On a Thursday morning in late September, queues are already open at the Tainan Art Museum in southern Taiwan. Many museum visitors are young and seem delighted to see a particular exhibit – Ghosts and Hell: The Underworld in Asian Art.
The installation invites visitors to visit the afterlife of East and Southeast Asia as imagined by Buddhism and folk religion through paintings, sculptures, films and techniques mixed.
Even before the exhibition officially opened in June, it was clear it was going to be a hit, with images of its display of Chinese ‘zombies’ going viral online, generating 101,000 Facebook ‘likes’. and 51,000 comments. Three months later, the museum has sold over 200,000 tickets with final numbers to be counted when it closes on October 16.
Special ticketing arrangements have been put in place to ensure visitors have equal opportunity to walk through the “gates of hell” or examine amulets to ward off evil spirits.
“I think it is [so popular] because in our childhood, we watch a lot of horror movies from China, Hong Kong or Japan, and we have a huge emotional connection with zombies,” says Chi-Lien, member of the museumfrom the education department of, as he takes HKFP into the exhibition. “Most people thought it was very cool that it was the first time they could see such things in an art museum.”
The zombies, the museum’s exhibit designer Chen Han-yang later explains, originated from the Chinese custom of “corpse walking” to help bring the dead home. In places like Hunan, a mountainous province in southern China, transporting the bodies was difficult.
The carriers tied them upright with their arms tied to bamboo poles – making them look like reanimated corpses walking with their limbs outstretched. The practice would enter folklore – and later horror cinema – as the zombie vampire jiangshi.
Many objects in the exhibition come from the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, which originally commissioned the exhibition in 2018. The Tainan Art Museum added nine pieces by Taiwanese artists and 16 others from other local museums and private collections. For this reason, the Tainan exhibit is more Asian than its original version, with the additions bringing a greater sense of dread.
One of these recently commissioned mixed media pieces, Hell by Taiwanese artist Yan Chung-Hsien, welcomes visitors to the exhibition with entry to the Dante. On the wall behind a seated deity are the words: “You are here. The sound of bees echoes in the entrance of a nearby disturbing video installation, also titled Hell, depicting spooky shots of religious artifacts and temple exhibits.
“It’s a bit like the last judgment. There is the god Yan Wang who is going to judge you: what you did, before when you were alive, now he needs to see if you are a good person or not,” according to Chiou.
The theme of judgment runs throughout the exhibition, which features rare historic paintings depicting the 10 kings of diyu, China’s version of hell, as well as a vision of its Buddhist counterpart, Naraka, by contemporary Thai artist Preecha Rachawong.
These make way, in turn, for works of art on the theme of wandering ghosts, from Japanese woodcuts of mournful female spirits to a terrifying sculpture of the krasue or ahp – among other names – from the folklore of Southeast Asia embodied by the floating head of a woman connected to dangling internal organs and nothing else below.
The exhibit thins out as it moves through later rooms, with more playful examples of Thai and Japanese horror movie posters, visually lighter and less terrifying artwork, and a stunning ceramic sculpture of joss paper appearing to float in the air by Taiwanese artist Hou Chun-ting. Other highlights include the rainbow-colored costumes and masks at the Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival in northern Thailand, which are beautiful but unsettling.
Both informative and visually arresting, the exhibit captured something of the Taiwanese spirit. The island has long loved a good ghost story or scary movie as seen in Netflix’s recent hit spell or 2019 Detention, which is inspired as much by the authoritarian past of Taiwan as by its ghost culture.
Exhibit designer Chen believes visitors may have also been drawn to the Tainan Art Museum as anti-epidemic measures began to ease over the summer, just in time for school holidays. The museum, which opened in late 2018, is also conveniently located near other hotspots in Tainan, Taiwan’s cultural capital and home to remnants of 17th-century Dutch and Chinese colonization efforts.
Indeed sitting outside Ghosts and hell, Among the youth groups, HKFP speaks to a group of grandmothers who were in Tainan for the day from the southern port city of Kaohsiung to see the exhibition. A woman named Huang said she originally had no interest in the show until her grandson convinced her to visit it, although she generally prefers historical sites like the Dutch fort near Anping.
“Children all find it more interesting, older people just see them as objects of worship or prayer, we’re not as interested,” the woman said, adding that she was less afraid of amulets and masks of exposure because she identifies as a Christian.
Another visitor, Navi Wu, who identifies as indigenous Paiwan-Taiwanese, told HKFP that she visited the exhibit after seeing another exhibit of Canadian and Taiwanese indigenous art on the lower level of the museum.
Wu said she could see many parallels between Japanese and Taiwanese ghost culture, which absorbed 50 years of influence during Japanese colonial rule from 1895 to 1945. “I think Japanese culture is interesting, and its culture is similar to [that of] Taiwan,” she said.
“Ghosts are interesting enough, but they can be destructive.”
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