Modern monsters at the Taipei Biennial

One of the most influential and conceptually engaging exhibitions in the local Asian art scene as well as the global sphere, the 2012 edition of the Taipei Biennial was led by Anselm Franke, who discusses his curatorial approach and integration of representation into a conceptual framework.

A beautiful, endless green landscape is not as innocent as it looks. While the city of Taipei expands, its relationship to the rural environment constitutes a vital knot in understanding neoliberal urban restructuring. As a friend describes it, the surveillance and social sphere of Taiwan form a "condition of naked life". Half an hour away from Taipei, via newly constructed highways, lies the small town of Pinglin, known mainly for its green tea farming. However, another highway with a different route now crosses near the border of the town, hindering the business of green tea. The tea farmers have fewer possibilities to sell their products.

By collaborating in a team of students with these farmers, a new form of participatory education is being established by Sheng Lin Chang, a professor at National Taiwan University's Graduate Institute of Building and Planning, as well as the director of the New Ruralism Research and Development Center. In addition to running workshops and studios in the green tea fields, her team, including Brad Huang (the General Secretary of the Chinese Wild Bird Federation), created the Blue Magpie Tea brand to raise awareness of a diminishing bird population native to the mountains in the region. Sheng Lin, an urban planner and activist, uses the word "agri-action" to describe her work with students and farmers to build the Pinglin Satoyama Center, as well as the broader application of research tools to increase awareness of rural and ecological diversity threatened by urban development and the construction market.

