Wayfaring Exhibition Opening Address by Emeritus Professor Helen Ennis, 29 July 2021

Monday, 2 August 2021

I am speaking on the unceded lands of the Ngunnawal, Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and I want to pay my respects to their elders, past, present and emerging.

Many thanks to the CIW for the invitation to open this show.

There was a time, only a few decades ago, that our diet of photography was very restricted, confined to what we produced ourselves and what came from the centres of art in the west. We didn’t pay attention to the photographic work of the non-western world or even of our near neighbours. Fortunately, postmodernism and postcolonialism and the rise of global art history have helped us change our orientation though the picture that is emerging is still partial, skewed and incomplete. Opportunities to see work from places such as Taiwan continue to be few and far between. Most of us will therefore be unfamiliar with the photography in Wayfaring — even though most of the 12 photographers involved have substantial reputations in their home country — but I think you, like me, will be delighted and intrigued to see the photographs.

The key concerns with locality, history and identity which the curators Shuxia Chen and Olivier Krischer have identified relate to Australian photographers’ preoccupations in this period too. So does the intersection of photography with other art mediums more generally, and the stylistic diversity of the photographic work that was produced in what was still an analogue era. Digital photography was still some years off. But while there are some obvious resonances between photography in Taiwan and Australia in the 1970s and 80s we must be careful not to conflate the very significant differences that are local rather than global, specific rather than general.

Our societies were dealing with vastly different historical, political, social and cultural experiences in these crucial decades. It bears emphasis that martial law finally ended in Taiwan in 1987 and so the majority of photographs in the exhibition were taken in a difficult, repressive era, with some taken in the transformational period after 1987.

I note the title, Wayfaring, a great word for a title, refers to journeying in two ways, externally in the world, and internally in the artists’ minds. The journeying at issue didn’t involve extensive physical effort. The aim was not to seek out spectacular or grand events. Quite the contrary. The flows of daily life were far more important to these photographers.

One of the questions the exhibition immediately prompted in me was whether these photographs have been taken here in Australia? I am wary of generalising on the basis of a small show but for me the answer is no, I don’t think so.

Not only do the photographs look different, they feel different. How?

• They are all black and white, bar one. The tones that are predominant are more in the dark register, from grey to black rather than white to grey. These are not sun-filled, light-toned images and I think the darkness will immediately strike you.

• And although people appear in most of the images, they are often single figures situated in a big expanse of space. When numbers of people are depicted together they rarely seem connected to one another.

• Also striking is the general lack of facial or gestural expressiveness. In candid photographs and in portraits people’s faces are mask-like, their expressions carefully composed. There is little spontaneity in evidence.

• In addition, the subjects do not respond to the photographer in an intimate way (no smiling, little indication of familiarity) but they appear detached, perhaps even guarded.

• Finally, there’s a sense of what I read as foreboding. Violence isn’t necessarily overt but implied.

In the exhibition booklet, Shuxia and Olivier have identified two main trends in photographic practice in Taiwan in this period: ‘documentary’ or realist photography and surreal photography. (There are certainly references to European and English surrealism, to Bill Brandt and Andre Kertész.) The documentary/realist images are most numerous; many are part of larger series, reflecting their photographers’ work as photojournalists whose photo-essays were originally published rather than exhibited. There is not the same extent of engagement with postmodernism that we see in Australian photography of the 1980s when documentary photography was decidedly out of favour except in the area of First Nations photography, feminist photography, and the photography of marginalised people. Nor is there the degree of manipulation, of constructed photography that was commonplace in Australia.

This is where and why context and cultural specificity is so important. As Professor Kuo stressed in his excellent keynote this afternoon (29 July), documentary and realist photographers in Taiwan in the 1970s were politically subversive – producing images that were an alternative to government propagandist imagery which made the realities of people’s ordinary lives invisible. (Salon photography did the same.)

The wayfaring this exhibition suggests is intense in nature and the outward and inward journeying undertaken by the photographers doesn’t seem to have a fixed point, a destination or a conclusion. Shuxia and Olivier write that: ‘These are images still working themselves out’, a useful statement because riddles proliferate here and a great deal of ambiguity is in play. In reference to the latter I have in mind Lien Hui-Ling’s photographs of animals, a bathed kitten who could be dead or alive, and likewise a pig who appears to look our way. What has happened to them?

In closing I want to mention that Wayfaring builds on an earlier exhibition Between – Picturing 1950s-1960s Taiwan, held at ANU in 2015. I also want to note that the majority of photographs come from the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. I think building collections in our public institutions is fundamental to developing our understandings not simply of mediums, such as photography, but of our societies. Collections have a fundamental role in fostering complexity, diversity, difficulty. It’s so important that the photographs we see here will be cared for forever.

Publications are also essential. The information provided by the curators is succinct, and extremely useful given how little is known on the subject.

My congratulations to Drs Shuxia Chen and Olivier Krischer and the CIW for mounting such a stimulating exhibition, which offers us a rare firsthand encounter with the work of photographers from Taiwan. I am sure you be taken by it and will ask questions of it. It gives me great pleasure to declare Wayfaring open.

Helen Ennis FAHA is Emeritus Professor, ANU Centre for Art History and Art Theory, School of Art & Design. She is a specialist in the history of Australian photography and writes extensively. Her latest book is the biography Olive Cotton: A life in photography (2019).

The Australian Centre on China in the World thank Emeritus Professor Helen Ennis for granting us the permission to publish her opening address.

Learn more about Wayfaring: Photography in 1970s-80s Taiwan

(left to right): Dr Benjamin Penny, Associate Professor Benjamin Hillman, Emeritus Professor Helen Ennis, Representative Elliott Charng, Professor Helen Sullivan, Emeritus Professor Richard Rigby, Ms Jill Lai. Photo: Chin-Jie Melodie Liu.

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