These artists include Chin Sung, Han Hsiang-Ning, Yang Yuyu, Lee Shi-Chi, and Chen Chi-Kwan. The inclusion of work from different moments in their artistic career not only facilitates an expanded art-historical reading of their individual artistic evolution but also renders visible the conceptual ties between themes. This is exemplified by the double bill of Chen Chi-Kwan in “Cosmotechnics after the Space Race” and in “Global Domestic.”4 The first, Ninety-Degree Curves (1967), depicts Chen's memory of a flight during his military service in 1944. This nearly two-meter-long ink painting actualizes an aerostatic vision through classical Chinese ink painting techniques. It offers a poetic counterpoint to the scientific visuality represented by the reproductions of NASA photographs and posters displayed in the same gallery.
“Global Domestic” features Chen's Yin Yang No. 2 (1985), a 5.5-meter-long painting mounted in the format of a hand scroll that resembles an imaginary journey into a siheyuan (Chinese courtyard house) in Yunnan.5 Unlike traditional Chinese landscape painting, which emphasizes the exteriority of a scene through elaborate brushwork and composition, Yin Yang No. 2 actualizes an interior structure that is both physical and metaphysical. The painting is meant to be viewed from left to right, situating the domestic as a microcosm of the wider world, and thus extending the visual narrative of traditional Chinese ink painting. On the one hand, the painting encapsulates how the correlation between spaces in a siheyuan epitomizes the social order of traditional Chinese society by demarcating spaces with symbolic household items without merely relying on walls. On the other hand, by situating the interior of the siheyuan between mountains and lakes, Chen creates a synchronicity between the domestic rhythm of time expressed by the unfolding spaces of the siheyuan and the cosmic passage of time embodied by the flowing water and the sun and moon. The shifts in how Chen employed modern perspectives, from the aerial to the domestic layout, in his attempts to represent worlds speak to generational shifts and the enduring resonances of this historical period on how artists, such as Chen, saw and depicted this milieu in their works. Beyond just privileging the agency of the artist and the historical context in which they work, such a curatorial approach allows for a larger, more expansive historical scale through which to consider Taiwan's modern art as a lens onto a moment in global history—a moment that still resonates in our contemporary lives.
Exhibiting History in Its Present Tense: Curating Art Histories of a Forever War: Modernism between Space and Home (2021)
A week before the opening of Art Histories of a Forever War: Modernism between Space and Home (2021) at the Taipei Fine Art Museum (TFAM), the heightened tension between the Republic of China in Taiwan (ROC) and the People's Republic of China (PRC) played out in the global news cycle. With the failure of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan, and US president Joe Biden vowing to defend Taiwan, current events in the weeks leading up to the exhibition promised the revival of the Cold War tensions represented in the exhibition. Thus the specter of the Cold War uncannily formed a backdrop to the opening of Art Histories of a Forever War: Modernism between Space and Home, an exhibition that explored and historicized the artistic pursuit of modernism in Taiwan and its neighboring regions from the 1950s to the 1970s (Hunnicutt 2021).
The location of TFAM, in this light, exaggerated the historicity and timeliness of the exhibition. Opened on August 8, 1983, TFAM is Taiwan's first purpose-built exhibition space for modern art.6 Located at the former site of the United States Taiwan Defense Command,7 TFAM's founding vision and its mandate to develop a national collection made it a house of modernism and a literal by-product of the Cold War. The museum embodies the confluence of Taiwan's aesthetic aspiration to modernism at the tail of the martial law era and a Cold War military and industrial complex that produced global modernism.
Considering this larger context, this article is a curatorial reflection on the exhibition, Art Histories of a Forever War: Modernism between Space and Home (2021), as a cultural object that was a product of the Cold War—in being commissioned by and being sited at TFAM—as much as it was an interrogation of the Cold War in Taiwan. The exhibition took Taiwan's modern art as a lens to situate the historiography between modernism and the Cold War, pointing to the ideological contours and networks that have shaped postwar regionalism and cultural production. Presenting contemporary artworks and archival material alongside modern artworks from TFAM's collection and collections from other museum institutions across Taiwan, the exhibition not only attempted to triangulate the development of modern art in Taiwan as part of a larger Cold War regional and global milieu but also sought to expand our understanding of the Cold War, as more than just a historical period but also a historical process still unfolding in the very present. How does this exhibition fit into the prevailing scholarship on Cold War historiography? How does such an exhibition—and more generally, curatorial research—carve out a discursive space for engaging research and the complex legacies of the region? What are the stakes of an exhibition that seeks to explicate the inheritance of our contemporary understanding of modern art, given the geopolitical landscape today? In fleshing out the curatorial research and stakes that define Art Histories of a Forever War, this article acknowledges the format of the exhibition as a medium of cultural production that bears a reflexive interrogation of Cold War legacies.
