,

Not Ruin Porn: Graffiti in the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory

tperuins-01-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

Taipei’s Nangang District does not appear to be an area overly concerned with the past. The southeastern-most district of Taiwan’s densely populated capital has been branded in recent years as a neoliberal’s high-tech fantasy. With the construction of the three-phase Nankang Software Park between 1999 and 2008, the completion of the Taipei World Trade Center Nangang Exhibition Hall in 2008, and myriad other projects aimed at redeveloping land formerly occupied by factories and warehouses, Nangang is conspicuously “new” – a conscious appeal to the wallets of tech sector giants like Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard, both of which have regional headquarters in the Nankang Software Park.

Yet some parts of Nangang’s built environment don’t keep the company line.

What stands across the street from the brand new Nangang Metro/Rail Station is not a mixed-use commercial district or a hotel, but an overgrown compound surrounded by barbed wire, thick metal gates, and concrete walls. Signs warn against trespassing.

tperuins-02-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

tperuins-03-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

This is the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory. Built in 1941 during the Japanese occupation and finally shuttered in 2004, during its heyday it employed over five hundred people and was the main producer of bottle caps for the Taiwan Tobacco and Wine Monopoly Bureau and other manufacturers.

tperuins-04-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

The factory includes several structures designated by the Taipei City Government as “historic buildings”, including the Old General Office Building (see below), one of the three remaining buildings in the compound built during the Japanese occupation era.

tperuins-05-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

But despite its historic status, the factory has an uncertain future. Few structures of its kind have ridden out the storm of urban renewal sweeping across Taipei. Those that haven’t been demolished outright have been gentrified beyond recognition. The Huashan Winery, one of the best preserved abandoned factories in the Taipei area, is now a “Creative Park”. The Songshan Tobacco Factory, adjacent to Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, is in the throes of a more complete transformation as a new sports center is built adjacent to it – cranes and scaffolding loom over the old factory buildings.

tperuins-06-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

The Nangang Bottle Cap Factory also occupies a desirable location for the urban planners and business interests involved in the Nangang “renewal” efforts. A hike to the roof of the Metal Cap Workshop (the largest building on the factory premises), in the compound’s southwestern corner, illustrates the tenuousness of the factory’s spatial position. The graffitied wall of the factory building is foregrounded against the absurdly tall facade of the brand new Nangang Train Station (see below), as well as the distant figure of the Taipei 101, the former tallest-building-in-the-world and a precursor to the sort of architectural modernity the Taipei City Government is striving for in Nangang. Even more telling, however, is the empty lot in the middle ground, where the construction of a new “Popular Music Center” is slated to begin soon (see above). The hazy threat of demolition and renewal is emphasized when you understand that the same coalition behind the Popular Music Center has a plan to redevelop the eastern half of the factory into a “special commercial district”.

tperuins-07-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

The Nangang Bottle Cap Factory is a space where the realities of the past no longer apply, and the future and the present are uncertain entities. It is a liminal space in the urban fabric of a modernizing and re-modernizing Taipei.

The factory also houses a rich collection of graffiti and street art. Some pieces were officially sanctioned – under a National Property Administration provision that allows for the reutilization of space designated as “idle” – by the Taipei City Urban Regeneration Office while the Taipei City Government was using the factory to explore the possibilities of Dutch-style “soft urbanism”. Other pieces are simply illegal, but the artists take advantage of the fact that the discourse of “idle space” de-incentivizes surveillance of the factory grounds.

It is common for contemporary street art to enter into a dialogue with the space it occupies – one need only think of Banksy’s famous stencil of the girl holding balloons floating over the Israeli West Bank barrier, for example – and much of the contemporary Taiwanese street art tradition falls into this category. Well-known local artist Candy Bird, for example, actively seeks out interesting canvases, such as this one, next to a coffee shop in a middle-class Taipei neighborhood.

READ  Emperor Qianlong's Jade Imperial Seal In London Auction

tperuins-08-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

In this vein, the collection of street art in the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory can be read as the accumulated efforts of artists to navigate this multiply liminal emotional, physical, and temporal space and negotiate their place within it. Over the years, the factory has come to feature an extensive artistic dialogue with liminality.

