2020 / January
Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Since the invention of paper, traditionally credited to the Han-Dynasty eunuch Cai Lun, humanity has been tightly bound to the medium. Together they have written the story of human civilization. But recently these bonds have been weakening amid a decline of paper culture.
Unwilling to surrender to this trend, the Suho Memorial Paper Museum’s companion exhibition space the Fenko Catalysis Chamber displays papers dating back more than 60 years and fosters transdisciplinary approaches to exploring the myriad possibilities of paper in modern life.
Some 25 years ago, industry mainstay CNJ Paper decided to give back to society by opening the Suho Memorial Paper Museum. In its large space hidden in bustling downtown Taipei, the museum shares with the public papermaking techniques that it has amassed over many decades.
Nevertheless, that was only the beginning. In 2018, at a location just a stone’s throw away, the museum renovated a paper shop and gave it new life as the Fenko Catalysis Chamber, a satellite exhibition space of the museum.
Chen Ruey-huey, CEO of the Suho Memorial Paper Culture Foundation, launched the Suho Museum to memorialize his father Chen Suho, the founder of CNJ Paper, who had had an unfulfilled wish to open a paper museum. The newly developed Fenko is named for Suho’s wife—thus symbolizing that the couple was inseparable. Chen Ruey-huey entrusted the project to his daughter Lino Lee, hoping to leverage the family’s energies to protect the culture of paper far into the future.
A new mission for an old paper shop
Amid the crowds and beautiful shops of Chang’an East Road, the entrance to Fenko is so low key that one could easily pass it by without a second thought. But upon opening the door, one is pleasantly surprised by what one encounters.
Hanging from the ceiling is an art installation that resembles clouds, made up of resilient synthetic fibers. A perfect combination of paper-making technique and art, this representative work clearly conveys the aspirations of the new space.
The architect Hung Hao-chun oversaw the building’s transformation from its former incarnation as a paper shop. Wooden decorative panels were pulled out to reveal the building’s mottled brick walls. On the left side is a paper cabinet inherited from the old shop, and along the exposed brick walls there is a grid made from metal bars only six millimeters square, which is matched with metal shelves and panels used to display objects. Easily rearranged, the shelving is convenient for displays and exhibitions. And the 36 types of paper that CNJ Paper produces for its own paper brands and imports from overseas companies are all on display here.
Yet Fenko’s collection goes far beyond these. Labor-intensive handmade paper, out-of-production papers, papers over 30 years old… Lino Lee opens up the paper cabinet and carefully shows us these rarely seen items, which have been passed down in her family and aren’t for sale.
Though she is quite young, her voice conveys a strong sense of nostalgia when she talks about these papers. She teaches us how to distinguish between machine-made and handmade paper: Unlike the uniformity of machine-made paper, handmade paper has rough feathered edges, and the bamboo screen used in the manufacturing process leaves a faint pattern like a watermark. What’s more, the process relies on workers shaking the pulp right and left and back and forth on the frames, resulting in each sheet having distinctly different textures.
Paper that can’t be mass produced resembles a secret diary, recording the mood and situation of the paper maker on the day of creation. In Lee’s view, paper isn’t merely functional; it’s “also quite sensual.”
The deeply rooted vs. the cutting edge
With the resources of a paper manufacturer behind it, Suho has been able to tackle many challenging projects.
Its most famous achievement is the “Cloud Gate Dance Paper” that Suho made for Lin Hwai-min’s work Wild Cursive. Requiring nearly nine months to develop, it was tested more than 200 times before it was deemed light and convenient enough to store and move so that it could be brought with the dance troupe on international tours. It also had to be able to withstand the heat from the bright stage lights and the application of ink on stage from a height of seven meters, thereby allowing Lin’s imaginative vision of a conversation between ink and dance to come to fruition.
The 2015 exhibition “The Texture of Uncertainty” at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum is another example. The architect Chiu Yu-wen used a paper stock made from PET fiber that Fenko calls “Snow.” Originally used as an insulator in the tech industry, it was chosen because it is light, translucent and tough. Chiu matched it with other materials to build a three-dimensional spatial landscape, which withstood three months of exposure to wind, sun and rain.
Those past collaborations set the stage for Fenko’s successful birth when conditions were just right.
Unlike the students interested in paper arts and the families with children that have made up most of the visitors to Suho, those who visit Fenko are skilled restorers, graphic designers, spatial designers, architects, and artists. Fenko not only satisfies their curiosity about different kinds of paper; it also poses challenges as it invites them to work together to find solutions.
“Suho conveys our collective knowledge, whereas Fenko invites people to work with others to complete gaps in what we know,” explains Lee.
From paper to experimentation
Paper originally found its raw materials in nature—a historical fact that is echoed in Fenko’s passion for natural materials.
Apart from finding inspiration in different elements, paper creators at Fenko have added a variety of different materials to basic paper, including rice husks, coffee grounds, and fibers from sugarcane, wheat, and pineapple. These become part of the paper and give different stocks their own feel and special qualities.
Last year, at a course called the Forest BIG launched by CMP Village, Fenko debuted a coat made of paper fabric, which upends the notion that paper is a fragile material prone to water damage. A team from Fenko worked with a Taiwan textile factory to first spin yarn from manila hemp and then weave it into a durable, washable fabric that they tailored into a fashionable coat that is made of 100% biodegradable natural fiber. It offers one means for the fashion industry to clean up its act environmentally.
“The space is still being shaped. Its future is still in the future, and Fenko isn’t in a hurry to define itself.” Like a sheet of still forming paper, the space’s story awaits its writing.