As you walk through the doors of the museum, your entire field of vision is confronted, challenged even, by a brightly-lit white screen standing five metres inside. A ramp leads up towards the screen and onto a narrow walkway which runs alongside it. Which way do you go? Left or right? After making your decision you begin walking and suddenly become aware that you are being pinned against the screen by immensely strong footlights, relentlessly drenching you with their glare. Any chance of making a quiet entrance has been utterly obliterated. The spotlight is, literally, on YOU, and the conditions of your attendance at the exhibition have been radically reversed. You, the subject, came to see the exhibition, an object. But the stage and its blazing lights have deconstructed this lazy assumption and blurred this traditional divide between the observer and the observed. You are now an object too, your role transformed by the very first work with which you come into contact. You are barely through the doors of the Taipei Fine Art Museum (TFAM) and yet your engagement and interaction with Death and Life of Fiction – Taipei Biennial 2012 has begun in earnest.
From the off, then, this is an intensely thought-provoking exhibition, and Anselm Franke, the Berlin-based artist and Taipei Biennial 2012 curator, has certainly not shied away from tackling big, heavy questions. History, identity, war; highly appropriate subject matter for a moment in history when, in the words of TFAM director, Hai-Ming Huang, “the earth and the people that inhabit her today, to borrow a Chinese phrase, are besieged under deep water and scorching fire.” Franke and the artworks contained in the exhibition prove that good art is ideally suited to illuminating these issues and providing challenging, provocative, and critical perspectives. The three floors of maze-like halls and display spaces may even contain the seeds of a solution, of an answer to the question of humanity’s violent, divided, forgetful predicament, though visitors will have to scratch more than just the surface of these works to find it. The result of Franke’s bold selection of works and the thematic framework into which they (almost) all seamlessly fit, makes this exhibition a powerful artistic success, the effects of which will resound and reverberate in Taiwan’s, and indeed Asia’s, art community for years. Death and Life of Fiction is, in short, a must-see event for Taipei’s art-lovers and curious, questioning minds.
With full-price tickets selling for only NT$30 (including a brilliantly-written 160 page guidebook) many visitors may be tempted by multiple visits to see the Taipei Biennial 2012. Indeed, with over 50 artists and collectives taking part, it is essential if one wants to see everything. The scale might have been overwhelming, but Franke’s curating expertise and his creative use of space is abundantly evident, making the exhibition feel very accessible, intimate, and unhurried. There is none of the overwhelming sense of pretense or elitism that often accompanies modern art shows in Europe, and each work of art is given space to breathe and captivate. It is inevitable in a show of this size that works spill over into one another – the soundtrack of a video installation informing the context of an unrelated painting or photograph in the room next door, for example – but with Death and Life of Fiction Franke and his team seem to have controlled this phenomenon and curated with it in mind, creating moving continuities between the exhibits.
The works come from artists representing every corner of the globe and a huge array of artistic formats: posters, videos, dolls, film sets, sculpture, discarded rubbish, antiquities, maps, you name it. We are forced to think about what counts as art, and what context does to alter the the way an object is perceived. We are confronted by the crimes and atrocities that have repeatedly been committed in the name of reason and progress. We are moved to ponder the components of our identity and those of others. We are exposed, above all, to art that challenges us, that makes us think, ask, and respond. That, after all, is the power of art, and Death and Life of Fiction – Taipei Biennial 2012 is an incredibly potent exposition of this power.
John Akomfrah – The Unfinished Conversation, 2012
John Akomfrah’s moving video installation, The Unfinished Conversation, has already received critical acclaim at this year’s Liverpool Biennial, and is without a doubt one of this exhibition’s most interesting works. The film is a beautifully-rendered, three-screen narrative exploring the life, ideas, and ‘multiple realities’ of Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born academic and cultural theorist whose work on identity and difference has been very influential. Hall’s theories had a major impact on Akomfrah’s own development as a film-maker, and as The Unfinished Conversation twists and weaves through the events that shaped and contextualised Hall’s life we become acutely aware of Akomfrah’s touching, almost filial, respect for the man and his achievements. The film never stands still, and in its diverse range of source material – both audio and visual – it constantly reflects the dynamic relationship between historical events, private life, and identity. Akomfrah has succeeded in creating a haunting work of art whose ghosts will remain with its audience long after they have left the installation.
The Museum of the Monster that is History – Curated by James T. Hong and Anselm Franke
Of the Biennial’s numerous, and highly original, mini-museums, The Museum of the Monster that is History is the one visitors will probably encounter first. This highly prescient, political, and thought-provoking exhibit is “devoted to the violence on which modern states and social orders are based”. Modern history, according to the curators James T. Hong and Anselm Franke, reveals that states are strikingly consistent in deploying officially sanctioned, systematic terror in the name of ‘reason’ and there’s no lack of material here to support that assertion. We are first confronted with a video of numerous national leaders making official apologies for atrocities and crimes committed by their respective states, while Taiwan WMD displays materials relating to Taiwan’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programmes into the present. Hong has also created what at first glance resembles a currency exchange board familiar to millions from airports and hotels. Yet upon closer inspection this is not a normal exchange of one currency for another: the moving ticker at the top of the board reads ‘Compensation amounts for Afghan civilian deaths’. We are directly confronted with the monstrous ‘economy of death’ and the commercial intrusion into life itself by putting a price tag on what we are so often told is price-less. This all makes for uncomfortable, but necessary, viewing.