The Exhibition and Cold War as Assemblage
We have now come to acknowledge the multivalence of the Cold War beyond the conventional depiction of antagonism between two superpowers—the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America—in the post–World War II era, and its larger impact beyond the realm of international politics. In the academic field, the gradual declassification of the archives of the Cold War superpowers has resulted in a surge in publications and conferences around the subject matter. However, this surge of scholarly interest in the Cold War has developed in concurrence with several shifts and turns. Geopolitically speaking, the research emphasis has moved from the Atlantic-centered perspective of John Lewis Gaddis to other narratives addressing regional specificities beyond the Euro-American continents (Berger 2004). For instance, in resonance with Odd Arne Westad's (2005) argument regarding the proactive role played by third-world countries in altering the dynamics of the Cold War arena (see also McMahon 2013; Radchenko and Kalinovsky 2011), the transregional picture of “intercontinental synchronization of hostilities” that is suggested in Dynamics of the Cold War in Asia: Ideology, Identity, and Culture, coauthored by Tuong Vu and Wasana Wongsurawat (2009: 3), has extended Cold War studies from the global North to the global South.
Epistemologically speaking, Melvyn P. Leffler's (1994) suggestions that we understand the historical event of the Cold War from linguistic and cultural perspectives have also paved the way for the subsequent cultural turn.8 By examining the Cold War as a “cultural phenomenon” (Fousek 2003: 150), scholars with transdisciplinary awareness about the Cold War have started to investigate the political implications of transnational cultural programs and cultural productions. Various scholarly attempts to broaden, widen, and deepen the understanding of the contemporaneity of the Cold War are going beyond the approach of making sense of the past to inquire into the relevance of the Cold War in the present. Not only have these distinctive junctures of historical research with other fields of studies drastically destabilized the initial historiography formulated by military historians, but these shifted sites of inquiry—addressed from below and from the challenges of peripheries—interrogate our assumptions about what the Cold War is and has been about.
Indeed, the subject of the Cold War has blossomed into a transdisciplinary field of study, particularly the convergence between aesthetics, technology, and ideology. In Cold War Assemblages: Decolonization to Digital, literature scholar Bhakti Shringarpure (2019: 20) notes that the theoretical trope of assemblage enables “multiple vantage points to co-exist and illustrates that we remain in the grip of a tenacious Cold War imaginary.” Focusing primarily on literary works concerning the discourse of postcolonality and violence, Shringarpure's work rejects the project of history being linear and dichotomous but favors the longue durée in order to discuss the historical continuum between the old form of colonialism and its rearticulation in “[turning] the post-colony into a warscape” (3).9 Here, the notion of war requires further unpacking. On the one hand, Shringarpure's notion of war is an episteme of violence from within the postcolonial subjects and with multiple fronts. From the violence of civil wars to the violence on art and literature, violence presents itself through ideological warfare in modes of reframing and potential erasure, whether of identity or a heterogeneous imagination of aesthetic subjects.
Art Histories of a Forever War extends on Shringarpure's idea of the assemblage and war. The former borrows from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's definition of the assemblage as a multiplicity unified by “co-functioning”—“alliances, alloys; these are not successions, lines of descent, but contagions, epidemics, the wind” (20; quoted from Deleuze and Parnet 2007: 69). The exhibition along these lines is an assemblage because the relations that it brings up are not linear but correlational at best. Aesthetics often functions as a loose logic that sketches out the rationale of this period—one defined by the banal violence of the Cold War—and how this violence extends into the contemporary.