Taiwanese artist Colasa, for example, is one of the factory’s most prolific artists. Most of his work was done within the context of an exhibition put on by the Taipei City Urban Regeneration Office. His distinctive style features freeform designs of black and white contained within a larger outline – usually of an animal or of folded paper.

tperuins-09-hoopingarner-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

Colasa’s ghostly designs wander the factory’s empty halls and staircases, hide in dark corners, and sometimes violently clash with one another.

tperuins-10-hoopingarner-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

tperuins-11-hoopingarner-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

tperuins-12-hoopingarner-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

Consciously or not, Colasa’s animal paintings tap into the cultural definitions of the word “ruin” (feixu or feiqi) in Chinese. Emptiness and lack of utility are the primary markers of “ruin” in the Chinese context (fei literally means “waste”, and, according to art historian Wu Hung, among the many meanings of xu is “emptiness”). Colasa’s work both references this tradition and challenges its legitimacy. By staying away from human subjects (which he has used in his gallery work) and cultivating a ghostly aesthetic, he underlines the ways in which the factory aligns with the Chinese cultural definition of “ruin” as useless, abandoned space. The very act of artistic creation, however, is performative: the act itself challenges the idea that the factory is “useless”. This duality of cultural reference and subversive performance opens up the factory space to explore possibilities that lie outside dominant understandings of urbanism.

tperuins-13-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

Colasa’s depiction of folded paper, such as paper airplanes and origami cranes, can likewise be read as dialogue with space. The motif of paper implies transiency, transformation and fragility, features also exhibited by the factory space.

tperuins-14-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

The use of paper airplanes and origami as subject also suggests playful creative possibilities for transforming the postindustrial space, possibilities which challenge the dominant narratives of urban metamorphosis – abandonment, redevelopment, and gentrification.

tperuins-15-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

tperuins-16-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

The visages of a mysterious woman painted at one of the entrances to the Metal Cap Workshop and on the staircase inside the building recall “Eternal Womanhood/ Draws us on high”, the climactic line that ends Goethe’s Faust, Part Two of the Tragedy. Drawing on concepts popular in the nineteenth century and a long Western literary tradition that finds its roots in Greek mythology and Christian theology, Goethe extols “woman” as an angelic, salvational force. He conceptualizes the feminine as betokening pure contemplation and grace, in contrast to action and its potential pitfalls represented by the masculine. The enigmatic female face seen in the Metal Cap Workshop, intentionally or not, evokes these associations. The face, emphatically placid and expressionless, can be interpreted as guarding the entrance to the building (see above). Neither smiling nor frowning, it can also be read as greeting the visitor at the door and guiding the visitor up the staircase by beckoning with her benign, pensive, yet expectant stare (see below). Much like Gretchen in Faust II, she is a mediating force, positioned at a crucial threshold, arbitrating the wanderer’s or quester’s admission and ascent. She thus functions as an apt symbol for liminality, accentuating the porousness, indeterminacy, and transformative possibilities of the factory space.

tperuins-17-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

tperuins-18-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

The haunting features of the unnamed woman stand watch over just a few of the factory’s liminal areas. The gradual deterioration of the factory has made it not only materially porous (see below), but also permeable to osmosis of the collective memories of city and nation. Doorways, windows, old air-conditioning vents, and the empty spaces formerly occupied by machinery invite general artistic contemplation of the factory’s desolation, uncertainty, incompleteness, and ruin, and also provide a foundation for specific sociopolitical commentary.

READ  Chinese Crowds Scramble for Free Potted Plants in Guangdong

tperuins-19-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

Ceet, one of the many international artists invited to participate in the 2011 exhibition held by the Urban Regeneration Office, repeats a motif of flightless birds throughout the factory, often accompanied by the phrase “I believe I can fly”. For Ceet, born on the Algeria-Morocco border, a well-known French Graffiti artist, and an active player in the burgeoning international graffiti scene in China, the motif arguably has a personal meaning, underscoring his improbable transnationalism through a dialectic between the hopeful (“I believe!”) and the ironic (the flightless bird believes he can fly). When Ceet lays this ambiguous message over the porous space of the factory, however, it takes on additional meaning.

tperuins-20-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

By placing the defining feature of the picture – the bird’s body and wings – inside empty space, Ceet draws the factory’s uncertain future into his own liminal experience. Without a body or wings, the meaning of the work lies in how we interpret emptiness in the context of the statement “I believe”. In other words, Ceet’s personal story becomes an invitation to the viewer to engage with the factory’s pores and liminal places.

Holes, vents and windows anchor many works of art in the factory. On the outer wall, near the front gates, one artist turned a small hole in the wall into a face with the addition of two half-covered circular eyes (see below). The style is evocative of children’s cartoons or hand puppets, but at the same time the facial expression is ambiguous and slightly forbidding – is the factory looking back at us, taking issue with our voyeuristic impulse to stop and stare?

tperuins-21-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

In the Liang dynasty story of “drawing the dragon’s eyes”, a painter brought his paintings of dragons alive by painting the pupils of their eyes. Here, too, an artist brings life to inanimate space by giving it the “ability” to see. Instead of a passive object of voyeurism, the liminal space of the window becomes a place of subjective interaction between visitors and the factory.

Other artists see the potential of windows and doorways as sociopolitical representations. Well-known Taiwanese artist Candy Bird, for example, turned two large interior windows in the Metal Cap Workshop into gaping mouths for a scathing critique of the greed and consumerism of Taiwan’s wealthy elite.

tperuins-22-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

Two downtrodden looking figures alternately shovel money and houses into the gaping mouths of two other figures. Candy Bird’s critique is doubly appropriate because of the nature of urban redevelopment and the real estate market in Taipei, which has largely been driven by elite and bourgeois property accumulation. Under Candy Bird’s brush, a liminal and porous physical space within the factory becomes a representation of the sociopolitical uncertainty of the factory.

