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Issue 241

Trailer for a Spectacle: Taipei Biennial 2023

At the Fine Arts Museum, the greatest delights of ‘Small World’ are artworks that play with an absence of body or sound

BY Sean Burns in Exhibition Reviews | 01 DEC 23

‘Small World’, the title of the Taipei Biennial 2023, contains both a promise and a threat. It speaks to a stricken, shrinking and interconnected planet but also to a sense of insularity, intimacy and proximity. As with most biennials, the size of the curatorial task at hand – structuring a sprawling show across three floors of the Fine Arts Museum, featuring 58 artists and 120 individual works – calls for a conceit broad enough to feel encompassing but specific enough to hold critical sway.

This iteration – curated by Freya Chou, Reem Shadid and Brian Kuan Wood – errs towards a looser application of curatorial authority in a refreshing departure from the more theoretical approaches adopted by previous curators, such as Mali Wu and Francesco Manacorda in ‘Post-Nature – A Museum as an Ecosystem’ (2018). Here, the recurring motifs are scale, circularity, sound – or lack of – and anti-spectacle. The works that obfuscate notions of spectacle by engaging with absence (of body or noise) offer the show’s greatest delights, cleverly conveying to the audience the curators’ awareness of the double-bind of the biennial format, which often seeks to achieve too much under the rubric of a city or nation.

Nikita Gale, PRIVATE DANCER, 2020, lighting truss, moving head LED lights, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum

One such work is Nikita Gale’s Private Dancer (2020), in which the armature and apparatus of technical stage lighting silently plays out in the confines of its own room. Programmed to accompany a soundtrack of Tina Turner’s ‘Private Dancer’ (1984), the spotlights evoke a private performance that takes place whether witnessed or not, suggesting these inanimate objects possesses their own agency. White circles cast around on the walls, reminiscent of the opening credits of a James Bond film. What happens when we remove the main event (in this case, Turner) and the supporting infrastructure becomes the focus?

Nearby, a deconstructed vinyl turntable hangs above a yellow square of carpet in an almost shrine-like composition. Transformer (2023) by dj sniff, the alias of artist Takuro Mizuta Lippit, is a devotional scene dedicated to another musical great: Grandmaster Flash. As well as being a respected DJ, producer and key figure in the evolution of hip-hop, the New York musician is also a keen and often overlooked amateur engineer who personally developed hardware (including the Gemini Flash Former, 1988) for manipulating and amplifying sound. 

Nikita Gale, GRAVITY SOLO I: HYPERPERFORMANCE, 2022, plexiglass box, amp, keyboard, synthesizer, calcite and stereo audio, 56 × 56 × 31 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Petzel Gallery, New York

dj sniff has taken apart elements of equipment developed by Flash to emphasize and celebrate his contribution to music. However, like Gale’s work, the piece feels thwarted: the needle arm of a Technics turntable is superglued to The Hellers’ album Singers, Talkers, Players, Swingers (1968) while the mat beneath it simply spins. In another corner, a second album is perforated with a safety pin, which affixes it to the deck. These often-fetishized vinyl discs appear, on closer inspection, ham-handedly fucked up. The resonant drone of an unrealized electrical signal remains, and a recording of music critic David Toop reading a passage from his book Rap Attack (1984) quietly spills from a hanging, one-armed, busted set of headphones. It’s intentionally funny. 

