5 Highlights from the Asian Art Biennial 2015

Asian Art Biennial artists demonstrate that art can also affect social change.

The 5th Asian Art Biennial at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (NTMoFA) opened on 19 September 2015 and marks the 3rd biennial for curator Huang Iris Shu-Ping. This year’s theme “Artist Making Movement” expands upon Huang’s 2013 “Everyday Life” to underscore that artists can be instrumental in transforming the everyday.

National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, Taiwan. Image courtesy NTMoFA.

National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, Taiwan. Image courtesy NTMoFA.

Founded in 1988 under the auspices of the Taiwan Provincial Government’s Department of Education, NTMoFA was and remains the only public fine arts museum in Taiwan. In a push to downsize the Provincial Government in 1999, the museum was transferred into the hands of the Council of Cultural Affairs (now the Ministry of Culture as of 2012), and has worked hard since to expand its public programming.

The Asian Art Biennial, established in 2007, is one of a series of large-scale exhibitions organised by the museum – including the Taiwan Biennial (est. 2008), the Contemporary Art Across the Strait Exhibition (est. 2009) and the International Biennial Print Exhibition R.O.C. – to implement further international exchange and critical dialogue between Taiwan and the rest of the art world.

Sutee Kunavichayanont, 'History Class Part 2', 2013, installation, 23 sets of wooden tables and chairs, dimensions variable. Photo: Kairon Liu Photography. Image courtesy the artist, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery and NTMoFA.

Sutee Kunavichayanont, ‘History Class Part 2’, 2013, installation, 23 sets of wooden tables and chairs, dimensions variable. Photo: Kairon Liu Photography. Image courtesy the artist, 10 Chancery Lane Gallery and NTMoFA.

Another poignant biennial exhibition

With previous Biennials focused on generic themes such as food (“Have You Eaten Yet?”, 2007) and divergent perspectives (“Viewpoints & Viewing Points”, 2009), the recent addition of curator Huang Iris Shu-Ping in 2011 has brought a pronounced focus to NTMoFA’s exhibition content.

For the 2011 Biennial, Huang focused on Japanese economist Kenichi Ohmae’s concept of the ‘M-shaped society’ with the theme “Medi(t)ation” to explore current shifts in the economic, political and social status of Asian citizens as more and more developing countries in Asia were gaining prominence in the global economy. In 2013 she introduced the theme “Everyday Life” to examine Asian artists’ perspectives on ‘everydayness’ – a mutable term that encompasses a shifting landscape of traditional customs and routines forced to adapt to an influx of new products, ideas and experiences.

For the 2015 Biennial, Huang has returned with the theme “Artist Making Movement” to showcase a group of contemporary artists and artist collectives whose works aim to transform the social and political landscape in Asia as much as they aim to demonstrate its shifting terrains.

    Teppei Kaneuji, 'Hakuchizu', 2009, mixed-media installation, plaster, tables, dimensions variable. Image courtesy ShugoArts Gallery and NTMoFA. Photo by Shigeo Muto. Copyright of the artist.

Teppei Kaneuji, ‘Hakuchizu’, 2009, mixed-media installation, plaster, tables, dimensions variable. Image courtesy ShugoArts Gallery and NTMoFA. Photo by Shigeo Muto. Copyright of the artist.

This year’s exhibition (19 September – 6 December 2015) presents 28 artists from 17 Asian areas and countries, and features 140 works spanning painting, sculpture, installation, sound, video, performance art and workshops. While the exhibition’s content is diverse in subject matter and form, the artworks featured in the show all demonstrate art’s ability to engage, organise and inspire people to action.

Reflecting on the exhibition’s theme and participants, Huang explains that the recent increase in activist artists marks a new chapter in the history of Asian art:

As the theme Artist Making Movement suggests, the ability to make (create) and move symbolizes [that] Asian contemporary art is straying from how it was (sic) perceived in the past, as a static noun, and is transitioning into a verb of assertive action. […] Through their active interventions in reality […], artists have become more assertive with using art to instigate changes, with the belief that personal creative endeavors can become movements with social effects.

Art Radar profiles five artists and collectives that stand out in the exhibition.

Irwan Ahmett & Tita Salina, 'Salting the Sea', 2015, video, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and NTMoFA. Photo: Rangga Aditiawan.

Irwan Ahmett & Tita Salina, ‘Salting the Sea’, 2015, video, dimensions variable. Photo: Rangga Aditiawan. Image courtesy the artist and NTMoFA.

1. Irwan Ahmett & Tita Salina (Indonesia)

The artist-design duo and married couple Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina from Jakarta are known for their series of public interventions in a larger project titled “Urban Play”, and for their documentary work on migrant workers in Indonesia. They were invited to create a new work echoing this year’s Biennial theme “Artist Making Movement”.

Returning to their previous documentary work, the artists have chosen to explore the current experiences and hardships of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan. The resulting piece, Salting the Sea, features three months of documentary footage examining the living conditions, work environments and legal rights of those travelling to the region for work. The artists also staged a public forum, “Agree/Disagree/Unsure”, in the museum on 13 September 2015. In the hopes of exploring new solutions to issues raised in their work, Ahmett and Salina led a dialogue between migrant workers, policy makers, students, curators, artists and social activists. Segments of this dialogue can be seen in the exhibition.

