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Become a Cultural Navigator

Museum of Vancouver’s Mirage exhibition shows how a vibrant Asian democracy benefits from artistic scrutiny

Mirage
Documentary maker Sandy Lo and contemporary artist and photographer Yao Jui-Chung attended the opening of Mirage, which showcases their artistry. Photo by Charlie Smith.

French photographer and street artist JR has said that “art is not supposed to change the world—to change practical things—but to change perceptions”. A vivid example is Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. His shocking portrait of suffering had a profound effect on how people viewed the Spanish Civil War. However, this painting didn’t change the outcome.

But can art actually change the world? That’s what Taiwanese contemporary artist and photographer Yao Jui-Chung set out to discover in 2010. Yao and his students at Taiwan Normal University began documenting and photographing abandoned convention centres, sports facilities, and other public structures. They called them “mosquito halls” because they had become breeding grounds for disease-carrying insects.

About 150 black-and-white images from Yao’s project are now on display in a Museum of Vancouver exhibition entitled Mirage: Disused Public Property in Taiwan.

“There are three dimensions to this work: politics, art, and education,” Yao said at the launch of the exhibition in late May. “I thought that these themes were very thought-provoking. And I thought: could art have the impact of transforming our society?”

The vivid photographs prompted national and local governments to take action. Some structures were demolished. Others were upgraded to address urban blight. Art had indeed provoked change, thanks to this group of artists called “Lost Society Document”.

“When I was going into this project, I wasn’t sure what impact it would have,” Yao said. “After the first year, I realized it really had a huge potential of transforming how we look at society.”

The exhibition also includes Taiwanese filmmaker Sandy Lo’s documentary, A Rainbow over the Ruins, which tracks the efforts of Yao and his students.

Mirage
Qingcun Cadre Training Center, Ministry of Defense, Taipei City. Completed in 1956. Construction cost unknown. Photo by Yao Jui-Chung.

Mirage foregrounds student engagement

Yao readily acknowledged that images of abandoned spaces are often unattractive.

“But it’s important to have a record of what’s been left behind and to always remember what we can do to make things better,” the artist added. “I really appreciate that in Taiwan, we have very democratic and open space to have dialogue about these kinds of issues.”

Then, he quipped: “That’s why I’m still standing here alive and talking to you.”

Yao spoke in Mandarin and his words were translated by the Museum of Vancouver’s curator of urban cultures, Denise Fong. She curated Mirage: Disused Public Property in Taiwan, which will be at the museum until next year.

According to Fong, this exhibition “foregrounds the role of student engagement in community-based activism”.

“Inspired by the Mirage project, UBC students created a project to help us examine the issue of urban decay and sustainable community futures in Vancouver through architectural research and documentary film,” Fong said at the opening.

From noon to 3:30 p.m. on June 29, two graduates of the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture will discuss their research at a Museum of Vancouver event. They will also present proposals on the local urban planning process and its effects on community spaces and futures.

In addition, political geographer Eugene McCann and UBC SALA professor Young-Tack Oh will lead a panel discussion, followed by group discussions. The $10 admission fee includes lunch.

Mirage
Yunlin Offshore Industrial Park. Construction started in 1998, ceased in 2004. Construction costs approximately NTD $10,000,000,000. Photo by Yao Jui-Chung.

Artists document wasted expenditures

Lo, the documentary maker, was also at the opening of the exhibition. She told the audience in English that she was deeply honoured to be able to share the story of this collective project. She’s been at it for 14 years.

“Artist Yao Jui-Chung and more than 300 participating students embarked on this journey to document the disuse of public spaces throughout Taiwan—and uncovering the stories hidden within,” Lo stated. “I didn’t know this project would last so long—even longer than some abandoned public spaces!”

Her film includes comments from students who questioned Yao’s intentions—as well as his responses. Lo noted that all the participants have spent a great deal of their own money doing this work.

“Of course, it’s nothing compared with the wasted money on those abandoned, disused properties,” she said.

Even though Mirage highlights this waste, Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture has still partnered with the Museum of Vancouver to present the exhibition. Other partners include the Taiwan Academy in the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, the University of British Columbia, Eva Air, Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, and TAIWANfest Vancouver.

The Taiwan Academy’s Mark Chien said at the opening that he admires the Museum of Vancouver for choosing this topic.

“It’s not easy,” Chien acknowledged. “It led us to really think about our democracy and our civilization—and to improve that. The artists can use their social impact to make this world a better place.”

Yao Jui-Chung
Yao Jui-Chung leads Lost Society Document students in organizing an exhibition. Photo by Yao Jui-Chung.

Democracy on display

Angel Liu, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vancouver, echoed this sentiment. She pointed out that the artists photographed an uglier side of her country. She emphasized that these images serve as a “poignant reminder” of the need to re-imagine public space.

“It’s not the beautiful part of Taiwan,” Liu stated. “But I feel amazed at how their work inspires the people, the government, and a lot of the private sector to improve the livelihood of Taiwanese people.”

Moreover, the director general noted that Mirage underscores “the importance of having the freedom to question existing paradigms on a journey to drive change”.

“That’s the most inspirational part of their artwork,” Liu said. “And the project has led to the reconstruction of many old buildings and revitalization of old infrastructure in Taiwan.”

Yao Jui-Chung
Yao Jui-Chung during an outdoor photography shoot. Photo by Yao Jui-Chung.

The Museum of Vancouver is presenting Mirage: Disused Public Property in Taiwan in partnership with Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture, the Taiwan Academy in the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, the University of British Columbia, Eva Air, Asian-Canadian Special Events Association, and TAIWANfest Vancouver. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.