Gods of Near-future:
Contemporary Art and the Art Transcending Temples
──── Jow-jiun Gong．Translated by Ju-chi Huang
The scorching sun
For which I wait endlessly in the underworld
The blossoms are
My beseeching prayer to gods
How grief- and suffering-stricken this life is
Yet my dreams shall never die and let resentment evaporate
In the sad perpetual darkness of hundreds of nights
I pray for a next life with full devotion to gods.
——“The Ballade of Puppets,” Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence.
Extending the Religious Sensory Experience by Means of Videos and Images
Ashamed to say, the first time I soaked up in the massive sense of divinity toward the art of temple, especially the various ceremonies performed live in a pilgrimage procession, was actually when I watched Mamoru Oshii’s animation Ghost in the Shell: Innocence (2004). The chanting of Nishida Kazue Shachu, the drumbeats of Taiko, and the slow-motion procession montage made me intoxicated by the “Ballad of Puppets,” the theme song arranged by Kenji Kawai. What’s important in the animation is that the ballad is presented with a scene of pilgrimage processions residing in Asian folk religions. Other than Hong Kong’s street views and the Indian deity, Ganesha, the Japanese animation team extracts plenty elements from Taiwan’s folk religion. Important deities in Taiwan’s Wang Yeh (Royal Lords 王爺) worship all make their appearance in the procession, including Guanjiang Shou (Senior Officers 官將首), Third Prince (三太子), and a huge Wei Tuo Jiangye (韋馱將爺). Big statues of other deities, along with a moving King Boat, pavilions and towering boats all have their shares in the scene. Images of temples and fire festivals that constitute the background also come from Taiwan. I was curious, asking: why the scenes in Taiwan temple fairs, so familiar to me, are able to transcend their local context and accumulate a massive emotional power in an internationally acclaimed animation?
If the animation directed by Mamoru Oshii can be seen as a collection of achievements in contemporary motion imaging art in that it creates a bazaar tension in narratives from its near-future setting, images, changing scenes, music, costumes, performances, and scripts, then the artistic power of “kau-puê” (which means social interaction and association in the Min Nan dialect) cannot be explained merely by the huge capital invested in the production (two billion yen). In the article, I would like to revisit various images regarding the art of temple from the perspective of media’s development. I will further elaborate on how these images can be connected with the bodies of contemporary viewers and thereby produce an artistic power.
In order to prepare the 2017 Religion Festival, our team members—artist Guan-jhang Chen, curator and commentator Hsin Chen, art design Mirr Lo, coordinator Juliet Lin, and documentary director Yun-ju Chen—start a field investigation into traditional temples. In addition, we have interviewed a color painting restorer, scholars doing research on art history, as well as artists. Then comes the zine Art Associate (kau-puê). In fact, before I watched the scene of “Ballad of Puppets” in Ghost in the Shell: Innocence again, I felt confused about the King Boat burning ceremony, the Royal Lords processions, the colored portraits of door gods in various sizes, and the architectural decorations. My biggest confusion was: where could we find “contemporaneity” in the art of these multi-layered, long-established temples? From where does the art and contemporary art converge? Particularly, when I immersed myself in reading historical materials on temples, I found many of the original artifacts, including Koji Pottery, colored paintings, and those of door gods, had already been ruined. What’s worse, I was encountered with an opening in history created by two Japanization movements. From 1936 to 1941, when Taiwan was still under the Japanese colonization, the “Temple Reorganization Campaign” and “Household Main Hall Reform” had destroyed temples and burned deity statues. When I watched the lively procession, I saw evolving pop culture infiltrating into it, which blurs the difference between the secular world and a sacred one. Therefore, inspired by the scene in which “Ballad of Puppets” is performed, I want to assume a time point in the near-future—2040—for the following discussion of contemporary religions. What I want to discuss is: providing we were in the year of 2040, by what media, in which form, and what kind of emotional power would the contemporaneity in the art of temple reveal?
From the perspective of media, the dance documentary film The Walkers independently released in 2015 by director Singing Chen documented the creative process of Lee-chen Lin’s Legend Lin Dance Theatre trilogy: Hymne aux Fleurs qui Passent, Miroirs de Vie, and Song of Pensive Beholding. To me, the trilogy carries a quasi-religious meaning: praying with blooming flowers in front of a near-future deity. At the opening of The Walkers, we viewers get a series of sensory experience: we are prowling as cats in a forest, the lower part of which is shrouded in mist. While the mist is creeping over our skin, the crooning of bells and stone chimes sweeps through our body, infiltrating our organs to resonate, encouraging us to brush aside the mist for a better view of the dancer. Unknowingly, we have plunged ourselves into the mystery of the deep forest, roaming and dancing with it. To expand the idea further, what is the religious sensory experience of this image?
