Joshua Sofaer

Taipei City – Mountain Views

In the urban sprawl of Taipei, the electricity and telephone exchanges that can be found on every street, are painted, almost without exception, with mountain (and occasionally floral) scenes in a uniform palette. The quality of draughtsmanship varies dramatically, as does the treatment of detail. The subject and the colours never waver. Despite the fact that they are everywhere in the city, when I ask about the ‘public art’ treatment of these municipal containers, people have to remind themselves of what I am talking about. It seems the citizens of Taipei are accustomed to the sight of them to the extent that they no longer see them.

Who decided that the electricity and telephone exchanges needed this makeover? Who are the artists that are employed? How was the decision as to what should be painted on them made? What about their upkeep? (Of the hundreds that I have seen in the last week and a half none have been defaced and all are in ‘good condition’.)

I’m sure there’s a project in this: The Taipei Electricity and Telephone Exchange Container Painting Archive perhaps.

On the one hand they are kind of horrid as individual pieces of ‘art work’ but as a collection they are mesmerising. I find myself on the look out for the next interpretation and am keen to see if I can identify the hand of a particular painter. Does anyone know the history of these things?

Taipei is surrounded by mountains. The city sits in the Taipei Basin, bordered by Xindian River in the south and Tamsui River to the west. To get a better view of the geography I took the fastest elevator in the world up to the top of Taipei 101 which was the tallest building in the world from its opening in 2004 until the Burj Khalifa overtook it in 2010. (It must have been a bit dispiriting for Taipei that Dubai unveiled its plans in the same year they opened 101.)

The speed of the lift is pretty incredible. Before you have time to take more than a couple of breaths, you are at the top. I arrived at about 5.30 pm, so that I could watch the sunset and the twinkle of the city lights and they were switched on in cars, apartments and street lamps half a kilometre below.

Peering over the bars at the Outdoor Observatory Deck on the 91st floor, felt like a kind of paralysing of the view out of the airplane window on arriving into a city. It was at once both familiar and strange.

I was itchy to step into these mountains that I could see in the misty distance and so the next day (the last day before my workshop commenced) I took the MaoKong Gondola, an amazing 4 km long cable car ride across the mountains from Taipei Zoo to the tea plantations of MaoKong.

What is so brilliant about what would already be an amazingly scenic journey, is that you can opt to travel in a glass bottomed cabin. As the gondola climbs above the velvet covered mountains, you feel like you have entered the bamboo forest duelling scene from Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, where Mu Bai and Jen fight it out flying over the tops of the trees.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I still get a childish pleasure from traveling in cable cars. I think the view from this crystal cabin was probably my favourite yet.

When I arrived in MaoKong, it was like stepping into the image from the previous day. There was Taipei 101 in the distance, towering over Taipei.

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