The extent of the work of such architects and planners, not only present in rural space but also directly involved with local conditions, was illustrated in Life of Particles (2012) at the Taipei Biennial, one of the most influential and conceptually engaging exhibitions in the local Asian art scene as well as the global sphere. In the film, a Japanese rice farmer speaks on the free formation of subjectivity and the energy of nature. This is part of the ongoing research and practice of artists Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato on subjectivity, animism, everyday life practices, and the French psychotherapist and philosopher Felix Guattari.
Above: Andreas Siekmann, <em>Trickle down—Public Space in the Era of its Privatization</em>, 2007/2012. Above: Hannah Hurtzig, <em>The Waiting Hall. Scenes of Modernity,</em> 2012, installation and performance
Above: Andreas Siekmann, Trickle down—Public Space in the Era of its Privatization, 2007/2012. Above: Hannah Hurtzig, The Waiting Hall. Scenes of Modernity, 2012, installation and performance
The exhibitions of the Taipei Biennial have fostered political and social reflections of recent society. This latest edition, titled Modern Monsters/Death and Life of Fiction, was curated by Anselm Franke, who for many years engaged in academic and curatorial research on the relation between subjectivity, animism and biopolitics in the fields of art and architecture (featured also in the Summer 2012 Animism issue he guest-edited for e-flux journal). His criticism of modern history is grounded in a combination of Asian and Western perspectives. I spoke to Anselm Franke about the curatorial approach and multimedia exhibition design, as well as his integration of representation into a conceptual framework.
Jompet Kuswidananto, <em>War of Java, Do You Remember? #2</em>, 2008, video, B&W, sound, 7 minutes
Jompet Kuswidananto, War of Java, Do You Remember? #2, 2008, video, B&W, sound, 7 minutes
Anselm Franke: My main goal was to create a spatial grammar to support and structure the exhibition with a defined set of design elements. I collaborated with Zak Kyes on the design. We used two kinds of grey for the video spaces, black for the mini-museums and white for the artworks. Equally, we used three types of walls, and so forth. It is all very simple, giving an impression of an integrated whole with no pluralism of form. It is not a design that illustrates the theme — the monstrosity of modernity and modern history. It is important that the design structure is, in a way, "institutional", and that it could host other content. The effect is not monstrosity itself, but a sense of what it means to address this monstrosity within the format and confines of an exhibition and a museum. What kind of language or medium is an exhibition or museum? What can they positively express or articulate, and what remains latent or absent, even violently excluded? Can we use these exclusions dialectically?
Anselm Franke's criticism of modern history is grounded in a combination of Asian and Western perspectives
Anton Vidokle & Hu Fang, <em>Two Suns</em>, 2012, HD video, colour, sound. Cinematography by Marcello Bozzini
Anton Vidokle & Hu Fang, Two Suns, 2012, HD video, colour, sound. Cinematography by Marcello Bozzini
Pelin Tan: I think the installations are very well structured inside the museum, although the exhibition stimulates several different museum fictions exploring the criticism of subject-object relations. I find it a bit contradictory with the design of the exhibition in the museum.
Anselm Franke: A certain contradiction was intended! Internal contradiction is a very productive tool. It fictionalises the museum on the one hand and "musealises" this fiction on the other. The idea is to create a "clinical" museum that is also a sort of "delirium" of the museum, fixing form in order to mobilise it. This, indeed, reflects the theme of the biennial. We engage with a kind of monstrosity that shows itself by turning things upside down. The "Taowu" monster — our mascot, if you will — undermines human intentions by foreseeing and thwarting human plans, and hence turns good into evil, like the failed act of signification. Both on the structural level of the content and aesthetics of the work and museum narratives, as well as on the level of design, this monster has been translated into the principle of the Kippfigur ("reversible image") — the multistable picture where the perception of figure and ground can be exchanged. The entire biennial is full of multistable figures, and it attempts to make the visitor into one too.
Pak Sheung Chuen, <em>Taipei Notes: 2011.11.19–2011.11.28</em>
Pak Sheung Chuen, Taipei Notes: 2011.11.19–2011.11.28
Pelin Tan: The entrance of the exhibition, ironically, turns the audience into a moving image. What was your idea and approach?
Anselm Franke: The main idea of Hannah Hurtzig's installation was to make the visitors into shadows, to de-subjectify them, if you will. But you realise that only after the fact, when you turn back and see other visitors entering the biennial and becoming part of this shadow theatre. Taiwan is an extremely spiritual place, and the Taoist underworld is present everywhere, well organised and bureaucratic. In order to deal with it, humans have to engage in all kinds of transactions. The idea from my side was that the entire biennial is somehow an "underworld", and this entrance is the gate to the shadow world. There, negativity always rules supreme. The biennial was meant to be the counterpart to the Taoist underworld—a "modern underworld", on whose terrors rest the modern order.
Simon Fujiwara, <em>The Museum of Incest</em>, 2009–2010, mixed media installation, performance and guide. Courtesy of Simon Fujiwara and Collection Filiep, e Mimi Libeert, Belgium
Simon Fujiwara, The Museum of Incest, 2009–2010, mixed media installation, performance and guide. Courtesy of Simon Fujiwara and Collection Filiep, e Mimi Libeert, Belgium
In the last days of the biennial, the complexity and performativity of subjectivity emerged in Atlas of Asia Art Archive, a rhizomatic presentation using metaphor and mapping to transcend institutions, museums and archives. This project, the most recent work of Hong Kong-based artists and architects MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix), came out of their residency at the Asia Art Archive. By going over the entire archive, map Office has drawn a new spatial imagination and narrative through the artists and practices associated with Asia. Referring to Édouard Glissant, the writer and critic from Martinique, MAP Office describes the multiplicity of Asian art production as "an archipelago of related territories functioning in a composed yet diffuse geography… this reading would allow a possible representation of fragments of Asia in defining a new taxonomy of its contours".

Pelin Tan is a writer and editor based in Istanbul. Trained in sociology and art history, Tan is an assistant professor in the New Media Department of Kadir Has University, as well as an advisory editor of ARTMargins (MIT) and NOON, the Journal of Contemporary Art and Visual Culture of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Tan was an associate curator of the Adhocracy exhibition at the first Istanbul Design Biennial in 2012.
Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi, <em>Triptych of the 20th Century</em>, 2002–2008, video installation, colour, sound, 4' 50'
Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi, Triptych of the 20th Century, 2002–2008, video installation, colour, sound, 4' 50'

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