Where the Wild Things Are: Taipei Biennial

Taipei Biennial 2012. Sep 29, 2012 – Jan 13, 2013.

Curated by Anselm Franke (critic and curator based in Berlin), the Taipei Biennial 2012 with its title “Modern Monsters / Death and Life of Fiction” tackles the questions around modernity and the systematic violence that has been inseparable from its expansion and growth. By referring to David Der-Wei Wang’s book, The Monster That Is History: History, Violence, and Fictional Writing in Twentieth-Century China (2004), the show appropriates the monster called Taowu (梼杌) of Chinese mythology as its central metaphor. In Chinese literature, Taowu has been used in different historical periods to symbolize different things, from demons to fiction to history. In the context of the Biennial, Taowu is the amorphous incarnation of atrocities inherent in the process of modernity on a global scale.

As Franke states, the show addresses the need to “break free from the ‘frame’ of colonial modernity and its narratives, its way of describing the world, and the need to tell different histories of modernity (… ) ”. He writes, “The idea is to make an exhibition that shifts between fiction and historical analysis, just as the identity, or face of the ‘monster’ in this exhibition constantly changes.” (1) The entire repertoire consists of contributions from around 43 artists (a third of the works were commissioned for the Biennial) and several “mini-museums.” It features some of the most interesting Taiwanese artists such as Kao Chung-Li (高重黎) whose “Taste of Human Flesh,” an audio-visual installation with slide show and audio cassette, reveals the story of his father who got shot during the civil war in China around 1948. The work employs a mixture of images including archival photos, footage, hand-drawn animation; the work is narrated from the point of view of the bullet that remains inside the father’s body, voicing an overall criticism on the political and economic mutations which are brought on in times of war, colonization and globalization. (2)

We also find Chen Chieh-Jen’s (陳界仁) latest project, “Happiness Building I,” about the generation that grew up in the period of neo-liberalism in Taiwan. The video is based on accounts of chosen individuals who are also protagonists in this video. It makes a portraiture that reflects both separate cases and a collective experience influenced by policies carried out in the name of freedom and progress (3).

Notably, Taiwanese photographer and journalist Chang Chao-Tang (张照堂) presents a selection of photos extracted from his photographic ouevre accumulated over about five decades. Characterized by a symbolic and poetic atmosphere, his photography wavers between the documentary and the realistic; life and death, motion and stillness. These opposing elements often co-exist in the images that implicitly reflect particular local circumstances or the inner states of people in the country. Such is also the case for Jao Chia-En (饶加恩) whose Arms series is composed of drawings of coats of arms with graphic elements and symbolic meanings drawn from different aspects of Taiwan (political, economic, and industrial) under different regimes — Japan, the U.S. and the Kuomintang. Through particular combinations of iconic details, the Arms series incarnates the medley of related ideological projections, cultural influences and the heterogeneous character of Taiwan’s history.

Echoing the central idea of the show — that fiction can be appropriated as a means to reveal obscure interstices beyond historical accounts — Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto’s video work “War of Java, Do You Remember #2” uses a dance ceremony called Cembengan as a starting point. Cembengan was developed by the plantation workers and sugar farmers in the mid-nineteenth century as an reaction to the Dutch who built sugar factories in the north coastal region of Java. The video shows dance ceremonies being conducted among the gigantic machinery of a sugar factory. This work uses the ritualistic and the spiritual to examine issues of capitalist exploitation and the country’s colonial histories.

Natasha Ginwala’s “Museum of Rhythm” (one of the “mini-museum” series of the Biennial) also investigates the positivist temporality and the linear progression of history. Apart from featuring various time-keeping devices in human history, the museum also represents temporal phenomena explored in the cinema: Eadweard Muybridge’s photos of animal movement (during the pre-cinematic era) and “Ontic Antics Starring Laurel and Hardy: Bye Molly” — a radical experimentation in cinematic temporality by contemporary experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs.

As a whole, the works and “mini-museums” in the Biennial act as “symptomatic mirrors” (4) which reflect different faces of these modern monsters and in doing so reveal the process, the causes and possible fictions which surround the myth of modernity and its construction.

Interviews of artists and mini-museum curators : http://www.tfam.museum/TFAM_Media/Default.aspx

1. See Sylvie Lin’s interview with Anselm Franke, http://sylvielin.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/interview-with-anselm-franke-curator-of-the-taipei-biennial-2012/#more-424.
2. Sylvie Lin, “Dissect the Image. Gaze upon the History-‘Cinema Otherness of Cinema’ : A Film and Art Exhibition of Kao Chung-Li,” http://www.atfm.asia/en/article.php?id=103
3. Sylvie Lin’s interview with Chen Chieh-Jen http://sylvielin.wordpress.com/2012/12/08/interview-with-chen-chieh-jen-part-i/.
4. Franke’s curatorial statement for the Taipei Biennial 2012.

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