“Gestures and Archives of the Present, Genealogies of the Future”: highlights from the Taipei Biennial 2016

The Taipei Biennial 2016 is a restrained biennale about responsibility.

On view at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) from 10 September 2016 to 5 February 2017, the Taipei Biennial entitled “Gestures and Archives of the Present, Genealogies of the Future” engages in historical critique.

Hsu-Pin Lee, 'The River Valley Next to Namasia', 2010, pigment print, 61 x 76 x 5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Hsu-Pin Lee, ‘The River Valley Next to Namasia’, 2010, pigment print, 61 x 76 x 5 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

The Taipei Biennial is now in its 10th edition and is curated by French curator and Director of the Erg in Brussels Corinne Diserens, under the title “Gestures and archives of the present, genealogies of the future”. The show is starkly organised over two floors of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM). On the top floor is a retrospective survey of the previous iterations, reaching back to 1998, making this one of the earliest biennales in Asia.

Possibly unwittingly, it is an international biennale that emerges in a political climate that is shrinking due to the unequivocal embrace of the inequitable benefits of globalism, reflected in recent voting patterns in the United Kingdom and the United States. The strong local presence, with 34 out of 76 artists being Taiwanese, connects with this turn.

Yi-Wei Lin, 'Night Run Series—Dog Garden beside the River,' 2016, acrylic, raw lacquer, canvas, 89 x 64 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Yi-Wei Lin, ‘Night Run Series—Dog Garden beside the River,’ 2016, acrylic, raw lacquer, canvas, 89 x 64 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Diserens makes specific reference to David Graeber’s 2015 book The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy. It is strange, then, that if its programme derives from Graeber’s neo-anarchist critique of bureaucratic order, such a stringent exhibition emerges. A multitude of works engage in historical critique, particularly with local issues in stages of Taiwan’s troubled heritage. Writing for Frieze Amy Sherlock suggests:

Though elegantly installed and paced, the biennial tends, in palette as in tone, towards the monochrome – a fact that perhaps has something to do with the old situationist aversion to spectacle.

Brian Hioe writing for New Bloom perceives that

the Biennial just comes across as the cataloguing of different post-authoritarian countries, whether in Asia, Africa, or elsewhere. As such, though one may learn about the history of different authoritarian regimes around the world from the exhibition, the curation of the Biennial does not provoke further thought.

James Ming-Hsueh Lee, 'Spectrum', 2016. Installation view at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

James Ming-Hsueh Lee, ‘Spectrum’, 2016. Installation view at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

The overall surface of the exhibition is certainly plain and factual. The works that stand out reveal an academic unease with editing or making their documentary material poetic in any way; although inevitably subjects have associations and the most measured gaze will flinch. James Ming-Hsueh Lee’s Spectrum (2016) is a case in point. On the surface it is literal: a collection of teas, purchased from convenience stores, their labels removed, are arranged from lightest to darkest on a long shelf. The positioning of the shelf, bringing the bottles to head height, hints at personification, even anthropomorphism, and the neutral products suggest racial or cultural order.

Im Heung-soon, 'Bukhansan/Bukhangang', 2015/16, installation view (detail) at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Im Heung-soon, ‘Bukhansan/Bukhangang’, 2015/16, installation view (detail) at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Elsewhere, video is used with clarity such as in Im Heung-soon’s two-channel video Bukhansan/Bukhangang (2015/16). Set close to the border between North and South Korea, it speaks straightforwardly of division by combining two stories, spoken in the first person from a North Korean defector. They narrate her experience of arriving and living in South Korea. The videos culminate in a performance of a yearning northern folk song, Imjin River.

Park Chan-Kyong, 'Citizen’s Forest', 2016, installation view (detail) at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Park Chan-Kyong, ‘Citizen’s Forest’, 2016, installation view (detail) at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Symbolic, but essentially historic, Citizen’s Forest (2016) is a three-screen, black and white film by Park Chan-Kyong. A procession of people, representing the spectres of tragic events in Korea, from the 1894 Donghak revolution to the 2014 sinking of Sewol Ferry, trudge through a forest. Looking a bit like cos-playing art students on a field trip, they are presumably looking for a way out of the woods but actually just go around in circles.

