Taiwanese Paranormal Literature and Contemporary Art Exhibition
If Taiwan is an island of truly enigmatic enchantment, then the unique paranormal energies and monsters that populate its literature cannot be overlooked.
Following in the footsteps of National Museum of Taiwan Literature’s 2018 special exhibition Enchanted Taiwan – Ghouls & Goblins, Taiwan’s horror ‘heritage’, stretching back three millennia, is a treasure trove of stories about the innumerable Yao-Chi (monsters, ghouls, and goblins) that have haunted this island from the shadowy depths of its mountain forests to the dimly lit corners of its modern cities. The contemporary exhibition, Yao-Chi City, Taiwanese Paranormal Literature and Contemporary Art Exhibition, explores the horror genre in Taiwan through related works of literature and art, graphic novels, VR/AR, installations, games, and parades. The “enchanted energies in distant mountains” highlighted in Badai’s novel Witch Way provides the exhibition’s starting point, which, together with local folklore and indigenous animistic beliefs, reveal how tree spirits and transcendent shamans have long interjected themselves into contemporary, earthly affairs. In order to transform into monsters, tree spirits tap the energy of mountain mists, while wandering spirits use the energy they drain from their wayward victims. The ability of Taiwanese monsters to use negative yin energies to alter their appearance is a unique characteristic of Taiwanese demonology. Also, from a more modern and urban framework, Taiwanese demonology draws heavily on the negativity and oppression inherent to urban landscapes, which in turn has created the colonial, folklore-based face of contemporary myths about monsters and other paranormal creatures. Similarly, the monster boy in Gan Yao-ming’s Killing Ghosts seeks to defeat through brute force a demon train that is able to move without tracks and splits mountains across their ridgelines. In a shadowy realm hidden from the light of day, ‘Yao-chi cities’ itch for their turn. Lives felled by misfortune, disgraced spirits, colonial peons, desecrated nature, forgotten ruins … The dark forces that fume in society’s musty corners, … mindless enmities finding form, they permeate the foundations of Taiwan’s uniquely odd psychogeographic landscape, an abnormal mental barrier.
Monsters are the impenetrable forests and dark corners of our psyche. No matter how scary they may be, monsters are a colorfully diverse aspect of traditional folk perspectives and beliefs. The diverse and porous world first described in the early 20th-century in Little Deification (Xiao Fengshen) by Hsu Bing-Ding and Strange Tale of the Bridal Fan (Jokai ōgi Kidan) by Haruo Sato has been refined and embellished through a century of creativity by authors and artists working in the modern horror genre. Through the eyes of both forest shamans and modern, citified heirs to ancient occult powers, this rich body of work has elucidated the special cosmology that links Taiwanese ‘Yao-chiology’ into contemporary world affairs. In confronting the fears that rattle around in the human psyche and the forlorn cries of the downtrodden it is helpful to remember that “the animistic beliefs of Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, as sustained and perceived through shamans, hold that the gods apply their powers both proactively and reactively in order to maintain the natural order. Further considering tales of tree spirits and of wild animals possessed by the spirits of people who died alone and unmourned in the remote mountains, Taiwan’s forests assuredly pulsate with inexplicably enchanted energy.” (Witch Way, 2014:99) Taiwan’s monsters reveal the outline of the savage beast that haunts the impenetrable forest of our psyche. These powerful creatures are well capable of assuming the visages of many thousands of surpassingly beautiful beings. “We have crossed the diaphanous barrier of the earth and descended into a hellish landscape some 10,000 feet down, to the stagnant bottom this pond. Letting go of our net, we spun a bouquet, fashioned a parachute from our shirts, and descended further to Water Ghost Academy.” (The Water Ghost Academy and The Motherless Otter, 2005:202) Taiwan’s monsters abide in the shadowy corners of schools, in the depths of forests, in abandoned city spaces, and in colonial ruins. In literature, they range from bothersome ‘mong-shin’ to the child-eating Alikakay of indigenous legend. The Yao-Chi City exhibition attempts to give monsters that are familiar to us from Taiwanese literature, folklore, and contemporary Taiwanese culture a stage on which to speak their mind and, from the critical perspective of demonology, to help them regain their former brilliance.
This first collaborative effort between National Museum of Taiwan Literature and Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab has created at the intersection of contemporary art and literature Taiwan’s first platform for the study and appreciation of Taiwanese Yao-Chi mythology and beliefs. In discussions of demon exorcisms and restorations, we look to help restore the paranormal to its former position of importance in Taiwanese culture. Further, with assistance from Taipei Legend Studio and the National Center for High-Performance Computing, the exhibition’s four curators have brought together four teams of authors and literary organizations, eight teams of contemporary artists and architects, six teams of illustrators and painters, six teams of sound and theatre artists, and six teams of VR/AR film and game animation experts to create the Yao-Chi City, Taiwanese Paranormal Literature and Contemporary Art Exhibition. This exhibition is fine tuned to open new creative culture horizons for Taiwanese Yao-chi traditions and, benefitting from its opening during Taiwanese Ghost Month festivities, is hoped to inspire re-imaginings of the Yao-chi airs of generations past, bringing us into a balanced perspective of a world shared by the realms of light and shadow.