Art Histories of a Forever War foregrounds modern art masterpieces housed in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, including the works of Li Yuan-Chia (1929–94), Chin Sung (1932–2007), Liu Kuo-Sung (1932–), Hsiao Chin (1935–), Lee Shi-Chi (1938–2019), and Han Hsiang-Ning (1939–), as well as those outside the collection, by modernist architects Wang Da Hong (1917–2018) and Chen Chi-Kwan (1921–2007). It highlights a pioneering generation of artists who relocated to Taiwan after World War II and urgently sought to develop a language of modern art that defined Chineseness. At once local and international in their visions, these artists and their works were at times employed toward legitimizing the Republic of China in Taiwan within the cultural and political landscape of the Cold War. Yet they were fundamentally interstitial actors, whose culture production eludes any singular narrative. The exhibition unpacks the complexity of this historical milieu through three distinct but intersecting themes: “Cosmotechnics after Space,” “Global Domestic,” and “Aesthetic Networks of a Free World.” These themes reflect a period of global history (the 1940s–70s) in which art, design, and technology converged in the service of war. Through signposting the cultural actors from Taiwan and the region, who navigated and shaped the culture at the time, these themes bring together asynchronous timelines, correlating events, and logics that are bound together by the complexity of the Cold War.
In turn, this complexity and nuance are represented spatially by the “assemblage” of archival material, modern and contemporary art, and the site of the building itself. The exhibition produces an experience of moving through space and tuning in to the relations of the milieu through objects of the time and artworks from the museum's collection . In this respect, as curators and scholars committed to recuperating lesser-known accounts of non-Western artists actively navigating Cold War frameworks (Hsu 2016; Hsu 2019; Ditzig 2020, 2021), the particular locale and history of TFAM inspired us as curators to question the historical entanglements between innovations of war and modern art. How can Taiwan's modern aesthetic discourse and its institutionalized modernism be reconsidered in light of the museum's location at a former US military installation? How do we culturally live with the legacies of war? The exhibition is an assemblage just as much as it represents a Cold War milieu as an assemblage. Moreover, it offers potent vantage points that recuperate certain historical discourses that would be less apparent in other formats. The exhibition itself theorizes the Cold War's regional specificity, by attempting to decentralize the United States as the singular world power in the reading of the Cold War and instead focusing on Taiwan's modern art as an alternative point of entry to this historical narrative and as an interlocutor with contemporary art.
Art Histories of a Forever War
What is important to note about this historical period in which modernity was being transformed by wartime techno-scientific developments is the global yet intimate scale of transformation that accompanied the emergence of the military-industrial complex (Thompson 1989).10Military-industrial complex is a term used by outgoing US President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his exit speech in 1961. He warned the American people against the unwarranted influence of the conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry. Corporations vying for defense contracts in the 1950s and government agencies that administered them relied on public relations to construct a narrative of their seemingly self-evident necessity.
This phenomenon brought to light the overlaps between the marketplace and geopolitics: The Cold War was in part sustained by an emergent economy of war.11 Elaborating on this relationship, Éric Alliez and Maurizio Lazzarato (2018: 251) in Wars and Capital state that the “subject” of the Cold War was “none other than globalized capitalism, which in its military-financial constitution, merges with the war machine of capital.” Through the control of money and military power, the United States was able to produce what they call a “Golden Age of Capitalism,” which was also a regime of biopower that systematically regulated civil society and ways of life through class divisions of labor and value, along the lines of race and gender.
While Alliez and Lazzarato apply this largely to American society, the expansive neo-imperial reach of the United States in the postwar years, as well as the active interventions and assistance regimes in the decolonizing world at the time, meant that this was not wholly a domestic or national project but one that was fundamentally a worlding project.12 The military-industrial complex arguably created the conditions for the Cold War and the cycles of war around the world, which have defined a global culture of a forever war. And, from time to time, art histories are punctuated with boycotts of arts funding linked to the sale of arms.13
The phrase forever war was coined by American author Joe Haldeman and used in the title of his 1974 military science fiction novel. In both popular and scholarly discourse today, the term is used in reference to the US war on terror,14 and it is endemic to the long legacy of a systemic process of othering that “[assaults] the human sensorium for citizens, subjects, survivors, and refugees of US empire” (Kapadia 2019: 9). By appropriating the multiversal, transnational, and transhistorical term forever war to examine the confluence of art, design, and technology in Taiwan's modern art and its continued resonance in contemporary art, the exhibition sets out to demarcate a global register that moves beyond American exceptionalism. It drops the singularity of the forever war while expanding the historiography of art from the perspective of the everyday condition of war.
