Shih Meng Hsin
For his exhibition “19: 00,” Shih Meng Hsin brought the streets of Taipei into the gallery, the night into the day. Titling his show after the hour that the subtropical island finds itself cast in the neon pallor of nocturne, Shih dimmed the gallery lights into a permanent nightscape while installing a number of items familiar to any somnambulant wanderer of the capital city’s urban scene. Entering the space, one met streetlights perched on iron columns—though the normally erect columns had been twisted slightly, like Beauty and the Beast candlesticks paused in the middle of a welcome dance, or like somewhat less woozy cousins of Martin Kippenberger’s Street Lamp for Drunks, 1988.
As I moved between these lights into the space, the first thing I noticed was Turn, 2020, a group of mounted wall sculptures: five air-conditioning units and as many striped illuminated barbershop poles, antique versions of which can still be found occupying narrow alleyways in older quarters of the city.
On the opposite wall facing the corner was Manneken Pis, 2020, a small bronze sculpture of a boy pissing, based on the famous fountain in Brussels. A few steps away, Butterfly, 2019, somewhat deceptively labeled a “readymade,” incorporated a green transparent-mesh food cover. Here, the artist transformed this banal object—frequently used in East Asia to protect food from insects—into an artificial greenhouse containing tulips. Above it hung a fly-repellent fan of the sort commonly seen in Taiwanese butcher shops and open-air markets; a butterfly and feathers hang from each of its spinning blades, each chasing the next in an endless circular loop. Everything was turning and spinning—the only still things were those entrance columns and the boy, though movement was implied even in those, with the former’s twisty curves and the latter’s, well, pissing.
The gallery’s second room was even darker and contained just two works. In the corner burned Fire, 2020, actually a laptop whose screen cast the fleshy glow of the titular element onto the corner wall it was facing. Waiting, 2020, a set of magnifying glasses protruding from the back wall on twisted bronze wires, suggested the implied movement of the light columns at the gallery entrance while catching beacons of light, dimly reflected in their ever-inquisitive lenses.
Shih’s evocation of the nocturnal streetscape didn’t go all the way, of course; absent, for instance, was the perpetual signage of 7-Eleven and FamilyMart stores glowing green and turquoise, the aroma of frying food in the night markets, and the sulfur stench of the geysers of the Beitou District on the city’s mountainous outskirts, where weekend warriors check into hot-spring hotels to sweat their cares away. OK, so this was far from an exhaustive conjuring of the outside we just exchanged for the inside. But the gallery space is small, and a map can never take the place of the territory. Shih was sensitive to the need to deal economically with space and took advantage of the opportunity that this necessity presented: namely, the chance to sketch out a pared-down atmosphere from a minute and exacting selection of elements. Taken together, they formed a portrait of urban life past sundown, attuned to the energies that remain awake even when we’re not.