Art for Politic’s Sake: A Kenbo Liao Retrospective

Kenbo Liao retrospective explores unknown Taiwan

By Trista di Genova
The China Post

“Second Republic,” a retrospective of award-winning filmmaker Kenbo Liao opens Saturday night at the Beat Studio in Taipei, promising to be a controversial evening of film, animation and digital-inspired works offering a rare glimpse of contemporary Taiwan.

Kenbo is known for his passionate and politically charged, often fiercely pro-Taiwan stance. In his first animated short, “The Great Ivory Wall” (1985), two cavemen arguing over boundaries come across an ivory tusk and use it to create a wall, a situation that ultimately turns into a mini-arms race of mass self-destruction.

It was inspired by an ancient “fairy tale,” as he described it, no longer told in China but kept alive in Taiwan since the Ming dynasty, about a man who is drafted to work on the Great Wall of China and never comes back.

“This film was created in commemoration of the genocide of 2-28 and its victims,” he wrote in an email. “Those brutal murders and the genocide of a generation of intellectuals, made me feel that the Great Wall of China, the symbol of Chinese culture, was also built from the sacrifice of many generations over thousands of years.”

The work won him the ROC Golden Harvest Prize in 1986, and toured later in 1997 throughout Europe and America with the Ideas in Animation Festival.

“I’m more famous outside of Taiwan,” the U.S.-trained artist remarked wryly during a late-night interview Wednesday at a cafe in ShiDa District.

He spoke fondly of his time studying at the Academy of Art College, then under Rudolph Schaeffer at the original Bauhaus instructor’s School of Design in San Francisco, hanging out with his “hippie artist friends.”

“This is my first gallery show. I’m a show virgin at nearly 60.” Why now? Two of his dearest friends, also artists, recently passed away, he explained, for a moment moved to tears. “They always asked me to have a gallery show, but I always thought it was too commercial.”

In fact, he left his job working with a well-known animation director after a year “because I didn’t want to work with Disney anymore.”

Liao returned frequently to his native Taiwan, where, galvanized by the freedoms he had witnessed first-hand in America, he threw himself into the pro-Taiwan independence movement – subsequently clashing with KMT censors at a time when a poem could land someone in jail.

A man of a thousand anecdotes, he launched into the story of how in 1990 he turned old Roxy’s bathroom stall into a focal point of community debate, “bathroom literature.”

“I’d carry markers with me and write questions on the wall about Taiwan independence. Then I’d come back the next day to read the answers, write some more questions.”

One day, posted outside was a table manned by two men — and “his” wall was painted over in white.

“At that moment, I knew if I didn’t write something, I’m a coward.” He was surrounded and interrogated by four of them — until luckily it turned out he knew their chief from high school.

He said of his influence and work in Taiwan since those days, “I’ve been buried alive” by censors. He mentioned how the National Film Archive told him his works “burned in a warehouse fire,” and listed his name and films wrong. To this day, they still haven’t corrected the mistakes, he said, vexed.

Fortunately for lovers of Taiwan history, he retained the originals. His 1991 film “The Sketch Book,” which will be shown at the opening, also won a Golden Harvest award and is an early example of incorporating computer animation into film in Taiwan.

“I combined pictogram studies with the political situation at that time in Taiwan,” he said, using his first computer — an Amiga 2000.

And in 1992, he developed the script and special effects for a documentary about Taiwan history, “The Unknown Taiwan,” produced by Annette Lu.

“I’d like to get an R&D grant to work on my idea of animagrams, which will probably take the rest of my life,” he says, describing “animagrams” as “interspecies visual language with sound; moving icons.” He also designed a line of provocative T-shirts based on them.

Today, he describes his role as being a “web revolutionary,” and “inspiring a lot of young Taiwanese” by posting commentaries in forums online, on subjects ranging from pictograms to Taiwan history and democracy – taboo subjects that “no one in China can see,” he pointed out.

“We’ve known Kenbo for years and he’s always been an interesting character,” said Daniel Desjardins, who founded the Beat Studio with fellow artist Tim Nathan Joel. “He’s someone with strong views who loves Taiwan – and politics.”

“This retrospective is not just looking back on his work in animation,” he continued, “it’s unveiling a page in Taiwan’s history that was buried.”

What: “Second Republic: Kenbo Liao Retrospective.” An art show with film/animation screenings and digital prints. Opening on Saturday, with screenings at 8 and 10 p.m. of the short films “The Great Ivory Wall,” “The Sketch Book,” and a surprise film. Show runs until the 27th.
Location: The Beat Studio. No. 14, Fujin St. Lane 359, Alley 2, Taipei
Cost: No charge

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