How do we understand and interrogate the resonance of this historical period on the contemporary, other than reflecting on the museum's location at the site of a former military installation? Presented alongside the modern artworks and punctuating the exhibition are archival case studies on Cold War cultural diplomacy and exchange between Taiwan's modern artists and the world, as well as contemporary research-based artworks by Erika Tan (Singapore/United Kingdom), Sung Tieu (Vietnam/Germany), Maria Taniguchi (Philippines), Chen Yin-Ju (Taiwan), Prajakta Potnis (India), Doris Wong Wai Yin (Hong Kong), Writing FACTory (Taiwan) in collaboration with Joy Ho (Singapore) and Joanne Ho (Singapore), and Yee I-Lann (Borneo).
These works point to the enduring legacies of this historical period and explicate the lacunas of “modern” history by fleshing out the complexities of lesser-known moments of Taiwan's modern art history, and by foregrounding the artistic and technological traditions born of war that still define our daily life. Through the discursive relationship between modern and contemporary artworks, the exhibition offers Taiwan's modern art as a lens to read global art history. It emphasizes the visual legacies that contemporary artworks share with Taiwan's modern art as well as the interrogations of historical trajectories that grew out of the innovations and lived anxieties of both the hot and cold wars of the twentieth century. The selection of contemporary art practices focused on domestic and personal family histories and was attentive to reflexive interrogations of the inheritances of contemporary artists. They present a determined attempt to grapple with the ellipses and lacunas of the forever war's regime of biopower that emphasizes the national and the geopolitical at the expense of personal agency.
To bring these artworks together in discussion is a fundamentally “insurgent” feminist gesture. As posited by queer studies scholar Ronak K. Kapadia (2019: 17) in his exploration of insurgent aesthetics shared by contemporary artistic practitioners with Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic backgrounds, the artworks enable us to recognize the regime of state surveillance and their “affective afterlives” beyond the seemingly abstract notion of war. The kind of aesthetic language that Kapadia theorizes results from militarized surveillance cultures and the dominant presence of wartime logistics in our contemporary life. Yet his analysis can be extended here to consider not only the gaps but also the synchronicities that the works of Taiwan's modern artists and contemporary artists from East and Southeast Asia share.
Exhibiting a Forever War
Yet this notion that war is an episteme of violence from within the postcolonial subjects and with multiple fronts, which defined the subject matter of the exhibition, was also one that we considered reflexively in relation to this research being undertaken in light of and in relation to the exhibitionary format. In 1994, the anthropologist David H. Price declassified a report written by the anthropologist Gregory Bateson in one of his last duties working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The report laid out a postwar future for the OSS in India and South Asia15. It set out recommendations for a long-term view of cultivating effective allies that the USA could rely on. An important aspect of this was Bateson's discussion of exhibitionism and spectatorship as a way of ordering human relations.
Bateson ( 1987) wrote about exhibitionism and spectatorship in “Morale and National Character” as facets of child-rearing and as defining aspects of national character—or the personalities of people of specific nations. He delineates a difference between children raised in the United States who are encouraged to perform or exhibit their uniqueness to their parents and children raised in the UK who are instead encouraged to be spectators who review and emulate what their parents present to them. By the time of his report in 1944, Bateson had extended this idea to the power dynamics of making cultural displays. He referenced the Russian policy of managing cultural minorities:
The most significant experiment which has yet been conducted in the adjustment of relations between “superior” and “inferior” peoples is the Russian handling of their Asiatic tribes in Siberia. The findings of this experiment support very strongly the conclusion that it is very important to foster spectatorship among the superiors and exhibitionism among the inferiors. In outline, what the Russians have done is to stimulate the native peoples to undertake a native revival while they themselves admire the resulting dance festivals and other exhibitions of native culture, literature, poetry, music and so on. And the same attitude of spectatorship is then naturally extended to native achievements in production or organization. In contrast to this, where the white man thinks of himself as a model and encourages the native people to watch him in order to find out how things should be done, we find that in the end nativistic cults spring up among the native people. The system gets overweighed until some compensatory machinery is developed and then the revival of native arts, literature, etc., becomes a weapon for use against the white man. . . . If, on the other hand, the dominant people themselves stimulate native reviva[l]ism, then the system as a whole is much more stable, and the nativism cannot be used against the dominant people.” (Bateson memo)
Through this outline, Bateson delineates how when cultural display is encouraged, its political potency can be mitigated to prevent it from undermining the postwar world order that the United States sought to develop. He makes it apparent that encouraging the display of culture—of which exhibitions are one form—and thus enabling and guiding an Indigenous culture to self-define is important for managing and directing social and political movements. Price (1998: 382) notes that these directives foreshadow a general strategy of psywarfare undertaken by Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) actors in the region, such as Edward Landsdale, in which “indigenous legitimate leaders were subdued by the polite attentions of institutions and persons connected to intelligence agencies.” Moreover, Price speculates that, because Bateson's report was found in the CIA and not the OSS archives, Bateson's ideas were probably applied by the CIA, the postwar intelligence organization that replaced the OSS.
