Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Taipei Biennial 2008

This was my first visit to Taipei Biennial. Having visited SH Biennial and read my Yishu article on politics of Taipei Biennial, I was expecting a "forced" art show. I was wrong as the Taipei Biennial turned out to be far more intriguing and stimulating than my past experiences in China.

Firstly, the Biennial itself was not only located in Taipei Fine Art Museum but was spread throughout different sites in Taipei City. The medium used was different from SH biennials. It was heavily focused on video installations and barely any sculpture and paintings. Second, the theme was focused on the issues arising from "neo-liberal capitalist globalisation". These issues range from "foreign labor forces, divided nations, micro-nations, war conditions, ecological collapse, global unrest and opportunities for change". The Biennial artworks did not try to represent these issues visually or criticise the system through artistic metaphors or symbols, but rather addressed these issues in "do-it-yourself practices, humourous approaches and idiosyncrasies." The main angle the Biennial tried to show spectators was that art cannot provide solutions but it can reflect these issues from different perspectives and work with "unexpected forms of enquiry".

Since photos were not allowed I will attempt to illustrate one or two works at the show. Upon entrance, visitors are greeted by life size paper-men in black and why, saying "we are all errorists" in different languages. A huge banner hung above museum entrance reading" INTERNATIONAL ERRORIST" in Spanish. It's a play on the US's "war on terrorism" and media bombardment of phrases such as "international terrorists". However, it also illustrates how governments and societies are built upon humans, who are essentially errorists.

Another artwork that caught my attention was called "NSK passport by Irwin". Basically this was an art project where artists set up booths for people to apply for a NSK passport. NSK is an ideal that offers people a way out of being constrained by national borders, citizenships and government policies. An NSK passport meant you belonged to no specific country, religion, race and ethnicity. You were simple a global person. The project was carried out in Taipei and other international cities and the actual artwork were video installations that interviewed people who applied for it.

There were videos that played with miscommunications in a globalized world (sort of "lost in translation"), where a Taiwanese artists asked expats to repeat Chinese phrases and sentences and then include subtitles in the videos. Obviously, the expats had different accents so the subtitles used Chinese characters that were phonetically identical to what was repeated by the expats but made no sense in Chinese writing (or was rather humorous).

The artworks explored different issues of contemporary society but the overall Biennial was not too forced since the theme is so broad and the artists came from various countries, therefore each artist's took on different perspectives and subjects. Some found humorous ways to address the issues, other used more of a documentary approach, some as intellectual research and analysis and others experimented with new media to illustrate a better world. It was refreshing and critical. Intellectual and light-hearted. Funny and depressing. Beneath the surface, the Biennial tried to show us a new group of rebels, fighting for a better world, unveiling the flaws of current societal structures and questioning authority. It also showed the visitors how to laugh and forget in an era of media bombardment and manipulation, political frustration and disillusionment.

For me, Taipei Biennial 2008 reminded me of how far Taiwan has come to be and despite its social imperfections, political scandals and capitalist desires, it has succeeded in democracy and freedom of speech in relatively peaceful ways. Sometimes we become unaware of how fortunate we are to be born in such free societies. Thus my visit to Taipei Biennial pointed out to me how valuable artistic freedom really is and how China, despite all its current successes, still has much more to open up itself to.

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