    Yao Jui-Chung + Lost Society Document, 'Mirage: Disused Public Property in Taiwan', 2010-2014, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy the artist and NTMoFA.

Yao Jui-Chung + Lost Society Document, ‘Mirage: Disused Public Property in Taiwan’, 2010-2014, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Photo: Kairon Liu Photography. Image courtesy the artist and NTMoFA.

2. Yao Jui-Chung + Lost Society Document (Taiwan)

An artist and professor of photography and performance, Yao Jui-Chung (b. 1969) collaborated with more than 50 of his students from National Taiwan Normal University and Taipei National University of the Arts in 2010 to investigate a series of unused, idle buildings built and abandoned by the Ministry of the Interior of Taiwan in the 1990s. As part of the art project, Mirage: Disused Public Property in Taiwan, Yao and his students collected hundreds of photographs and a series of videos and notes, documenting more than 100 deserted buildings around the country.

To bring this issue to the public’s attention, Yao and his students published three books of documented research and images showcasing the government’s negligence. The group then sent them to journalists and politicians, which drew the attention of government officials. As a result, the government has promised to restore or demolish the vacant buildings. Visitors to the Asian Art Biennial 2015 can view a number of photographs captured during Yao and his students’ investigation.

    Rina Banerjee, 'Mangroves of Alien and Native frozen and foamed, rose and rose, opened and closed and one in all grew calm who knew.', 2014, steel, plastic, nylon, light bulbs, shells, wire, cotton thread and feathers, 133.5 × 69.5 × 80.3 cm. Image courtesy Ota Fine Arts and NTMoFA.

Rina Banerjee, ‘Mangroves of Alien and Native frozen and foamed, rose and rose, opened and closed and one in all grew calm who knew.’, 2014, steel, plastic, nylon, light bulbs, shells, wire, cotton thread and feathers, 133.5 × 69.5 × 80.3 cm. Image courtesy Ota Fine Arts and NTMoFA.

3. Rina Banerjee (India, UK, USA)

Born in Calcutta, India in 1963 and raised in London, artist Rina Banerjee moved to the United States in the 1980s. She currently lives and works in New York City. The artist’s ‘combine-esque’ sculptures feature an assemblage of disjointed objects from various locations and time periods. By pulling incoherent items together, the artist demonstrates the complex global exchange of people, ideas and objects through histories of colonialism, tourism and mass media. As single works composed of elements with various origins, functions and histories, Banerjee challenges notions of authenticity and what it means to be in or outside of a dominant culture.

    Lee Wen, 'Ping-Pong Go Round', 1998-, plywood, table tennis paraphernalia, mixed media, 76 × 500 cm (diameter). An installation view from the artist’s solo exhibition “Lucid Dreams In The Reverie Of The Real”, Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy the artist and NTMoFA.

Lee Wen, ‘Ping-Pong Go Round’, 1998-, plywood, table tennis paraphernalia, mixed media, 76 × 500 cm (diameter). An installation view from the artist’s solo exhibition “Lucid Dreams In The Reverie Of The Real”, Singapore Art Museum. Image courtesy the artist and NTMoFA.

4. Lee Wen (Singapore)

Artist Lee Wen (b. 1957), known for his performance works in Singapore, presents his well-travelled Ping-Pong Go Round, a donut-shaped ping pong table that invites participants to jump in the centre and battle multiple opponents at once. Though Lee first conceived of Ping-Pong Go Round in 1998 for an art performance in Australia, the artist has since presented the table in exhibitions all around the world, including Japan, Malaysia, China, Turkey, the United Kingdom, France and Hong Kong. The table’s altered dimensions ask participants to reflect on Asia’s position within a difficult terrain of multilateral political and economic negotiations.

Stephanie Syjuco, 'Money Factory: Economic Reality Game', 2015, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Photo by Kairon Liu Photography.  Image courtesy the artist and NTMoFA.

Stephanie Syjuco, ‘Money Factory: Economic Reality Game’, 2015, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Photo by Kairon Liu Photography. Image courtesy the artist and NTMoFA.

5. Stephanie Syjuco (Philippines, USA)

Acknowledging recent youth-related labour and wage disputes in the Taiwan headlines, Filipino American artist Stephanie Syjuco (b. 1974) presents Money Factory: Economic Reality Game, a participatory work that invites museum goers to cut and paste stacks of Taiwanese currency equal to the average earnings of a young employee. After labouring over their stacks of cash, participants may spend their earnings on a collection of cards, each of which feature a necessity, luxury good or life goal. As they begin to choose between cars, starting a family and everyday essentials, participants quickly come to realise that their wages afford them a limited living standard. After partaking in the chain of labour and consumption, the cash made and spent is piled up in a display case as an abstract representation of Taiwan’s high cost of living.

Rachel Chamberlain

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Related Topics: Indonesian artists, Singaporean artists, Taiwanese artists, Indian artists, Filipino artists, biennales, biennials, events in Taichung, lists

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