Artists and the Unruly Bodies: Performances in 1980s Taiwan 

Written by Chee-Hann Wu

Image credit: Performance still from October (1987), photographed by Jun-Jieh Wang / Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

2023 marks the 40th anniversary of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM). Founded in 1983, the museum has witnessed the vicissitudes of Taiwanese society and its democratisation since the 1980s. The Wild Eighties: Dawn of a Transdisciplinary Taiwan, the first curated exhibition celebrating the Museum’s 40th anniversary, reconfigures the socio-political environment of the 1980s in conversation with the cultural scenes. Opening in December 2022, 25 years after the lifting of martial law, The Wild Eighties shows how the political transition inspired artists and creators to experiment with new forms of artistic expression grounded in rebellion and revolution and reimagined the meaning and relationship between art and society.  

The 80s was an unsettling decade. Coming on the heels of the severe diplomatic crises of the 1970s—the loss of the United Nations seat and the severing of diplomatic ties with the United States—the 1980s was a time when national subjectivity and identity were fundamentally challenged. Yet, despite political isolation, it was also a time of passion and enthusiasm. With the loosening of authoritarian control, which eventually led to the lifting of martial law in 1987, and Taiwan’s economic miracle and the subsequent rise of the middle class, the 1980s and ’90s saw an unprecedented liberation of society. Capitalist consumerism also directly influenced the production and consumption of art. 

Meanwhile, the growing number of international exchanges also tremendously impacted various aspects of individual lives and society as a whole. While celebrating the new thoughts and inputs, some began to question the notion of locality and Taiwaneseness, suffering more than ever from the collision of identity and values. This article aims to highlight the oscillation of people’s attitudes toward culture, art, and identity, paying special attention to experimental art and the Little Theatre Movement in the 1980s and how it became a generator and motivator as well as a reservoir of energy for the 1990s.  

Rebellious Bodies 

Sen Ma, Mingder Chung, and Mo-Lin Wang have all offered their own approaches and interpretations of the genealogy of Taiwan’s Little Theatre Movement. While Ma explores the impact of “Two Western Tides” on modern Chinese drama, and Chung attributes the series of movements to the importation of environmental, postmodern and political theatre to Taiwan, Wang critically analyses the relationship between the body and the state. Regardless of the differences, it is clear that the Little Theatre Movement in Taiwan was essentially a convergence of different cultures and aesthetics, a resistance to the realist propaganda drama perpetuated during the Cold War and martial law periods, a reflection on foreign aesthetics, and also a rebuke of the political institution.  

The innovation of theatre and performance is often linked to the social movements of the time. For example, the theatre scene in the United States in the 1960s and 70s was largely dominated by anti-war sentiment and influenced by the Civil Rights Movement. Theatre in Japan during the same decades became a manifestation of the revolt against the post-World War II Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. Similarly, Taiwan’s Little Theatre Movement of the 1980s developed alongside social movements such as the democratisation movement, the peasant movement, the feminist movement, the Indigenous rights movement, and the anti-nuclear waste movement, among others, which sought political reform. 

Founded by Tian Chi-yuan, Chan Hui-ling, and Ling Tai-zhu, the Critical Point Theatre Phenomenon 臨界點劇象錄 seeks theatrical means to articulate critiques of social hierarchy, gender inequality, and the oppression of marginalised populations. In Love Homosexual in Chinese 毛屍 (1988), Tian argued that the stigmatisation of homosexuality and HIV/AIDS was essentially a legacy of Confucianism. To subvert feudal ideology and challenge conservatism, the character of Confucius was made gay in the play. Civil rights activist Chi Chia-wei also appeared in Love Homosexual in Chinese, the first LGBTQ+ theatre in Taiwan, and in other plays by Tien. Indeed, his presence and performance showed how theatre could be a vehicle for activism and a stage for social advocacy. 

During the period of martial law, political censorship, and surveillance restricted freedom of speech. In addition, they imposed a ban on the press and media control, under which the body became a silent bearer of memories. Therefore, the democratisation followed was the liberation of thought and physical practice that emphasised somatic and kinesthetic engagement. River-Gauche Theatre 河左岸劇團, Ruin Circle Theatre 環墟劇場, and Note Theatre 筆記劇場, as well as many performance artists such as Chen Chieh-Jen, Lee Ming-Sheng, and Lin Ju, all contributed to the development of avant-gardism and experimentalism in performance in the 1980s. Their works centred on the physical presence within and beyond the conventional performance space and the body as the subject and battleground of revolution. 

