Zombies, ghosts and demons have crowds running in Taiwan
The denunciation of the exhibition by religious groups contributed to its popularity.
Spirits, zombies and monsters inspire fear and fascinate equally. They have always been at the heart of the imagination in several Asian countries. So says an exhibit in Taiwan that draws record crowds for Ghost Month.
Dozens of Taiwanese wait outside the all-white marble museum in Tainan on a sunny Friday afternoon. Inside, hundreds more wait to pass through the gates of hell to enter the rooms of the popular exhibit. Even after two months, the long lines of visitors do not diminish.
Tainan is often called the city of the gods, because it is the Taiwanese city with the most religious temples. The Tainan Art Museum wanted to bridge the gap between art and local beliefs.
The Hell and Asian Ghosts exhibition offers a fascinating journey to Japan, Thailand and elsewhere on the continent through centuries of cultural representations of beliefs and imagination.
A section of the exhibition is dedicated to ways to guard against risks after death.
Cult of spirits, vampires, wandering and hungry spirits. Asian people have a fascination with life after death. A section of the exhibition is also dedicated to ways of preparing for or protecting against risks after death.
Interpretations of the fear of the unknown are exemplified in traditional arts such as Japanese paintings, but also in contemporary art. There are posters and excerpts from Hong Kong films as well as manga comics.
The centerpiece of the exhibition, which has the crowds running, is a series of life-size replicas of zombies from old Cantonese films, the first incarnation of these wandering fantastical creatures in search of eternal rest. We are far from the current image of zombies as presented in The Walking Dead.
This is the section of the exhibit that talks about spirit hunting, explains Chen Han-Yang, who adapted this exhibit for the small space of the museum. It's not really about going hunting, but about understand how we react to the unknown. These early zombie films showed creatures seeking to return to their birthplaces to be buried there. There was a cohabitation component between zombies and humans.
Even before its official opening, religious groups denounced the exhibit, which contributed to its popularity.
The Hell and Ghosts of Asia exhibit was first shown at the Musée du Quai-Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris in 2018 then modified for the Taiwanese public. In addition to the objects loaned by the French museum, contemporary Taiwanese works from museum collections or commissioned for the occasion have a place of choice.
Taiwanese society has been shaped by many influences and that is why there are elements of Japanese and Cantonese popular cultures, but also Buddhism and Taoism in the exhibition, explains one of the curators of the Tainan Art Museum, Chuang Tong Chiao.
The exhibition was already announced to be popular. But even before it officially opened, religious groups denounced it, which contributed to its popularity. On the first official day, ticket sales had to be interrupted three times because there were too many visitors.
Some remained opposed to holding the exhibition without having seen it. They demanded its cancellation and feared that it would ridicule religions or highlight wandering spirits.
The “Hell and Asian Ghosts” exhibition was first presented at the Quai-Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris in 2018.
It was the posting of the photo of the zombies on our social networks that triggered this response, says Daisy Wu of the Tainan Art Museum. There are not only religious symbols, but also contemporary art. It is simply a question of stimulating a reflection on the ways of imagining and facing the unknown.
In Asia, ghosts never die. Neither does the fascination for the afterlife and its creatures. This exhibition, which attracts thousands of people every day, confirms this.
Our correspondent in Asia Philippe Leblanc will be based in Taiwan for the next few months, to help us discover this island from nearly 24 million inhabitants, its society and the challenges that drive it. And also to cover current issues from the entire Asia-Pacific region.