A few galleries, such as IT Park and Space II, think that the bottom line is much less important than giving avant-garde artists enough room to stretch their creativity.
Two high school girls walk onto the second floor of a residential building with doubtful looks on their faces. "Excuse me," one of them asks, "do you know if there is a gallery around?"
"As far as I know," answers Liu Ching-tang (劉慶堂), one of the founders of IT Park, "there is only one gallery here, and you are standing in it."
The two girls accept Liu's answer with some uncertainty and begin to look around, trying to find something they feel is familiar, something they might see in a "normal" gallery.
But IT Park is aggressively different. The avant-garde and basically non-commercial gallery, like a small number of other exhibition spaces in Taipei, specializes in art that is "anti-mainstream," to borrow a popular political term used in Taiwan. To date, the most prominent galleries of this type are IT Park and Space II. These galleries, both in Taipei, are devoted to elevating the status of contemporary art. They offer exhibition space for young artists whose works are radically different from the art exhibited in the hundreds of mainstream, commercial galleries that have opened in recent years.
Although popular enthusiasm for viewing and acquiring art has grown dramatically since the mid-1980s, with collectors and art investors spending record amounts on locally produced works, people still seem to prefer folk art, traditional Chinese brush painting, or works done in Impressionist style. Artists exploring the edges of avant-garde contemporary art have yet to gain much following—or much understanding. Galleries like IT Park and Space II therefore provide an important venue for their works.
IT Park is currently a major shelter for artists specializing in installations. "It is still hard for installations to be accepted by Taiwan museums," Liu says, "not to mention if there is a market for such art." In its introductory brochure, the gallery is described as a union of talented and diversified individuals searching for new relationships between art and life. Descriptions by the artists themselves vary. Liu calls IT Park "another choice besides commercial galleries" or "a place where artists can find more possibilities."
But artist Chen Kai-huang (陳愷璜) describes the gallery in more cynical terms as being "a place of irony." It is ironic, Chen says, for Taiwan to have an avant-garde gallery like this, since the island does not have a healthy art environment. "If there is any art in Taiwan, then you can only find it at IT Park," he says. If Chen means art that represents daring new directions from what is usually seen in Taiwan galleries, he has a solid point. It is difficult to look at works exhibited at IT Park without having strong reactions-positive, negative, or confused.
Liu and several other artists founded IT Park in the autumn of 1988. At first, they considered it merely a gathering place for local artists with similar aesthetic goals. In March 1990, the space was officially opened to the public and the group began to organize shows. By the end of 1992, thirty-nine individual and group shows had been mounted, plus several shows held elsewhere by artists related to the group.
The gallery has also begun inviting artists from overseas to exhibit their works. One of the most successful of these shows was called "Mail Art" (December 1991-January 1992), which attracted eighty-six artists from thirteen countries. The works were mailed to the gallery—and the art works were actually the packages, mailers, and stamps (sometimes faked) themselves.
IT Park, which occupies the second and third floor of a walk-up apartment building, is supported by profits from Liu's commercial photo studio (on the second floor) and by limited commissions from the few art deals made at the gallery. Last year, Liu says, the group began organizing shows of more marketable works to raise funds for exhibitions that could be totally non-commercial.
Clearly, IT Park is not designed to serve as a springboard for young artists to fame and wealth. It is a place where artists can avoid the pressures that come when art is commercialized or officially sponsored. "Commercial galleries have tried to lure away some of our artists," Chen says, "but they've failed."
Space II was established by sixteen artists in August 1989. At the time, many young artists were returning from studies abroad only to find that there was no place for avant-garde forms in Taiwan's commercial galleries and museums.
The group has now expanded to twenty-two artists, who take turns holding exhibitions. Funds are raised by collecting annual membership dues and exhibition fees. Marvin Fang (范姜明道), who acts as the unofficial executive director of Space II, says that running the basement gallery costs around US$2,200 per year. Space II artists, like those at IT Park, make their living primarily by teaching and occasionally by selling their works.
But even members who also show at commercial galleries still insist now and then on focusing their creativity on art of a less commercial kind. "I can make something people will buy," Fang says, "but I also have some experimental ideas that can only be realized at Space II."
Some members, however, find it difficult to sell any of their works. "There is no living room for my works in Taiwan except for Space II," says fiber artist Teresa Huang (黃麗絹). She considers the gallery to be more like a personal growth group, a place where she can enrich herself through communicating with other artists.
Although it has gained some attention in the media and in artists' circles, Space II is still an exhibition place for the few. Fang says it is not unusual to have only three or four visitors a day, most of them artists or art students. He would like to attract a wider audience, but only if it does not compromise the gallery's standards. "We want people to know what we are doing," he says, "and then acknowledge the artistry of our works."
According to Liu Ching-tang, the number of visitors to IT Park has been growing rapidly over the past two years, in part because many of the exhibitions are covered by the art sections in local newspapers. He believes that this reflects a better acceptance of contemporary art among the public. Although students still account for a large part of the visitors, Liu says the gallery is also attracting more white-collar adults.
Questions about government funding and government art policies tend to raise spirited answers from artists at both galleries. "We do not want help from the government," Fang says, "because we want to be totally independent and not influenced by anyone." IT Park's Chen Kai-huang is even more critical. He accuses the government of putting too much energy into the development of folk arts and handicrafts. These forms, Chen says, are less controversial and more useful abroad as tools of "cultural propaganda." An other member of IT Park, Tsong Pu (莊普), says that major support for contemporary art by private companies is still impossible because the government's attitude has a great influence on entrepreneurs who may be considering art sponsorship.
Artists at both galleries also find other fundamental problems with the art environment. One is the emphasis on commercialism. "Now is the best time for Taiwan artists who want to make money," says Fang sarcastically. Nevertheless, he still seems optimistic about the island's future artistic development. As more anti-mainstream galleries such as Space II and IT Park emerge, large venues, such as the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, have become more receptive to the daring directions taken by contemporary avant-garde artists. Though the pace is "a little slow," Fang says, healthy change is taking place.
—Rachel F.F. Lee is a staff writer for the Free China Journal.