For the 2012 Taipei Biennial, the entrance to the Taipei Fine Arts Museum is obfuscated by a giant white screen. It has been placed a few steps inside the main doors, so to enter the museum, you must step onto a narrow, elevated catwalk, which forces you to go either right or left. Once you’ve made it around this wall of blankness, you’ll find the museum’s galleries are no longer spacious and open, as they usually are. They have been cut down into a labyrinth of smaller rooms. TFAM is no longer a grand, modernist white-walled palace of art. You have entered a maze of what curator Anselm Franke calls “mini-museums.”
The exhibition, titled Death and Life of Fiction, opened yesterday at TFAM and the Shilin Paper Mill (紙場1918). It contains contributions from over 50 international artists and runs through Jan. 13 next year.
As you wind your way through, you will notice several things. There are thousands of objects in glass cases, and there are extensive pamphlets and captions. It could take days to read it all. There is hardly any sense of artistic style in the displays, and it is difficult to identify works as created by individual artists. There is little to be found of human sentiment.
Most of the objects on view are Duchampian selections — they were found by artists and chosen for us to consider. But departing from Duchamp, or perhaps in his original spirit, it is difficult to tell whether the objects are even intended as works of art. There are old magazines, old photos, photocopied pages of books, pretty rocks, medical equipment, clothing that may have belonged to suicide bombers and real and fake historical figurines. There are also lots of videos, some of them newly produced out of archival footage, while others are pure historical documents, like Peter Watkin’s 1965 film about the effect atom bombs would have on Britain, The War Game.
What: Taipei Biennial: Death and Life of Fiction
When: Until Jan. 13. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 9:30am to 5:30pm and until 8:30pm on Saturdays
Where: Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM, 台北市立美術館), 181, Zhongshan N Rd Sec 3, Taipei City (台北市中山北路三段181號), tel: (02) 2595-7656
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In many ways, entering this biennial is like exploring Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel. In the short story, Borges imagined an infinite library of identically shaped rooms, each holding a certain number of identically bound books. The books contained every permutation of every alphabet, so a very few volumes contained ultimate wisdom, while most were just gibberish.
Franke, a Berlin-based critic and curator helming his first large biennial, has created this exhibition out of an awareness of some obvious shifts in the artworld landscape. When the Taipei Biennial launched in 1998, it was one of the first international biennials in Asia and attracted considerable international attention. Since then, the number of international biennials has mushroomed, and Taiwan’s biennial has been overtaken by lavishly spending biennials in Korea, Singapore and Shanghai. The Taipei Biennial’s budget is around NT$40 million and has not increased in a decade, and as a platform for international recognition it has steadily fallen off.
The rise of art fairs is another monster trend of the last decade. Fairs have popped up all around the world as giant shopping centers for expensive art, and most of it tends to be easily collectible paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs. Biennials have reacted against this elitist, commercialist trend by becoming more theoretical and academic, and by showing video, installation and other forms that auction houses don’t dare to sell. Biennials have also championed critical statements, and the norm is now for curators to produce a biennial as philosophical exposition on nothing less than the state of the world today.