Sun, Dec 26, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Examining the Taipei Biennial's highs and lows

A conflict between curators caused as much news as the art at this year's Taipei Biennial


The Taipei Biennial has garnered mixed reviews and triggered curatorial controversy.


The fourth international Taipei Biennial, held at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), closes Jan. 23 and has already become noteworthy for provocative work by well-known and emerging artists, as well as for the conflict that emerged between its curators.

Additionally, discussions arose about other problematic issues inherent in the exhibition's structure, such as not commissioning new works, its mediocre budget and its tight time schedule.

Why does the Taipei Biennial hold such global importance and carry such prestige? Isn't it just about pictures hanging on a wall in a museum? Why does it receive so much press locally and internationally? Why do people in the field get so impassioned over it?

This type of major art exhibition, held every two years, comes from the tradition of the 19th-century's fairs, which were aimed at promoting the advancement of the host country's technologies and achievements. The Venice Biennale is the granddaddy of them all, having started in 1895. Art biennials raise a city's profile, thus explaining the mushrooming of biennials around the world: Shanghai, Havana and Istanbul to name a few. Next year one begins in Luanda, Angola.

Non-Western countries are catching on to this strategy of bringing in big-name curators and famous artists to mingle with the local ones because it gives cachet to the local scene. International press coverage links the famous artists with the local artists, thus giving a huge jumpstart to the local artists' careers.

Biennials also help to strengthen the infrastructure of the local cultural situation by creating more chances for publications and press coverage and reinforcing the various professions of artists, curators, critics and arts administrators.

In Taiwan, the profession of contemporary art is fairly new. When the TFAM opened at the end of 1983, it was the first contemporary art museum in Taiwan and one of the pioneers of contemporary art in Asia.

Lin Mun-lee (林曼麗), the current National Culture and Arts Foundation director, was TFAM's director when she initiated the first international Taipei Biennial in 1998. Her choice of internationally renowned curator Fumio Nanjo reflected her sensitivity of choosing an Asian curator, one who was familiar with contemporary art from this part of the world. At that time, curators, artists and critics were only just beginning to travel and think about the world outside of their own backyards, so it would have been almost impossible to choose a curator outside of Asia.

Lin said that choosing the curators for the Biennial is a lot like matchmaking. The past three Biennials saw a kind of mentoring program between an experienced European curator and an emerging Taiwanese one. Yet, this time, it backfired, with no dialogue occurring.

"It's not that the formula is wrong, it's how it is done. How do you use the formula to make it work?" Lin said.

However, she believes the current direction of the Biennial is closing in on itself rather than opening up to the world as she originally envisioned.

The museum also plays a critical role between the foreign and local curators. Lin said it is the responsibility of the museum to consider how the combination of curators would work and that the museum doesn't have a system to analyze and improve the biennial.

Two of the artists in the exhibition agree. Lin Hongjohn (林宏璋) and Chen Chieh-ren (陳界仁) are compiling signatures from artists, critics, scholars and arts administrators to petition the Council of Cultural Affairs and Taipei's Cultural Affairs Bureau to ask for an overhaul of the Biennial.

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