Nearby, a 2000s television plays Artemio Narro’s Rambo (2001), a re-edit of the 1982 Sylvester Stallone film First Blood with the violent interactions removed. The spectacular core of the movie, with its greasy pomp, is cut out, and what remains is Stallone pottering around in caves and jungles with little purpose but to model the macho drag of action films – sweaty headband, flaming torch, etc. I leave reflecting on the curators’ use of humour to avoid the pitfalls of sterility.

dj sniff, Transformer, 2023, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum

‘Small World’ is perhaps most literally embodied in Aditya Novali’s sculptural work The Wall: Asia (Un)Real Estate Project (2023), a dystopian doll house of tiny room dioramas that occupies almost an entire wall, responding to the lack of affordable housing for Indonesia’s low-income communities – a subject resonant in most global metropolises. The joy of this work lies in moving between the windows, exploring the set pieces in each: one contains a pool of plastic blood in a little rocky landscape, another a prison-style metal bed on top of which sits a book titled Tinder, Grindr and Us. ‘We’re thinking about strange intimacies with machines,’ Wood tells me as we tour the show, referring to his curatorial collaborators. I think back to the tiny book and how the proliferation of social media is often quite dull when transmuted into physical artworks, though that’s not the case here. 

In the next room, two red calcite rocks appear to ‘play’ a synthesizer in a clear Perspex box: its signal passes through an amplifier, a controller and a speaker. Another work by Gale, GRAVITY SOLO I (HYPER PERFORMANCE) (2022) is accompanied by a wall text telling us that calcium is the fifth most abundantly occurring mineral on earth. This satisfyingly self-reliant work appears alongside Patricia L. Boyd’s Operator (2017–ongoing), the self-containment of which provides little invitation to engage. It consists of repetitive and erratic footage of theatre floors shot using motorized camera rigs designed to scan black-box spaces. Boyd re-edits the film, we’re told, for each presentation according to the fee she has received for the show – information I’m not entirely sure what to do with.

Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork, Not Exactly (Whatever the New Key Is), 2017–ongoing, PVC tarpaulin walls, centrifugal blowers, Arduino microcontroller, MIDI and trigger relay, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Downstairs in the basement, things come undone a little. The coherence of the first floor and the flair of the second give way to a few fun but too frivolous decisions. The most apparent being the Music Room, which, when I visited, was silent. A tiered, tear-shaped, blue-carpeted seating area, designed by ANASTAS Studio, occupies the centre of the space. Whereas Gale and dj sniff successfully invert the notion of spectacle in their nuanced works, this space gestures towards the antithesis. While the Music Room will host several public programme events, including a performance by dj sniff, it felt like a slight missed opportunity not to have commissioned audio for the many non-event days.

Taipei Biennial opening, 2023. Courtesy: Taipei Fine Arts Museum

‘Small World’ has a feeling of lightness about it that I like. The curators haven’t been afraid to programme idiosyncratically (one room contains a spirited small survey of Taiwanese maverick Li Jiun-Yang, replete with glow-in-the-dark drawings and bespoke musical instruments) and according to their fascination with sound and its relationship to visual art. The show contains some exceptional works, none more exciting than Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork’s Not Exactly (Whatever the New Key Is) (2023), about whom Wood quips: ‘You can tell she’s a club kid.’ It’s a searing installation of ominous black, rubbery walls inflated by six air pumps. Resonant frequencies from the pumps blast out of six speakers in a play between muscularity, circularity and softness.

Biennials can often feel like exhausting gauntlet runs. However, there’s a strong sense here that Chou, Shadid and Wood had fun with the proposition while remaining attentive to the location’s unique specificities. In Taiwan, the impetus to crystalize the optics of a national identity and galvanize the island’s autonomy has never been more urgent. Art can certainly – though not unproblematically – be a way to do that. ‘Small World’ triumphs in the charmingly reluctant moments when it appears to toy with the expectations of the occasion.  

‘Small World’, the Taipei Biennial, is at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum until 24 March 2024. 

Main image: Aditya Novali, The Wall-Asian (Un) Real Estate Project, 2023, wood, resin, aluminum, steel, copper, plexiglass, fabric, LEDs on 133 rotatable triangular tubes, 380 × 25 × 180 cm. Courtesy: the artist, ROH, Jakarta and Taipei Fine Arts Museum

Sean Burns is an artist, writer and assistant editor of frieze based in London, UK. His book Death (2023) is out now from Tate Publishing.