Museum of Psalmanazar – Curated by Hongjohn Lin
A mini-museum inside a mini-museum, Museum of Psalmanazar is set within the broader framework of The Museum of Crossings (curated by Anselm Franke and Hongjohn Lin), which looks at the phenomenon of crossing borders – “mimetic zones in which identity and alterity are in permanent exchange, and in which the imaginary and the fictional assume a powerful role.” George Psalmanazar was an 18th century, blonde-haired, blue-eyed fraudster who claimed to be the first ‘Formosan’ to visit Europe (despite being French) and who even wrote a highly acclaimed, best-selling guide to ‘his country’ – An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa – (despite never having set foot in Asia). Items described in his fictional account of Taiwan are presented as real museum artifacts and in this exhibit Psalmanazar is resurrected as an example of someone who was a border-crosser par excellence, constantly negotiating the boundaries between fact and fiction, reality and imagination. The exhibit is perhaps less interesting for its artistic value than its casting a light on the life of a fascinating historical character but nevertheless its depiction of an imaginary, historical Taiwan leads the viewer to ask searching questions about the modern, ‘real’ version of Formosa we live in today.
Roee Rosen – Maxim Komar-Myshkin, Vladimir’s Night, 2011-2012
Obscene, grotesque, and highly subversive, Roee Rosen’s Maxim Komar-Myshkin, Vladimir’s Night is a collection of 36 gouaches on paper that is – perhaps due to its perverse subject matter – tucked away in a hard to find spot on the exhibition’s second floor. Maxim Komar-Myshkin, Rosen’s fictional creator of these works, allegedly committed suicide last year, having suffered immensely from extreme paranoia. Vladimir Putin, so Komar-Myshkin believed in his paranoid state, wanted him dead. In a desperate final act he takes revenge on Russia’s president by creating this set of paintings which depict the horrific results of Putin’s stay at one of his summer holiday homes. Faces the president sees in the surface of his furniture come to life as nightmarish objects which proceed to torture, rape, and murder him. Vladimir’s Nightis a disturbing journey through a tormented, wild imagination, whether Rosen’s or Komar-Myshkin’s. The artist’s use of children’s-book -style illustrations is a disarmingly powerful technique, and the ‘poems’ Rosen has written to supplement each painting are an incredibly witty accompaniment to the work. This exhibit won’t be to everyone’s taste, but if you don’t mind seeing brightly-painted depictions of one of the world’s most powerful leaders being impaled with a cucumber, then it’s a provocative journey that is well worth exploring.
Sun Xun – Some Actions which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution, 2011
Mainland China is well-represented at the Biennial, but it is perhaps Sun Xun, a young Beijing-based artist, whose work is most interesting. By using woodcuts to create a film animation, Sun has successfully combined the traditional with the modern and in the process given a tangible context to the work, highlighting China’s struggle to define itself and locate the source of its own identity. With these two centrifugal forces – tradition and modernity – pulling in contradictory, opposite directions, the result is a schizophrenic and deeply unsettling sense of paranoia which haunts society. In Some Actions which Haven’t Been Defined Yet in the Revolution Sun has provided us with an acute observation of this societal schizophrenia told through the nightmarish journey of the animation’s main character. We have fleeting glimpses of nurses directing cranes which move monstrous syringes towards the character’s body, faces being pulled off and transformed into feature-less flesh, and the sleeping protagonist being watched (or is he about to be pecked?) by a deeply sinister crow. Sun’s hellish visions are reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch and their effect on the audience excites similar feelings of distress and perverse curiosity. Just as Bosch’s artistic imagination undoubtedly fed on the energy released by the traumatic changes taking place in European society during the early Renaissance, perhaps Sun’s work is nourished in a similar way by the energy of the revolutionary changes China has recently undergone and, indeed, is still undergoing.
By Matt Bowden for Love Taipei
Death and Life of Fiction – Taipei Biennial 2012 runs until January 13th, 2013 at the two locations below. Full-price tickets cost NT$30 and include a guidebook. The Biennial also has a free mobile application for download, which can be found by searching for ‘Taipei Biennial 2012‘.
Taipei Fine Arts Museum (49 exhibits)
No. 181, Section 3, Zhongshan North Road, Zhongshan District, Taipei
Open: Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 am-17:30 pm; Saturday open until 20:30 pm; Closed on Monday
Biennial Website: www.taipeibiennial2012.org
Museum Website: www.tfam.museum/
The Paper Mill (4 exhibits)
No.31, Fude Road, Shilin District, Taipei
Open: Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 am-17:30 pm; Saturday open until 20:30 pm; Closed on Monday
Paper Mill Website: www.thepapermill.shihlin.com.tw