Taipei Biennial 2012 Review

With more than forty artists, Taipei Binennial 2012 is one of the most successful in its fourteen-year history. During my interaction with the art community in Taipei, many artists and curators appreciated curator Anselm Franke for a commendable job, while admitting that they had not expected this level of understanding of the Taiwanese context from a European curator. Spread over three floors of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum and a nearby paper mill, including archival images, documentary footage and many vitrines, the viewing of the biennial requires deep intellectual engagement.

Taipei Biennial

Modern Monsters/ Death and Life of Fiction: Taipei Biennial 2012, is Franke’s take on the role of fiction in historical narrative. Evoking the fierce, ancient Chinese monster Taowu,  who has the ability to look at both the future and the past, Franke has intelligently situated the biennial in the present while looking at the past and predicting the future. Not to mistake time as a linear progression, various works in the biennial present various histories – fiction, facts and fictious facts – that together illustrate the present while giving different, future possibilities. The theme of multiple histories, stories, narratives, media and vocabularies is echoed in the visual identity of the biennial as well. Implying contradictions through constant, shape-shifting expression, the typeface , created by Zak Group, represents the movement of the Taowu monster.

Triptych20Century_YG_ARL             Parallel_HF

Franke’s use of fiction denotes the compositional elements of the modern world: economy, culture and beliefs. Fiction is not only the stories on which our histories are based, but the realities by which we recognise modern life. Franke’s interest in linking fiction with historical narrative exposes the deep relation they share with violence.  Colonial accounts, anthropological studies and political events presented in the biennial show the inherent place of violence in history. Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi’s Triptych of the 20th Century is a five-channel video installation that shows consequences of war. The stunning visuals of one of the earliest brain surgeries is juxtaposed with nervous disorders as psychological effects of war; USA’s post-war consumerism is put alongside visuals of starvation due to war. They are projected on large screens that overwhelm the viewer with history. Harun Farocki’s Parallel draws our interest to changing imagery with technological progress. This two-channel video installation shows computer graphics and animation parallel to cinematic and photographic images. The videos show that in a matter of thirty years computer imagery has leaped to simulate reality including the creation of social dynamics as seen in computer games. Investigating this ongoing theme around control and manipulation through digital media, the work looks at the hyper-real future while considering the possible violent destruction of cinematographic images.

TimeOfNoShadows_CCTang           MarshalTieJia_CWH

Chao-Tang Chang’s images in Time of No Shadows mirror the history of Taiwan. Photographs taken between 1959 and 2004 give the feeling of a detached nation much less aware of its history as it moves faster into the future. The images, as described in the biennial brochure, “capture … the sceneography of an historical experience” depicting layers of Taiwan’s history. Continuing this interrogation of history, artist Chia-Wei Hsu redraws the history of a tiny temple on a small island off the coast of Matsu in his work Marshal Tie Jia. The temple was relocated to a larger island when Chinese military leader Chiang Kai-Shek retreated to Taiwan. The video shows an old man singing a tale of World War II in the temple. As the camera zooms out, one realises that the man is singing in front of a green-screen (chroma key) while the temple is a reconstruction that was inserted only in the post-production. Revising history, Chia-Wei dupes the viewer of the visual triumph of seeing the Qing dynasty temple. Re-created by the artist, the temple is nothing more than a fictionalised account of what the temple might have looked like.

TheUnfinishedConversation_JA            HapinessBuildingI_CCJ

London-based artist John Akomfrah’s The Unfinished Conversation sets to illustrate multiple narratives around cultural theorist Stuart Hall. The three-channel video installation juxtaposes various speeches, conversations, photographs and interviews of Hall as a child and student activist, with images from Europe during 1950s and 60s. This gripping work brings alive the spectres of race and ethnicity through Hall’s personal journey. As history flashes on the screen to give us the understanding of the ever-changing relation between subjects and history, one can’t help but wonder what makes up our history and how much of it is our own. Another attempt at visualising history has been done by Chieh-Jen Chen in his film Happiness Building I. Shot in the actual setting in Taipei where a residential complex is being torn down to make way for a commercial building, Chieh-Jen refers directly to a collective experience of history. The film is beautifully shot and is based on short stories written by authors of the Taiwanese generation born in 1980s, who reflect on the instability of their anxious lives. Each frame of the film depicts pieces of each person’s story  with very slow, controlled camera movements tracking from one end of the frame to the other, reflecting the craving for ‘happiness’ in each of their lives.


Calcutta Served as a basis for British Expansion in the East by Joachim Koester researches the opium trade between the British East India Company and China. Texts and two photographs illustrate the omitted history of opium-trade that has made many families a fortune in Calcutta, and many people opium addicts in China. The photographs refer to the monumental colonial past that is unearthed in this contemplative piece.

A selection of six mini museums, each organized by different curators, has given a range of perspectives to the larger theme of the biennial. The Museum of Crossings is devoted to the crossings of borders; The Museum of Gourd is about different uses and meanings of the gourd since ancient times; The Museum of the Infrastructural Unconscious unpacks the form of different contemporary polities; The Museum of Rhythm investigates rhythm-analysis as a potential knowledge field; The Museum of the Monster that is History  looks at the violence on which modern states and social orders are based; The Museum of Ante-Memorials asks questions about the function of a memorial and its relation to the past and future. Summing up the Asian context by borrowing European history, Anselm Franke has aptly placed the current global turmoil in a different light. Immersed in the uncertainties of the world, the artworks call for a re-negotiation of common narratives, relations and histories. Just like the Taowu, Franke shows that a “de-monstering” of history is required for better understanding in the making of a future. With artists’ works from all over the world, Franke has created the largest edition of Taipei Biennial which will be a challenge for the next.