Introducing the New Genre to the Old for a Comprehensive Power
First of all, in The Walkers, we see enlarged surfaces of numerous materials, from clothing fabric and Jacquard weaves, to hand-made paper props. These images correspond to the shots of many dancers’ skins, which focus on their makeups, sweat stains, and traces of tears. The shots further extend to various skin textures exhibited when the male dancers feel exhausted, collide with each other, pull their clothes screaming, shaking in a trance, and having intercourse with female dancers. Suddenly, the movie takes us to the overwhelming red drapes abruptly appearing in Song of Pensive Beholding and the rehearsal of Hymne aux Fleurs qui Passent, in which performers wave their white draping clothes to make them freely drift in the air. Secondly, as for the sensory experience of trembling muscles, the movie emphasizes the images of things vibrating violently, including nails, flowers, incense palanquins, long feather ornaments, sticks, and quivering candlelit. These shots function as muscles and tendons of the movie, bursting out from the choreographer’s and dancers’ body strength, as a certain kind of tremors of linear neurons in the movie. In particular, while the four male dancers in Miroirs de Vie, wearing low rise pants, are clawing their way roaring, juxtaposing huge bunches of cloth strips, copper bells, miscanthus flowers, and burning incense, we feel the framework of the entire movie stretched by such scenes and our bodies reach the utmost tension at the moment. Last but not least, the essence of religious sensory experience lies in a lingering sense of transcending the secular world. In this movie, we see Lee-chen Lin lean forward, hold at a low position, and step forward slowly with a female’s vision and body, and finally reach a remote, isolated ritual place: from ghosts’ spirit to flower deities’ fragrance to the intersection of life and death in nature. However, how does the movie touch the gloomy darkness of ghosts, approach the libido of flower deities, and embrace the sameness of life and death in the ruthless nature? In the 147-minute movie composed of fourteen sections, we see repeated chanting of dancers, beats of percussion instruments, heavy breaths after exhaustion, repeated roars, dances in a trance, everyday conversation, instructions in rehearsal, and exciting emotional discharges after performance. All these episodes point to an unspeakable, internal strong operation on the screen. I would say it is a moment when the contemporary art meets future deities. Taking videos and images as media, the religious sensory experience will be extended to the days after 2040, and even further.
Facing toward near-future deities rather than dwelling upon the nostalgia for folk religion used to be a potential possibility. However, with the help of different media, as well as the creativity of a new generation artists, today it can be realized as a practical genre. In this regard, it is not to say that the culture of Taiwan temples does not feature unique music styles—nanguan (南管) and beiguan (北管)—or related opera. Nor does it exist without percussion instruments similar to Taiko. Neither does it not boast complex Seven Stars Footwork practiced by Guanjiang Shou. Our problem seems to be: how do we rethink and come up with a method to integrate traditional folk religion into the assembly of various media. This requires the participation of contemporary creators. Their participation seems less likely to be presented from one side. Animations and movies are the most difficult, yet comprehensively the most powerful way of thinking. Yes, what I’m trying to say is, the genre they choose to present with is by itself the way of thinking. Providing the genre of the new generation is absent, the power of the old genre is simply unrevealed. They are still decorations on wall and beam, or caissons, or characters of traditional virtues carved on dragon pills, or historical stories giving meaning to Chinese phrases. They are still portraits of door gods—Shen Tu (神荼), Yu Lei (鬱壘), Wei Tuo (Skanda), Garan (伽藍), Qin Shubao (秦叔寶) and Yuchi Gong (尉遲恭)—remaining on gates of temples. Today we have lost the musical narratives performed in the front of the temple yard, such as Taiwanese Opera, glove puppetry, nanguan, and beiguan. We’ve lost the forms of story-telling such as the changeable liam-gua (read song) and legend-retelling at the entrance of the temple. We’ve lost our interest in the flamboyant Chinese poetry appearing in paintings and carvings of temples. If so, the future deities’ hidden force is awaiting contemporary art to exert its power as an art of media transcending temples and releases the hidden force by transforming the internal spirit and external performance of temple art and further makes it onto a brand new performance media. For instance, Lee-chen Lin has moved Jitong (乩童 a spirit medium) and the Taoist sacrificial ceremony to modern dance theater, while Singing Chen has transformed the dance transcending temples onto videos.