What does such a covert cultural policy mean for the way we view exhibitions produced during the Cold War and the legacies of cultural production of this period? What does this, in turn, mean for an exhibition like Art Histories of a Forever War, which features Cold War exhibitions and exhibitionary projects? Asian Artists in Crystal (1956–58) was a cultural exchange traveling exhibition that was based on drawings by modern artists from Asia that were collected by the curator Karl Kup of the New York Library (Steuben Glass 1956). These drawings were then translated into crystal by American craftsmen from the Steuben Glass company. The project, which was a form of American cultural diplomacy by a private corporation, the US State Department, and cultural organizations, produced a series of crystals that were put on display in the United States and around the world. Copies were gifted to the countries where the artists came from. For Art Histories of a Forever War, the exhibition presented crystals by modern Taiwanese artists alongside the exhibition promotional material and a propaganda film, restaging a section of the exhibitionary dynamics of the original exhibition. Art Histories of a Forever War (Ditzig and Hsu 2022) also afforded the opportunity to present archival research by Ifan Chen on the Southeast Asia Rehabilitation and Trade Exhibition (1956), an exhibition held in New York. The trade exhibition presented design objects and artwork from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia that were assembled by the American designer Russel Wright and produced out of a US aid program to promote the development of craft and design that could be exported and sold in the US market as a way to economically benefit a US constellated Southeast Asia. Presented as part of a broader constellation of Taiwanese modern art and other forms of US propaganda about technological advancement and the space race, the exhibitions mobilized within Art Histories of a Forever War were framed as part of a larger Cold War milieu wherein military and cultural developments produced art networks. In turn, the exhibition is a call for a greater reflexivity in implicitly encouraging viewers to consider how these exhibitions produced subjectivities and discourses as much, perhaps, as they consider the exhibition they stood in. In a sense, this was a reckoning of the legacy of Cold War cultural exhibitionism laid out by Bateson's policy paper.
In this way and by situating the quotidianization of war in the context of art-historical narratives, Art Histories of a Forever War considers the exhibitionary as uniquely capable of capturing the entangled nuances of the living legacies of a forever war. There is a collective, complex knowing that comes out of aesthetic experiences that escape reductive articulations, making the artwork a resilient surface and interface for less palpable ways of life that persist despite the geopolitical editing of grand historical narratives.
Violence of Visuality and Planetary Turn
Visuality emerges from a particular technological arrangement and vice versa. What we have learned from the history of colonialization is how the colonial power manifests in perception and representation. Seeing is more than believing. Seeing renders conquest into a particular mode of visual representation. Exemplified by Walter D. Mignolo's works on the power of coloniality in cartography and his poignant question of imagining modernity without coloniality, visual technology such as a map internalizes the power asymmetry between subject and object through its civilizing agenda (Mignolo and Ennis 2001; Mignolo 2012.16 The critique on politics of visuality has been further expanded by media theorists Amy J. Elias (2012) and Jussi Parikka (2020) in an attempt to incorporate media technology and to shed light on the exploitative and violent nature of the Cold War and its economic discourse of globalization. For Elias and Parikka, it is imperative to unfold the technoscientific visuality of the planetary concept—“the dehumanising context of cosmic space constituted by science and then, as a metaphor for the cybernetic, to scientific rationality” (Elias 2012: 749–50)—that dominates our contemporary cultural reality.
