Slightly Defiant: Chang Chao-Tang, An Appreciation

By Lesley Ma

May 19, 2024

Note card from Chang's family after his passing (front and back). Chang's portrait by Huang Yung-sung, 1964. Courtesy of Shih-lun Chang.

"Our existence completely relies on the people who remember us." Chang Chao-Tang, "Notes on Life," 1978

Mr. Chang Chao-Tang passed away in Taipei on April 2. His influence on photography and filmmaking has been celebrated throughout his career, but in my opinion, his recognition is still disproportionate to the impact of his contribution. This is primarily because he preferred to be behind the camera, not in front of it. He did not participate in the market—it was just not in his nature—and made works in an intuitive way. But more importantly, he spent his life excavating the significant in the ordinary, not to build a monument or create a mirage, but to make us look and feel. As I gathered my thoughts about his work and the privilege of knowing him, I realized that he taught me not just about humanity through his images, but a noble sense of duty and humility that I don’t think my generation of cultural workers could ever achieve. With an unwavering conviction but without a chip on his shoulder, he forged a new artistic language with criticality, compassion, and a collaborative attitude that enlightened the field.

Chang left a legacy of works with a deeply humanist vision and critical precision. Driven by an experimental nature and a social-realist intention, Chang chronicled the society around him since 1959 with photography and with video and film after the late 1960s. His lens primarily focused on lives in Taiwan but the images and emotions he captured have a universal appeal. In his photographs, he played with compositions, perspectives, and camera focus to add an absurdist edge, giving interior dimensions to ordinary subjects, such as folk entertainers, soldiers in training, and children playing. His moving image work began when he joined the China Television Company in 1968 as a photojournalist. There, he honed a free-association style—the kind that only a highly imaginative and erudite practitioner could pull off—that mixes “folk and art, traditions and modernity, music and image,” which gave the burgeoning media culture under martial law a shot of excitement.[1] The Boat Burning Festival, his postmodern masterpiece, is exemplary of his gift. Chang edited his and Christopher Doyle’s footage of the Daoist ritual in Tainan to Mike Oldfield’s 1975 rock album Ommadawn and transformed the religious procession into an electrifying audiovisual spectacle and liminal experience on broadcast television.

Monochrome still from a moving image work in which a group of men dressed in traditional Taiwanese clothing pose for an orderly group shot in front of the camera. They are looking straight ahead with blank expressions. Behind them is an old-fashioned wooden boat with big sails sitting on land.
The Boat Burning Festival (1979), M+, Hong Kong, © Chang Chao-Tang

For Chang and his generation of postwar artists, it was imperative to define what avant-garde and modern meant. In the context of Taiwan, the two terms qianwei, xiandai—“vanguard,” “of the now”—were used almost interchangeably. The social and political instability, cultural conservatism, and economic restraint after the Chinese Civil War made artists eager to develop new approaches to reflect their experience and emotions. While the government was obsessed with promoting classical Chinese art to secure its international reputation, Chang and his cohort sought more down-to-earth expressions, focusing on everyday life of ordinary people, which, to them, had the potential to transcend limitations. Deeply curious about the world, they ferociously consumed foreign materials on art, literature, and music, not to imitate them, but to align with kindred spirits and to join a larger artistic community across geography and time. He and his friends burnished their credentials as the cosmopolitan avant-garde by translating and publishing screenplays and scripts such as Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Rashomon (1950), and Waiting for Godot (1953), writing and performing their own experimental productions, and studying Happenings and Fluxus events. For Chang, this is a necessary process of clarifying one’s voice. “You get lost, you dream, and you discover,” he later reflected.[2]

Between 1962 and 1965, outside of the rapidly industrializing Taipei, Chang staged portraits of him and friends in black-and-white photographs. These pictures of fragmented and distressed bodies and faces inhabit a surrealist aesthetic and captured a sense of drift and emptiness felt by his generation. By rejecting the official styles of propagandistic and salon photography, they offered freedom. Chang recalled, that in the summer of 1962, as he snapped the now iconic photograph Sinchu, Taiwan 1962 of his friend Huang Yung-sung’s naked, headless torso posed at an oblique angle on a rock, what flashed across his mind was “Dali, Henry Moore, the Book of Genesis, and faintly, Rodin’s Gates of Hell.” His liberal citations transplanted his photograph to the realm of international art. His act of creating an image of a body in landscape—"put it under the sun slightly defiantly”[3]—helped establish photography as an artistic medium for visual experimentation and social critique in Taiwan. This would dominate his later documentary style and influence the Taiwanese New Wave directors’ approach to storytelling and image-making in the 1980s.

Monochrome photograph showing a nude figure's torso from the buttocks to the shoulders. The figure sits on a rock against a mountainous landscape, their torso tilted towards our left and shoulders hunched. Three Chinese characters are carved into the rock in the bottom right corner.
Sinchu, Taiwan 1962 (1962), M+, Hong Kong, © Chang Chao-Tang

The first time I met Mr. Chang was in the cafeteria of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in September 2013. I had just visited his retrospective of more than 400 works that displayed a singular vision over a five-decade career that spanned across photography, film, installation, poetry, theater, music, and journalism. I wanted to ask for permission to include his photography from the 1960s in an exhibition I was working on for Para Site in Hong Kong. Titled “Great Crescent: Art and Agitation in the 1960s—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan,” the exhibition highlighted the performative practices in each of these nation’s avant-garde communities. It provided an intra-regional, comparative study that built on “Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s–1980s,” a groundbreaking survey at New York’s Queens Museum of Art in 1999, which featured Chang as one of the first conceptual artists in postwar Chinese art.