In addition to thinking of new media, we seem to need a corresponding new body. It should be different from the bodies of Jitongs, Luanshengs (鸞生another spirit medium), and Guanjiang Shous, on whom the deities descend. The purpose of the new body is to connect with the information body in the era of digital video-streaming culture. Or, to put it another way, if traditional temples can be seen as art galleries or museums, which exhibit architectural space and styles, the inscriptions of Chinese prose and poetry, wood and stone carvings, deity statues, Koji Pottery, porcelain carvings, decorations on beams, murals, frames of temples, and paintings of door gods, then pilgrimage processions, the burning of King Boats, Xiang-ke (香科 a general term to describe the processions in five Tainan temples), rituals in the Taoist sacrificial ceremony, Yi-Ko art parade (藝閣), parade formations, and opera performance are figuratively temporary art galleries and museums without walls. If that’s the case, I would like to discuss when the temples were separated from modern art galleries. And how the process of their separation widened the gap between the system of modern art and the aesthetic politics of traditional temples, and thereby the temples failed to advance with modern art. To avoid too much digression and remain focused, I want to concentrate my discussion on a very interesting traditional Tainan painter—Chun-yuan Pan.
A Traditional Painter’s Resistance
to Colony and the Colonial Modernity Conclusion
The reason I’ve been interested in the painter born in 1891 is that, in his career, he experienced a turning point in Taiwan’s art history. That is, the establishment of two art systems: the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition (Taiwan Exhibition) and the Taiwan Government-General Fine Arts Exhibition (Government-General Exhibition). Under the colonial system, Taiwanese painters in Tokyo School of Fine Arts got a say in contemporary art with their ambiguous avant-garde attitude. On the other hand, although the Japanese colonization had deterred the progress of Mainland painters staying in Taiwan, the temple painters had therefore acquired more independence for development. However, at the same time, they were gradually belittled by the above-mentioned modern art avant-gardes for being too traditional and too conservative. Therefore, they drifted apart from the academia and modern art system, and finally lost all connections with it.
Chun-yuan Pan made his living by painting portraits and temples. He learned painting on his own and had studied in Mainland China’s Shantou Jiji Art School for three months. From 1928 to 1933, seven of his paintings were selected for the Taiwan Fine Arts Exhibition. He had made outstanding achievement in the Oriental Section of the exhibition. Meanwhile, he participated in “Chun Meng Painting Society,” which was established in 1928 and held an exhibition in 1930 at Tainan Assembly Hall. Yet he was also one of the key persons that caused the sudden split of the painting society. After 1934, Pan chose to be a traditional Chinese ink and wash painter as well as a temple painter rather than a modern Oriental painter. What makes me interested is the choice he made at the turning point of Taiwan’s contemporary art history.
During the Japanese colonial period, choosing Chinese ink and wash painting and temple painting means that he had chosen a completely different carrier and art exhibition system, as well as an art gallery following an entirely different philosophy. His seven paintings selected for the Taiwan Exhibition include A Scene at the Ranch for the second session in 1928, Bath and Oxcart for the third session in 1929, The Grace of Guqin and Sheng for the fourth session in 1930, Woman for the fifth session in 1931, Martial Emperors for the sixth session in 1932, Dawn at a Village for the seventh session in 1933.
Based on the discussion and analysis of Chong-ray Hsiao, Shih-ying Hsieh, and Bao-yao Lin, the themes of A Scene at the Ranch, Bath, and Oxcart meet the requirements of colonial art, and the conté crayon techniques for nature sketches exhibited in the three drawings present “effects of chroma” and “beauty of energy” with enriched colors and celluloid ink. Without an extraordinary will to learn, it would have been extremely difficult to transcend his original Chinese ink and wash painting skills and the art of temple, which required a profound change in the skills and media he used. But Chun-yuan Pan made it. However, Shih-ying Hsieh notes that Pan’s conté crayon’s sketching techniques may be related to his transposing sketching skills, with which he had painted ancestor portraits according to photos. As for the two portraits of beauties—The Grace of Guqin and Sheng and Women, Pan turned to the more difficult character sketches. The Indoor furniture, figures’ clothes and postures, floor tiles, spatial patterns, arrangement of objects, and floral patterns in a shallow depth of field exhibit a “Taiwan style” elegant mood in a particularly lively, complex and atmospheric manner. The two drawings therefore create a unique modern feature in the Japanese colonial days when Taiwanese, Japanese, and Sino cultures meet. The feature differentiates it from that of other painters, such as Jin Chen, whose work is closer to the horizontal painting style in traditional Japanese Ukiyo-e beauty paintings. Last but not least, at the first glance, Martial Emperors and Dawn at a Village well present the artistic conception of traditional ink and wash paintings and the delight created by temple painting figures. But in a closer look, the delicate expressions and postures, the shading in a costume-clad Guan Gong (關公) and Zhou Cang (周倉), and the arrangement of furniture and objects are painted in gouache. Moreover, the countryside, wooden bridges and small streams painted in vivid ink and wash style seem to reveal a trend to blend the repeated brushes in ink and wash tradition with modern skills.