For Candy Bird, cracks and apertures create technical challenges but also the possibility for co-creation and for the space to reveal its value. He likes to search out interesting canvases on which to paint, thus generating a form of environmental art. In another piece, he draws a man’s body around a small rectangular air-conditioning vent above the floor, thereby making a gaping hole in the man’s belly. Meanwhile, he draws an opening in the man’s disproportionately large head through which a smaller head with features similar to the large head peeks out. The picture comes across as a self-reflexive depiction of the process of artistic or intellectual creation–it is a type of mental pregnancy and gestation that thrives irrespective, or perhaps even at the expense, of physical reproduction and material comfort.

READ  Sino-Vietnamese War Veteran Finally Finds Friend's Grave

tperuins-23-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

While artists like Colasa and Candy Bird engage with the factory’s liminal space through predominantly pictorial means, others carry on a dialogue through linguistic play, as one major genre and/or component of graffiti found in the factory is writings on the walls. Often the writings explicitly remark on the industrial production that once occupied the factory, the abandonment that it presently endures, and the urban redevelopment schemes that overshadow its future. Not infrequently an element of black humor animates the comments. For instance, on one of the staircases are written “DO N’T FO RG ET TO FR EE YO UR MI ND”, “FREE ROOMS UPSTAIRS”, and “ASK FOR OUR GROUP RATE”, which poke fun at the fact that the factory is deserted and vacant.

tperuins-24-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

In another building, an artist sprayed on pitch black walls “Bottlecaps don’t recycle” and “Save face” next to several dour faces outlined in yellow, as if to chide the factory for its ecological destructiveness and to openly muse on what would save the factory from its current, humiliating inutility.

tperuins-25-hoopingarner-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

In another spot, a clever artist drew the upper half of a man’s face with fireworks shooting out of the top of his head, under an old warning sign that reads “Cigarettes and Fire Strictly Prohibited” 嚴禁烟火–a remnant from the factory’s past. Emitted from the man’s forehead is the character 哈 or “Ha!”—an onomatopoeia sounding a roguish laughter on the absence of surveillance in the closed factory, the inability of the departed management to enforce the antiquated rules of the former industrial operation.

tperuins-26-hoopingarner-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

In addition to these witty wisecracks on the factory’s precarious condition, more somber comments also appear, such as “Only Time Will Tell” (what is in store for the future), “The Writings on the Wall” (simultaneously predicting the factory’s impending doom and referencing both itself and the other graffiti on the wall), and “Save the Bottle Cap Factory” (from the threat of demolishment).

tperuins-27-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

tperuins-28-hoopingarner-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

tperuins-29-sang-nangang-bottle-cap-factory

A criticism often leveled at ruin photographers or urban explorers is that they engage in “ruin porn”, glorifying images of destruction, degradation and abandonment rather than recognizing that those landscapes represent real suffering. The shuttered Fisher Body Plant in Detroit, Michigan, for example, is not just an aesthetically-pleasing ruin, nor even a symbol of the postindustrial economic nightmare of contemporary Detroit, but is in fact a constituent cause of the city’s socioeconomic woes. How can we, as postindustrial scholars, feel justified in celebrating the beauty of such places when they represent real human tragedy?

Yet, as we hope to have demonstrated in our readings of the graffiti in the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory, ruins are not empty, peripheral sites but rather potent spaces that invite citizen commentary, occupation, and appropriation. Graffiti in the abandoned factory not only activates the explorer/viewer’s aesthetic contemplation as visual culture but also has the power to heighten the viewer’s awareness of the underlying political and socioeconomic forces that have contributed to the formation of ruins in the first place. Our photo documentation of the graffiti, then, is as much about the questions of Taipei’s industrial heritage and postindustrial redevelopment strategies as about the sensory appreciation of this dialogic form of art.

About the Authors

Tze-lan Sang is Professor of Chinese Literature and Visual Culture at Michigan State University. Ian Hoopingarner studies Comparative Cultures and Politics at the James Madison College of Michigan State University.

Help Preserve the Factory

Save the Nangang Bottle Cap Factory on Facebook or sign a petition for its preservation.

Recommended Further Readings

  • DeSilvey, Caitlin and Tim Edensor. “Reckoning with Ruins.” Progress in Human Geography 37, no. 4 (2012): 465-485.
  • Wu Hung. A Story of Ruins: Presence and Absence in Chinese Visual Culture. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 2012.
  • 畢恆達. 《塗鴉鬼飛踢》. 台北:遠流,2011. (Bih, Herng-Dar. Graffiti. Taipei: Yuanliu, 2011.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Loading…