However, as presented in the Chinese modern art movement in postwar Taiwan between the 1950s and 1970s, the imagery of the planet was cohabited by the modernist aspiration of Chinese cosmology and the poetic metonymy of a lost homeland due to the Chinese civil war. Coincident with the facilitation of the space race, the heightened awareness of the planetary due to the global televising of the moon landing,17 the artistic pursuits of Chinese modernism in Taiwan, in particular the proactive experimentation in ink, responded to the new technoscientific visuality of the planetary concept. In contrast with Liu Kuo-Sung's ardent and celebratory reaction with a period dedicated to what he refers as space painting from the late 1960s onward (Wong 2019), the architect Wang Da Hong's Selene: Monument to Man's Conquest of the Moon (1965–80) (fig. 14) and the printmaker Lee Shi-Chi's Worship of the Moon (1975) (fig. 5) suggest an alternative relational and cultural aspect rooted in ancient Chinese cosmology.
Worship of the Moon (1975) is a collaboration between artist Lee Shih-Chi (1938–2019) and poet Gu Yue (1942–) as a response to the 1969 moon landing. According to Lee and Gu, unlike some artists of their generation who were deeply touched by the event, the significance of the scientific breakthrough somehow put an end to the moon being a muse for centuries of Chinese artistic practices. “Therefore, I discussed with Gu Yue putting her writing and my art together to lament the death of the Moon,” said Lee (Zhou and Liang 2006). By juxtaposing Gu's poem with her husband Lee's prints, the couple created a set of ten pairs of text and image mourning the evanescence of their spiritual homeland—the moon. “Moon Elegy,” one of the poems from the ten pairs of Worship of the Moon (1975), was explicitly written about the very moment of July 21, 1969, when the news of the success of Apollo 11’s landing and the images of Neil Armstrong taking his first step on the moon were beamed across a global mediascape. Unlike her fervent passages throughout the poem, Gu Yue declares the vanishing of Chang-O in a deadpan manner in the subtitle of the poem. The personification of the moon and a legendary beauty in Chinese mythology, Chang-O was known for her noble act of self-exile to rescue people under her husband Houyi's oppression. In the third stanza of “Moon Elegy,” Gu vividly depicts Chang-O's sense of displacement and her longing for smelling the fragrance of her homeland's soil. For readers familiar with Gu Yue's family history, it is hard to ignore the resonance between Chang-O's sorrow of being an émigré and Gu's experience as part of the generation retreating to Taiwan from mainland China with the Kuomintang (KMT) in the late 1940s. Between the moon and the earth, between literati tradition and scientific progress, between poetics and technicity, and between motherland and father-state, the dialectical tension between Lee Shih-Chi and Gu Yue's Worship of the Moon (1975) and their pivotal involvement in the modern art movement in postwar Taiwan epitomizes an emotional subtlety that constitutes the curatorial proposition of Art Histories of a Forever War.
The presence of modernist architect Wang Da Hong's signature moon gate and the archival materials about his unactualized Selene: Monument to Man's Conquest to the Moon (the Selene project, 1965–80) point to another paradigm of this intersection between the searching of Chineseness and planetary conception of visuality. Motivated by the US Apollo 11 mission in 1969, Wang put forward his design concept of Selene by publishing the project in Progressive Architecture in the same year. With a intention to realize the project in Houston, Wang accepted the suggestion from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to frame Selene as a national gift from the Republic of China in Taiwan to commemorate the bicentennial of American independence. As a concept, Selene formalizes a visualization of yin and yang through the monument's main components—two stelaes. The minimalist approach of reintegrating Chinese cosmology was also highlighted by a pair of reliefs within the stelaes, which depicted the ancient Chinese mythology of Lady Chang'e flying to the moon (see also Ko and Taji 2016). Unfortunately, Selene as a symbol of Wang's vision for the Chinese cultural renaissance and a diplomatic gift was abolished by both the official aesthetic judgment of the KMT and by realpolitik when the ROC was replaced by the PRC in the United Nations and the United States officially cut diplomatic ties with the ROC in 1979. The archive of Selene in Art Histories of a Forever War is a concrete moment in the exhibition that speculatively conjures an imagination of an unrealized world of the Cold War.