For example, in his work Purification of the Spirit 生活精神的純化 (1983), Lee attempted to walk around the island of Taiwan for 40 days, sleeping only in the open air, starting from the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall in Taipei. Under the strict surveillance of martial law, Lee’s journey was like a deliberate provocation, constantly crossing and challenging the fine boundaries of political infrastructures with his physical presence and movements on the streets. 

Reconfiguring Space 

Alongside the body, another focus of 1980s art and cultural production was the redefinition and reimagining of performance space and the boundaries of space. For example, the Wild Eighties drew critical inspiration from Xirang 息壤, which means self-renewing soil and living earth in Chinese mythology. Xirang was an exhibition founded by Chen Chieh-Jen and many other artists in 1986 as a revolt against the conservative socio-political system and art environment. Instead of being held in a formal exhibition space, Xirang took place in an empty apartment in a building on Section 5 of Zhongxiao East Road in Taipei. By rejecting institutionalised spaces such as museums and commercial galleries, the artists advocated creating art beyond institutional boundaries and exhibiting art in “alternative spaces”. 

Likewise, in 1988, performance artist Lee Ming-Sheng left his faeces in the TFAM during the exhibition “World according to DADA” to criticise and mock the museum for preventing the invited artists from showing anything “rebellious” in the exhibition, despite the subversive spirit of Dadaism. 

October 拾月 (1987), curated by Wang Mo-Ling and co-produced by River-Gauche Theatre 河左岸劇團, Ruin Circle Theatre 環墟劇場 and Note Theatre 筆記劇場, was another example of resistance to institutionalised space. The play was performed in an abandoned factory, buildings and beach in Tamsui, where there was no designated stage or auditorium. The deserted factory and wasteland contrasted with the installation, which depicted the celebratory moments of the lifting of martial law, modernisation and social progress, making the experience uncanny and hallucinatory. October was presented in October 1987, when the National Performing Arts Center-National Theater & Concert Hall officially opened in the same month. Unlike the National Center and other institutionalised venues, which required each visitor to dress and behave in a certain way and conform to a set of rules, what October represented was a corporeal experience of liberation—it was as if everyone had entered an apocalyptic yet carnivalesque space where logic, reason and order did not exist. 

Finally, in addition to alternative and unconventional performance spaces, the emergence of salon-like spaces where artists gathered to discuss and showcase their work also nourished the art environment in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, Wistaria Tea House 紫藤廬, IT PARK 伊通公園, AIT American Cultural Center, Zhongtai Hotel Kiss Disco 中泰賓館 and Cafe Astoria 明星咖啡, among others, were the birthplaces of many valuable literary, film, theatre and artistic creations of various genres. Like the body being the bearer of memories, these spaces were witnesses to the culmination of creative energies. They carried a unique kind of spatial history that would always be remembered.  


The Wild Eighties encapsulates a unique temporality and contextualises the artistic expressions of the time in relation to wider changes in the socio-political environment and the embrace of postmodernism, experimentalism and avant-gardism. It also shows how the national narrative was slowly replaced by individual voices and the subsequent collective efforts to forge some kind of identity and way of life compatible with a society in turmoil. Fast forward to 2022 and 2023, 25 years after the end of martial law and 40 years after the founding of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. How do the vestiges of the 80s continue to affect people’s daily lives and inspire artists? If the art of the 80s was driven by a sense of revolt against martial law and its legacy, how would artists now react or respond to the same issues differently? Finally, if the Cold War was one of the factors that spurred artists into action, what about the current New Cold War discourse? How do people engage with geopolitical tensions that are as, if not more, difficult? These questions remain to be explored. What is certain is Taiwan’s cultural and arts industry never ceases to experiment with new forms of creative expression and will continue to engage with society.  

Chee-Hann Wu received her Ph.D. in Drama and Theatre from the University of California, Irvine. She is the president of the North American Taiwan Studies Association. Her current book project considers puppetry as a mediated means of narrating Taiwan’s cultural and sociopolitical development, colonial and postcolonial experiences, as well as Indigenous histories.

This article was published as part of a special issue on ‘Theatre in Taiwan 2022-2023‘.

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