While the collaborative curatorial model is being favored more and more by art biennials in order to generate an experimental, process-driven approach, they can often be too sprawling and lacking in direction—as was the case for the 2012 Gwangju Biennale and the 2013 Singapore Biennale. Meanwhile, the Taipei Biennial, founded in 1998, is known for inviting a foreign guest curator each year to head the event. The latest edition is no exception, with revered French curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud at the helm.
Titled “The Great Acceleration,” this year’s Taipei Biennial centers on the theme of “art and its new ecosystem.” It takes as its starting point the Earth’s shift from the Holocene—the geological age that began around 11,000 years ago and continues to the present—to the Anthropocene (the informal term for a proposed epoch that some consider to have begun when human civilization started damaging the surrounding ecosystems), or the “Age of Man,” and explores the ways in which artists are envisaging and responding to this newer world. Bourriaud is best known for his theory of “relational aesthetics,” which, during the 1990s, articulated a shift in contemporary art practice from creating private, symbolic works to focusing on human interactivity and its social context. With “The Great Acceleration,” Bourriaud has, in a sense, updated his theory, proposing a rethinking of relations that positions humans as but one element in a wider network that also includes the environment, flora and fauna, technology, data and even microorganisms such as bacteria.
This unreservedly single curatorial vision, coupled with the fact that it is presented solely within the three levels of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, and not across a multitude of offsite spaces, is refreshing and has allowed the works of the 52 exhibiting artists and collectives to breathe while also revealing the subtle threads that link them together. Overall, the show is dominated by mid-sized installations and wall pieces, and only a handful of videos, which adds to the digestibility of the Biennial. Under Bourriaud’s direction, the museum’s layout traces a polyphonous narrative, with underlying themes of industrialization, globalization, environmental degradation, technology, and human limitations presented throughout.
A pressing matter for any biennial is how to engage in a dialogue with the local art community, and while a number of Taiwanese artists have been included in this year’s Biennial, there are only a few successful attempts that address the region directly. For example, located along the first corridor that visitors encounter after entering the show is Huang Po-Chih’s Production Line – Made in China and Made in Taiwan (2014). The work consists of a sewing workshop for denim shirts (which were partially made as part of the installation’s showing at the 8th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale this summer) and speaks to the harsh reality of industrial labor in the Greater China region.
The first floor includes works that explore the intrinsic properties of raw and natural resources and their modification by man. Marlie Mul’s seven puddles (2014), made of resin and scattered across the floor, show signs of human presence in the trash and discarded cigarette butts that “float” within them, breaking the otherwise perfect veneer of the solid pools. Camille Henrot’s “Massaged Sculpture” series (2011)—comprised of rectangular earth blocks made by the artist, which were then massaged by practitioners of fasciatherapy, shiatsu and reflexology—similarly leaves a physical human imprint on objects representative of nature. Chuan-Lun Wu’s Coast Mining (2014) is reminiscent of a nature table from a school classroom, presenting a colorful collection of what appears to be ocean debris that have, in fact, been artificially made out of petroleum.
Human’s precarious relationship with machinery is introduced early on in the show as visitors come across Peter Buggenhout’s “The Blind Leading The Blind” series (2014), comprising monumental and ominous sculptures of found parts and castoffs—a dusty wasteland that seems to be a nod to deindustrialization. On the second floor, machines disintegrate completely in Roger Hiorn’s impressive untitled installation of an atomized passenger aircraft engine (2008).
Elsewhere, Joan Jonas’s immersive re-working of her video installation Reanimation II (2010–13) poetically considers the present day situation of global warming, while ecologist and artist Nicolás Uriburu’s room of works, spanning from 1973 to 2000, overtly raises consciousness about various environmental issues. His use of an acid-green palette creates an alarming sense of toxicity and danger in the work.
Exploring the ways in which humans are interconnected with spirituality is manifested in Yu-Chen Wang’s drawings of otherworldly creatures and amorphous machine parts scribbled across various walls of the museum. A more direct and humorous approach is Shimabuku’s My Teacher Tortoise (2011–14), which consists of a live tortoise in a knee-high pen, meant for viewers to learn the importance of slowing down, by contemplating the unhurried ways of the reptilian creature.
We reach the pinnacle of Bourriaud’s vision on the third floor, which displays works that grapple with reality, existence and human relationships in a hyper-artificial and digital world. This theme was best presented in works such as Alisa Baremboym’s sculptures made from mutilated conveyer belt systems reassembled into original installations using ceramic material, gelled emollient, vinyl, printed silk gauze, tubing and bungee straps. The ceramic material retains a porous quality when baked and, in a way, functions much like human skin, breaking down the barrier between the organic and synthetic. Another work was Anicka Yi’s giant inflatable PVC bubble, Le Pain Symbiotique (2014), a conceptual representation of an entropic bacterial ecosystem and the cohabitation of various organisms within it—showing a vision of life after all human infrastructure and existence have disappeared.
While the Biennial is lacking in a meaningful dialogue with Taiwan—and could have undoubtedly taken place in any museum in the world—it is still successful in its execution and strong roster of artists, so perhaps the aforementioned drawbacks could be overlooked. The Biennial worked for what it set out to be—a comprehensive museum show led by a foreign, academic curator.
This article was originally published published by ArtAsiaPacific.com