In his declaration of the Cold War in 1947, US President Harry S. Truman said, “At the present moment in world history, nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life” (Truman 1947). At the core of his speech is “a way of life” that is foregrounded as the main battlefield. Alliez and Lazzarato (2018: 253) suggest that “life” in the Cold War “involve[d] the war of subjectivity in a new form of governmentality inscribing the social engineering of the mass psychology of military-industrial democracy.”
Assessment of the impact of our shared Cold War on aesthetics and contemporary life varies—from those who approach the Cold War as a historical period to others who refuse such a homogenous closure. As evidenced by the contemporary research-driven projects featured in the exhibition: from the political, social, and economic realities occupying news headlines to the ever-present structural violence of nationalism and the variations of wars on terror, many of the ideological and technological constructs of the Cold War have been quietly integrated into the present. With its overlooked interfaces regarding the everydayness of war, accounts of artistic activities in the immediate postwar era provide a framework for historicizing the affect and aesthetic politics that modulate our life aspirations while silencing our imaginations of belonging beyond the nationalistic paradigm.
What does it mean to constellate a living art history of a forever war? We live in a moment when “Cold War” tensions are being reenacted not only through the “conquest” of the moon but also in macho performances of statehood: the week before the exhibition opened at TFAM, international news channels reported that China had sent the greatest number of aircraft in its history into Taiwan's airspace, further challenging Taiwan's sovereignty (Buckley and Qin 2021).
Art Histories of a Forever War takes Taiwan's modern art as a lens to constellate a global art history of ‘a forever war’ in which the technology and visual languages of conflicts over territory and cultural sovereignty are a persistent history and contemporary condition. In so doing, the exhibition also made plain the stakes of curatorial production today as we see a renewal of Cold War tensions. The exhibition actively and reflexively engaged with this legacy, making a claim for the exhibition as a space of extended continuity, where the longue durée can extend itself into unrealized futures.
According to art historian Yen Chuan-Ying (1993), the development of modern art in Taiwan can be traced back to the Japanese colonial era. The aesthetics of modern art were further institutionalized through competitions such as the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibitions, sixteen successive editions of which (1927–36, 1938–43) were overseen by the Japanese Government-General of Taiwan. In her dissertation “Art and Cultural Politics: The Subject Formation of Taiwanese Art after World War Two,” art historian Chen Man-Hua (2016) acknowledges that the constitutive dimension of modern aesthetics in postwar Taiwan had to do with the influence of the West. Yet she also highlights that the negotiation of such modernism should not be deemed wholly Western, but should be seen as a projection of local struggle both culturally and politically. For an in-depth discussion of the modern art movement and debate in postwar Taiwan, see Hsiao 1991 and Chen Man-Hua 2016.
In the 1970s a series of revisionist studies was published in Artforum by Max Kozloff (1973), William Hauptman (1973), and Eva Cockcroft (1974), which responds to Irving Sandler's (1970) Abstract Expressionism. These essays delve into the covert state funding of art and review modernist narratives from the 1940s, exposing art and culture as a major concern in American foreign policy. The revisionist studies partly resulted in the redefinition and overemphasis of the importance of abstract expressionism in US national art history as well as the complicity of the Museum of Modern Art with the US state. Studies from the 1990s by historians such A. Deirdre Robson and Michael Kimmelman which explore the discrepancies between American culture and its representation abroad, parsing the conflicting agendas of the different stakeholders advocating for American modern art and tempering the claims made in the 1970s. However, the revisionist studies continued to influence the writing of histories of the cultural Cold War. In particular, they have colored some of the art histories written in the region that stylistically associate abstract expressionism from the region with the US cultural Cold War project. For Kimmelman's essay and other relevant works, see Elderfield 1994.
As Hui Yuk (2021: 41) indicates, “I gave a preliminary definition to cosmotechnics as the unification of moral order and cosmic order through technical activities.”