Interestingly, Chong-ray Hsiao and Shih-ying Hsieh have proposed two distinctly different interpretations of Chun-yuan Pan’s participation in the Taiwan Exhibition. In Painting in Temples: A Collection of Tainan Traditional Painter Pan Li-shui (1996), Chong-ray Hsiao asks a rhetorical question: “Did the respected Chun-yuan Pan intend to get recognition from gouache sketches first, and thereby prove traditional ink and wash painters were also capable of making sketches, before returning to ink and wash creation, which he could identify with?” Hsiao’s question recognizes Pan’s insistence on ink and wash paintings. On the other hand, in his “The Negotiation with Modernity: Taiwanese temple painter Chun-yuan Pan of the Japanese Period (2008),” Shih-ying Hsieh underscores “painters’ livelihood skills” and “means to support a family.” “For a self-taught painter who built his career completely on his own, Pan’s success in the Taiwan Exhibition is no doubt the best advertisement for his artistic skills and paintings. Increasing his publicity would also bring more business for him.” Respectively, Hsiao and Hsieh try to elaborate on Chun-yuan Pan’s motivation for participating in the Taiwan Exhibition from either the view of “ink and wash tradition” or “to support the family.” The two elaborations are not necessarily contradictory. They can coexist at the same time. Moreover, Shih-ying Hsieh also notes that among the sixty-six Taiwanese artists who participated in the Taiwan Exhibition, at least fourteen Oriental-style painters were professional painters running picture frame shops. But the contextual backdrop of these traditional painters’ profession did not catch much attention of general scholars doing research on contemporary art history of Taiwan. In fact, the article wants to emphasize, regardless of his motives, Chun-yuan Pan chose not to continue participating in the Taiwan Exhibition. Instead, he chose traditional temples—the art galleries and museums in the traditional sense—as his media and platform. He chose to constitute his image performance with the original ink and wash tradition as the technique and with temple believers as the potential viewers.
Put under a larger historical context, the media and carriers Pan chose to engage in and express with suffered a devastating blow afterwards. Unignorably, years from 1936 to 1941 are the dark period to folk painters. The Japanization practiced in the Japanese colonial period had an initiative called “Shinto shrine in the country, Kamidana (miniature household altars) in every family,” which drew less attention of modern enlightened Intellectuals—or maybe the intellectuals in that age chose to remain silent on it. Yun-su Chang notes in his book A Study on Matzu Worship in Tainan that since the Sino-Japanese War started in 1937 (twelfth year of Showa), the Japanese colonialists began setting up shrines all over Taiwan. They were doing so to promote Japanese Shinto and suppress folk religion, with an aim to replace the function of Taiwan’s traditional temples. Meanwhile, they carried out Japanization on religion through “Temple Reorganization Campaign,” “Temple Deities Ascension”—which included demolishment of temples along with god statues being burned or collected for centralized management, and “Household Main Hall Reform.” According to a 1942 survey conducted by Nobuto Miyamoto, an ethnography scholar in Taipei Imperial University, in these movements, 361 Taiwan temples were destroyed, while 819 temples were transformed to serve other purposes. The place taking the brunt was Tainan Prefecture, where 194 temples were destroyed, and 419 were transformed (Temples suffered were 613 in total, accounting for nearly 52% of the 1,180 “reorganized” temples all over Taiwan). According to Nobuto Miyamoto, in “Temple Deities Ascension,” there were a total of 13,726 deity statues burned and destroyed, 4,069 were confiscated. The most terrible tragedy happened in Tainan Prefecture, where 9,749 statues were burned and destroyed, 1,268 confiscated (A total of 11,017 statues were gone, accounting for nearly 62% of all the 17,795 “ascended” statues across Taiwan).