Exhibition view, Great Crescent: Art and Agitation in the 1960s—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, Para Site, Nov 22, 2013 – Feb 9, 2014. Photo: Courtesy of Para Site Art Space, 2013-2014.

I had just moved to Hong Kong after living in the United States for fifteen years. I was adjusting to a closer distance to Taiwan, where I grew up, and a new vantage point of the region and the world. “Great Crescent” was a welcomed detour from my doctoral research on Taiwan’s Fifth Moon Painting Society, a group that sought to modernize Chinese painting through abstraction the same time Chang made his surrealist photographs. Through studying the work of Chang, Chuang Ling and Huang Huacheng, who were involved in Theatre, the first postwar Chinese-language periodical dedicated to theater, film, and performance founded in Taipei in 1965, I filled a gap in my understanding of the history of performance and the ethos of postwar Taiwan.

To my relief, Mr. Chang agreed to participate in the Para Site exhibition, perhaps happy to hear about an exhibition of likeminded practitioners in East Asia.[4] However, that afternoon in September 2013, I was embarrassed by my limited exposure to vernacular culture in Taiwan. His retrospective was thus an education of many layers. His work possesses a palpable sense of responsibility toward preserving and documenting history and traditions, yet it is never heavy-handed. The intensity of his camera on street life, the traveling minstrel Chen Da, the self-taught artist Hung Tung, and the boat-burning ritual made me appreciate the splendor in the vernacular and the modernist and humanist framework constructed through realist methodologies. He is solidly in the company of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Diane Arbus for their candor, of Lang Jingshan for the aesthetic of the sublime, and of Cheng Shang-Hsi for the subjects closer to home.

Chang’s network and projects guided me to see the loosely intertwined visual art and film worlds of Hong Kong and Taiwan from the 1960s to the 1980s. In the immediate postwar decades, intellectual exchanges between Taiwan and Hong Kong often took place through artist-run publications. The artists of these two places shared a similar urgency in defining modernity through their literary aspirations and experimental expressions. Chang was an enthusiastic reader of Hong Kong’s Wenyi Xinchao (New Literary Trends, 1956–1959), a Chinese-language periodical focusing on twentieth-century European modern art and existentialist literature and poetry, as well as literary works by Hong Kong’s Liu Yichang, Wucius Wong, Shum Quanam, and others. Later, as Hong Kong’s commercial film industry boomed, auteurs Cecile Tang Shu Shuen (China Behind, 1974) and Chiu Kang-chien (Glamorous Boys of Tang, 1985) sought Chang for the cinematography of their films. His photographs of the cast and crew behind the scenes during the production of Glamorous Boys in Taiwan are some of the most captivating images of his oeuvre. Through the project, he befriended the Hong Kong sculptor Antonio Mak, who at the time lived in Taipei and was an extra on the film. Chang also had a one-person photography show in Hong Kong in 1985 invited by Danny Yung of Zuni Icosahedron. Fast forward to 2016, I featured Chang in M+’s Visiting Artist Program to screen three of his iconic films (with films by his contemporary Chen Yao-chi) and acquired twenty-three of his photographs and two moving images works, spanning from 1959 to 1990, for the museum collection in 2017.[5]

Monochrome photograph of the sculptor Antonio Mak riding a horse on our left. The back and neck of the horse stretches across the bottom. Against a rocky mountainside, Mak faces our right with a scarf draped on his bare body.
Sculptor Antonio Mak, Peitou, Taiwan 1984 (1984), M+, Hong Kong. Gift of Chang Chao-Tang, 2017, © Chang Chao-Tang

Chang was a witty man of few words. Once, in advance of our public conversation following the opening of his exhibition at Hong Kong’s Kwang Hwa Information and Cultural Center in 2018, he assured me: “I won’t say a lot. You ask as many questions as you want,” which in fact sent me into panic. In a packed room of eager admirers, a rather puzzled and frustrated audience member asked, “Why are you, a curator of ink art, in conversation with Mr. Chang?” After my convoluted and unnecessarily defensive answer, Mr. Chang simply said, “My work has ink too!” This almost sounded like a line from his absurdist play from the 1960s yet it could not be more on point. A year before, when a Registrar colleague opened the shipment of his photographs the museum purchased, she was surprised to find four extra prints: portraits of Mak that Chang took in 1985. But he had only agreed to gift us one! Chang wanted his departed Hong Kong friend to have proper legacy in his city’s museum and slipped these in the package. This kind of generosity and thoughtfulness is precious in the art world, and I am grateful to be on the receiving end of his shining light.

Chang with the author at the Kwang Hwa Information and Cultural Center. October 12, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of Shen Chao-Liang.

Lesley Ma is Ming Chu Hsu and Daniel Xu Associate Curator of Asian Art in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. From 2013 to 2022, she was founding Curator, Ink Art at M+.


[1] “Not a Preface” in Chang Chao-Tang, Writings: Chang Chao-Tang (Taipei: VOP Magazine, 2018), 11.

[2] “Not a Preface” in Chang Chao-Tang, Writings: Chang Chao-Tang (Taipei: VOP Magazine, 2018), 17.

[3] “1962, Summer” in Chang Chao-Tang, Writings: Chang Chao-Tang (Taipei: VOP Magazine, 2018), 228. Originally published in China Times, Renjian Literary Supplement, April 7, 1996.

[4] “Great Crescent” would later tour to the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo in 2015 and the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporaneo in Mexico City in 2016. Chang went to see both iterations.

[5] In 2021, the 26th work, The Boat Burning Festival+ (1979/2019), for which Chang edited the sound recording of Lim Giong’s live scoring as part of a M+ programming to his footage afterward, was gifted to the museum by Chang.

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