Born in 1921 in Beijing, Chen Chi-Kwan's first encounter with Chinese ink, particularly calligraphy, was through home school with a private tutor. After Chen finished his undergraduate studies, he joined the army in 1944 and worked as an interpreter for American troops. In 1948 Chen was accepted by the University of Illinois, from which he subsequently graduated with a master's of architecture. Upon Chen's graduation, he was invited by Walter Gropius to join the Architects Collaborative. The exposure to the Bauhaus spirit of experimenting with technology and media inspired Chen to revisit his earlier training in Chinese ink. Although Chen is mainly known as one of the modernist pioneers in architecture, his paintings have also been praised by renowned art historians such as Michael Sullivan. The latter remarked that Chen's paintings are “so clear and exact an expression of his vision that they need no commentary.” See Sullivan (1996: 187).
Art historian Li Chu-Tsing (1996) identified Chen Chi-Kwan's use of descriptive geometry—a visualizing technique commonly used by architects and designers—in his paintings. Comparing Chen's artistic achievement to that of Piet Mondrian, Li lauded Chen's ability to integrate the human touch in the interior structure of his painting and to actualize a sense of harmony between abstraction and realism. Yin Yang No. 2 captures this reading (387).
The plan to establish a fine-art museum in Taipei was introduced in 1976 as part of the Twelve Major Construction Projects initiated by the central government of the Republic of China (Taiwan). The advisory committee for the preparation and development of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum was formed in 1976, comprising artists such as Yang Yuyu, Ran In-Ting, Liu Kuo-Sung, and other experts in the field. However, the museum's identity had very much crystallized during the preparation of the design competition for the museum's architecture. As indicated in the call for entries, the plan was to “welcome a modern art museum that can accommodate the home-grown works of art while expanding the international horizon” (Shyu and Liu 2015: 17). Meanwhile, architect Kao Erh-Pan's design concept for the museum as a siheyuan (courtyard house) is also considered an exceptional manifestation of Chinese modernism that goes beyond the palace style preferred by the central government.
The command was founded in 1955 after the First Taiwan Strait Crisis that began in September 1954 and the signing of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty in December 1954. It represented the United States’ military Cold War support for Taiwan, spanning the onset of the Korean War in 1950 until the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China in 1979.
Leffler not only brings up the cultural and linguistic approach in his editor's preface to The Origins of the Cold War (1994) but also discusses the relevancy of using diverse factors to develop a historical narrative in “The Cold War” (1999).
For an extensive discussion on the entanglement between the decolonization project and the Cold War, see Kalliney 2022.
For an in-depth study, see Beck and Bishop 2020.
Considerable research has been done on American Cold War policies and the use of US economic assistance in Asia to advocate for an American, democratic, modern Cold War culture. See, for example, Miller 2019. Similarly, there is substantial theoretical work that makes sense of American capital's postwar engagement with “massive and intense redevelopment programs supported by the multiplication of federal agencies coordinating the economy of total war and the incredible logistical effort it involved. [And this] continued in an unprecedented rearmament in time of ‘peace’ ” (Alliez and Lazzarato 2018: 263).
Alliez and Lazzarato (2018: 256) explain this “modernization” through consumption as the colonization of daily life—“the circulation of goods (through planning of demand) in the Americanization of the world.”
In 2019 artists boycotted the Whitney Museum of American Art, demanding the removal of their works from the Whitney Biennial because of the museum's lack of response to calls for the resignation of a board member with ties to the sale of military supplies, including tear gas. See Moynihan 2019.
The term forever war reemerged in the global media sphere through an online commentary by British former prime minister Tony Blair (2021). His article is mainly a critique of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, stating a concern about “our security.” Uncannily, it was published two months before the exhibition was opened in October 2021. Also see Kapadia 2019.
Gregory Bateson, 1944 Office of Strategic Services South East Asia Command: Interoffice Memo from Gregory Bateson to Dillon Reply Subject Your Memo No. 53 Dated 11/15/44 Released by Central intelligence Agency under Freedom of Information Act request August 1944. FOIA Reference F94-1511. Hereafter, Bateson memo.
Apart from Mignolo's discussion on visuality and epistemological violence in coloniality, Nicholas Mirzoeff's Right to Look (2011) provides a genealogy of how visual technology facilitates and legitimizes Western hegemony.
As discussed by Ella Klik (2021: 809), a media historian, “Thus, the exceptionality of the lunar event is not limited to the exploration of uncharted territories but encompasses the fact that it was a televised event, and a live one at that.”