BY Simon Rees in Reviews | 01 JAN 08
Featured in
Issue 120

6th Taipei Biennial

Various Venues, Taipei, Taiwan

BY Simon Rees in Reviews | 01 JAN 08

Ziad Antor, Wa (2004)
All too often, international stopover curators pay little heed to the intelligence of the home audience or art community. But the 6th Taipei Biennial paid respect to its location by presenting works fresh to Taipei and integrating a significant number of local artists and concerns. Biennial curators sometimes forget that the home crowd may have existed for years without recognition beyond their own region, and therefore might have high hopes for the exhibition to produce a critical dialogue noticed at home and abroad. But word on the street in Taipei was positive, which dampened my initial scepticism about the focus on artists already associated with the curators. Like many recent biennials, this exhibition was essentially ‘about’ the host city. Curators Manray Hsu and Vasif Kortun imagined their exhibition as an enquiry into the neo-liberal redevelopment of Taipei in the time period since the launch of the Biennial in the late 1990s. Taipei is the world’s principal producer of Internet router and modem technology, and is prospering accordingly. As societies grow financially they tend to cede their menial labour to migrant workers, and the situation in Taiwan is no different. A number of works in the exhibition addressed the fate of immigrants from Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam who bear that burden. This was one of the Biennial’s enlightening aspects, as discourses of migration in art tend to concentrate on east-to-west and south-to-north movements, obviating east-east and south-south economies. I was unaware that mail-order brides or human sex trafficking were so prevalent in Taipei until I watched Chicken Soup (2008) by Mario Rizzi – a documentary video shot in Vietnam about a young Vietnamese woman forced into the sex industry in Taiwan (but who managed to escape home). The more widespread topics of urban redevelopment and encroachment of private interests on public spaces are addressed in site-specific projects located around the city such as Lara Almarcegui’s An Empty Terrain in the Danshui River, Taipei (2008), aimed at saving an inner-city wetland; Burak Delier’s Counter Attack: The Intervention Team (2008), a protest against shrinking indigenous community housing; and Jun Yang’s Contemporary Art Centre, Taipei (A Proposal, 2008), which promulgated the establishment of a contemporary art centre in Taipei. The Biennial’s principal venue, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, housed works by 43 of the 47 participating artists and artistic groups. The temporary walls within the museum were left raw or unfinished, producing a déshabillé effect. The show was divided into two thematic sections: the major part of Hsu and Kortun’s exhibition; and a section curated by Oliver Ressler, ‘A World Where Many Worlds fit’, a display of archival material and art works produced via artist-led social activism and focusing on actions conducted at the WTO, IMF, WEF and G8 summits since 1999. Fortunately, the curators included enough politically oriented work in the other part of the exhibition to avoid making Ressler’s contribution seem ancillary. There was also enough humour throughout the Biennial for a productive coexistence of comedy and realpolitik. Humour is too thin on the ground in most biennials, even in Taiwan, a region well known in Asia for its comic turn. Luckily it was in evidence here: the best-known Taiwanese slapstick performance artist Kuang-yu Tsui presented a new multi-channel video installation Invisible City: Taipari York (2008) in which domestic soap operas are played out in the shadows of architectural icons (the Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge), which are later revealed to be reproductions of these monuments, located in Taipei suburbs. In their respective videos, Turkish artist Nevin Aladag and Lebanese artist Ziad Antar compose DIY electronic music and home videos of rapping, break-dancing and singing. Aladag’s video Family Tezcan (2001) reveals that African-American street culture can be a potent source of self-transformation for a Turkish family displaced in Germany. Antar’s combination of two children, a Casiotone and one note could easily be a chart-topper; titled Wa (2004), the video shows the kids with their synthesizer, singing ‘Wa’ instead of ‘La’. Both of these works reveal that talent and self-belief, even when possessed by six-year-olds, is potent enough to trump the excesses of Pop Idol and MTV, and provide a giggle. Dialectics of Subjection #4, Anetta Mona Chisa and Lucia Tkacova’s video of two Russian girls in their 20s lying in bed in their pyjamas discussing the relative sexiness of world leaders, is not your average yardstick: ‘George Bush’s eyes are too close together and he looks like a monkey. Tony Blair’s alright but his ears are too big. And as for Prince Charles his eyes are even closer than Dubya’s and ears bigger than Blair. Putin is just alright …’ It’s a refreshing reminder that the Internet generation doesn’t believe in what it reads and sees, despite the best efforts of makeovers and ‘spin’. Malaysian artist Wong Hoy-Cheong installed Maid in Malaysia (2008), a pristine suite of light boxes, in a downtown MRT station (the new Metro system symbolizes Taipei’s regeneration). It is hard to distinguish Wong’s light boxes from the regular commercial product – especially the one at the station’s entrance advertising his ‘0800-Super Maids’ from Southeast Asia (with requisite free-dial and Internet listing details), depicting a smiling child tucked under the arm of a flying and caped domestic crusader. The light boxes at platform level are more narrative than advertorial, each one showing another amazing service that a ‘super maid’ can provide for your day, ranging from the prosaic task of getting your child to school on time to the heroic act of disarming a group of gun-toting burglars. In this image, even the husband stands cowering behind his ‘super maid’. There’s the rub: economies of exploitation are emasculating and represent a failure of self-respect. One hopes that Taiwanese commuters are now wise to the fact that affluence and progress, such as the MRT that is endlessly celebrated on each station’s plasma screens, can generate some social ills – and contemporary art has a role to play in raising social awareness.