Yi-Chih Lai, 'The Concealed Landscape', 2016., installation view with left, 'Lets Get Planting', 2016, and right, 'Hills in Huijie-1', 'Mountain Ridge in Wandan', 'Two Mountains in Longjing' and 'Hills in Huijie-3'. Taipei BIennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Yi-Chih Lai, ‘The Concealed Landscape’, 2016., installation view with left, ‘Lets Get Planting’, 2016, and right, ‘Hills in Huijie-1’, ‘Mountain Ridge in Wandan’, ‘Two Mountains in Longjing’ and ‘Hills in Huijie-3’. Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Moving on from scarred histories, other works consider blighted landscapes. Yi-Chih Lai’s The Concealed Landscape (2016) is a project that shows the lives of stalwart people who find their homes ousted by a Petrochemical Industrial Zone in Yunlin, Taiwan. Pale photos show their homes precariously overshadowed by lowering drab factories. They express their powerlessness in interviews, as a thriving industry reformats their landscape.

Chen Chieh-Jen, 'Realm of Reverberations', 2014, four-channel video installation (still image). Image courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Chen Chieh-Jen, ‘Realm of Reverberations’, 2014, four-channel video installation (still image). Image courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Chen Chieh-jen’s similarly sombre Realm of Reverberations (2014–16) is presented in an immersive space where four black-and-white videos tell of how the building of a depot for Taipei’s Rapid Transit System displaced Losheng Sanatorium for victims of Hansen’s disease, known as leprosy. The sanatorium’s residents, many of whom had been forcibly institutionalised when they were young in the 1940s, now as adults, they protest the loss of community, supported by others such as the artist. The films portray these human subjects as the collateral damage of modernisation.

Eric Chen and Rain Wu, 'Collectivism', 2016, installation view (detail) at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Eric Chen and Rain Wu, ‘Collectivism’, 2016, installation view (detail) at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Active resilience is dramatised in one of the Museum’s courtyards in Eric Chen and Rain Wu’s large-scale installation entitled Collectivism (2016). A snaking wall of 700 bulletproof shields, stacked high in four tiers, outlines an interior garden. Growth goes on behind a display of power. If Collectivism creates a fortified sanctuary, it is Japan that is the historical enemy in Taiwan, evoked in other works. The Band of the Awful Ones (2016) by Hong-Kai Wang uses a Japanese legal text, The Bandit Punishment Ordinance, as a script for an improvised drama workshop.

Performances are caught in a hectoring broadcast on multiple competing screens. In Family Album (2016), Fei-Hao Chen laments the disjuncture of public and private memories of the Japanese occupation period.

Hong-Kai Wang, 'The Band of the Awful Ones', 2016. Installation view (detail) at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke

Hong-Kai Wang, ‘The Band of the Awful Ones’, 2016. Installation view (detail) at Taipei Biennial 2016, TFAM. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

The biennale habitually aspires to bring the global to the local. This Taipei edition suggests that the experiences of people – artists – in a local context can be a significant reference point. In an interview Diserens says the exhibition “refers to a “space” from which we can address questions related to memory”. In order to address these questions you have to draw on some real people and their memories; however, the juxtaposition of emerging Taiwanese artists, with their earnest local interests, and established international figures does not always succeed. It evokes the same contemporary tensions that have caused the larger populations of the Western world to become weary of the ascendency of the transnational class, who own and direct services, even sustenance, health and shelter, on behalf of the legions of low-paid workers who provide them.

Fei-Hao Chen, 'Family Documents in Translation: Soldiers before the Taiwan Gokoku Shrine', 2016, digital print, 12.7 × 17.78 cm. Image courtesy Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Fei-Hao Chen, ‘Family Documents in Translation: Soldiers before the Taiwan Gokoku Shrine’, 2016, digital print, 12.7 × 17.78 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

The biennale world is a world governed by abstractions called theory. Such conceptual frameworks were once assumed to be the essence of all things because they were considered to be the principles of nature. People’s experience, on the other hand, is like the world of particles, unpredictable but in the end, homogeneous.

Andrew Stooke

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Related Topics: Taiwanese, biennial, photography, installation, video, Taipei

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