These movements violently suppressed folk religion. One of the movement was “Household Main Hall Reform”—people worshiping ancestors must practice Shinto at the same time. The reform had started since the “Old Custom Transforming Movement” in 1936, which advocated “breaking superstitions, transforming bad, old customs.” Later, considering the movement might tarnish the empire’s international image for southern expansion, and the source of rice and sugar was afraid to be unstable, the movement was ordered to terminate in 1941. But Tainan City was in a particular situation. According to the research of Professor Tsai Chin-tang in National Taiwan Normal University, only six temples, one Zhai-tang (齋堂 religious fasting hall) and two Shenminghui (神明會 worship clubs) were reorganized in Tainan city
(Journal of Graduate Institute of Taiwan History in National Taiwan Normal University, Vol. 4, September 2011, page 83.) There might be lots of temples making connections with the Japanese Buddhism to preserve themselves, or it might have something to do with Tainan mayor’s attitude. Inferring from the above figures, temples in Tainan Prefecture outside the downtown area must have been “reorganized” brutally. One of the examples is the Shanxi Temple located in Guanmiao, Tainan.
It was rebuilt in 1958 and color painted by the two generation painters Chun-yuan Pan and Li-shui Pan.
At that time, there was no business for temple painting. Business about deity and ancestor worshiping in household main halls was also limited. Along with the turmoil caused by war, Li-shui Pan, son of Chun-yuan Pan, must have been forced to give up his career and join the team of drawing movie billboards, to say the least. What I’m wondering is, in the difficult situation, why didn’t Chun-yuan Pan and his son rejoin the Government-General Exhibition so as to support the family, considering they were qualified painters for exhibitions. In this regard, I agree with Chong-ray Hsiao’s point of view. When Chun-yuan Pan attended the common school, he dropped out because he failed to adapt to the education under Japanese colonization. He learned Chinese literature as well as ink and wash painting. He had been on study tours in Shantou Jiji Art School and Fuzhou. It is hard to believe that in his mind he had no resistance to the colonial art system. Therefore, choosing traditional temple painting as his career might indirectly have something to do with his resistance to the colonial rule. It might be a form of non-cooperation. Based on the above reasoning, in the social field where temple paintings are located, instead we can faintly see a certain kind of artistic avant-garde attitude that opposes rather than compromises to the colonial rule and the colonial modernity.
According to Chong-ray Hsiao, it was “until 1954, as the trend to restore Taiwanese temples was fully revived, that Li-shui Pan officially ended his work at the theater and completely plunged into temple paintings.” However, the colonists had been unease about and afraid of folk religion. The tendency can be seen from Jinbaoli Conflict in 1895, the conflict between Lunbei Branch Department and Youche Police Station in 1901, and Tapani incident in 1915. However, many Taiwanese intellectuals and progressive mass media in those days would rather estrange themselves from folk religion. Sometimes they would even take sides with the colonists, accusing folk religion as lack of sanitation and full of superstitions and extravagance. In addition, after the Nationalist government came to Taiwan, in general the art education system refused to incorporate temple paintings into academia. Moreover, a more westernized modern art had risen until the 1980s. Painters like Chun-yuan Pan, generation after generation, have always been left in the carrier of folk art galleries—which should have been regarded but have never been transformed as proper art museums. Besides, deities in the temples, along with the images surrounding them, have never transcended the scope of temples. They have never been examined from a near-future perspective. Nor have them been connected with contemporary art and the bodies’ of viewers in contemporary society to get new gazing images.
Why should contemporary art creation need to take traditional art of religion into consideration? It’s because there are more than twenty thousand traditional temples and because they have carried a history of more than two or three hundred years. It’s because these temples have not only preserved a rich collection of traditional ink and wash paintings and temple crafts, they also have undergone a brutal, volatile abandonment and challenges in recent history. It is one of the essentially real conditions for Taiwanese culture. From this point of view, the art transcending temples does not mean to forget, to detach from, or to cut off the power of folks, by which the art of temple confronted the modern art spirit. Instead, we should come up with a way in which the art of temple can be transformed and reborn under the possible conditions for contemporary art creation. Facing towards the deities in the near-future, we have role models from the first generation local painters—the respected Chun-yuan Pan, who struggled to learn by himself, and the second generation painters like Li-shui Pan, who polished his skills and made a comeback. Contemporary art creators may go back and examine the huge chunk left in the art of temple, which is awaiting to be transposed and transformed, which consists tons of images surrounding temples, pilgrimage processions, layered media and bodies of the viewer and the viewed. Let resentment evaporate. Let unfaded dream traverse hundreds of sad nights and eons of darkness. Then the flowers of new images, new media, and new bodies will come to full bloom.