Mental Health and Healing Through the Lens of Taiwan’s History

Film stills from Receding Triangle Square. All images courtesy Et al. Gallery.
Film stills from Receding Triangle Square. (all images courtesy Et al. Gallery)

OAKLAND, Calif. — As the economy steadily improves around the world, there remains a long tail of after-effects, from homes lost to the housing bubble to increased debt burdens families may have had to assume during the worse parts of the recession. Less discussed are the mental health effects. A recent study released by San Diego State University have pointed to an increasing mental health crisis related to the economy:

“‘Even as the economy improves, the nation’s mental health continues to falter, with mental health concerns remaining near a 10-year high,’ said [researcher John] Ayers, whose groundbreaking research uses digital detection to spot trends in mental illness and health behaviors.”

This is not a trend unique to the United States, especially given the global nature of today’s economy and the particular stresses of the modern day. A study from Taiwan’s Institute of Biomedical Sciences also pointed to economic stressors to contributing to a rise in CMDs (aka common mental disorders) like depression and anxiety:

“The study suggests that the significant trend in the increase in rates of CMDs may be at least partly due to macro−social changes, including the continued decline in the employment market and the ongoing global economic recession.”


Currently on view in San Francisco’s Et al. gallery is “Receding Triangle Square” (2012), a 30-minute video piece created by Virlani Hallberg, an artist born in Indonesia and currently based in Germany and Sweden, and Leon Tan, a Taiwanese psychoanalyst and cultural theorist. According to an artist statement written by Anselm Franke, the film depicts a mixture of traditional Daoist rituals, aboriginal Taiwanese healing practices, and modern psychiatry to explore “different ways of crossing boundaries to the ‘other side — the side of re-connection, where broken relations, and detachments can be restored.”

The rapid change of Taiwan is often overshadowed by its larger neighbor, China, but in the past century, the island has seen occupation under Japan, mass immigration in the wake of civil war, and rapid economic growth as a so-called “Asian Tiger.” These changes are very present in “Square,” whose narrator speaks matter-of-factly to the audience with alternate images of a plain black screen and images of healers whispering into the ears of old men and women wearing red blindfolds, and glimpses of young, hip Taiwanese professionals presumably engaged in talk therapy at an inpatient facility.


“The dominant value here is to be successful,” she says as we see pictures of various forms of psychiatric medication. “Yes,” she says later on, “I think Taiwan is a capitalist society.” As the film takes on a tour of Taiwan’s recent history, from refugees arriving at the island to the stunning commercial success of recent years, it also peers into the cracks in society, critiquing medicines that treat only symptoms and not, perhaps, humanity’s deeper search for meaning that has long predated psychoanalysis.

“It’s unnecessary to work in the city,” says the narrator as the film brings us to Taiwan’s gorgeous countryside, a reference, perhaps, to traditional Chinese shanshui paintings but with an agrarian twist. “We have enough work here.” Didactic at times, “Square” asks the right questions, and with its meditative meandering of culture and history it gently suggests an answer. It was originally commissioned for the Taipei Biennial 2012 and is now on tour, speaking not just to contemporary Taiwan but to urban life in general.

Alter-Circuit: Virlani Hallberg runs until December 6 at Et al. Gallery (620 Kearny Street, Chinatown, San Francisco)

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