Taiwan first joined the Venice Biennale in 1995 to capitalize on an international opportunity — participation as a nation in what is considered the worlds largest and most prestigious non-commercial art exhibition — to raise the country’s profile and, in the parlance of today, boost its soft power.
“The national policy of ‘soft diplomacy’ … called for a proactive and dynamic foreign policy, including support for cultural activities abroad, making participation in this particular event a positive development,” write Chen Shu-ling (陳淑鈴) and Hu Hui-ju (胡慧如) in an essay, Venice Biennale: Reflections on the Taiwan Pavilion 1995-2007, published in the Taipei Fine Art Museum’s (TFAM) official catalog of the Taiwan Pavilion’s history. TFAM has been the official organizer of the pavilion since its inception.
Taiwan’s participation, says Tsai Ching-fen (蔡靜芬), TFAM’s then-deputy director, “demonstrates the Biennale’s forward-looking cultural tradition of transcending politics with art.” She added that Taiwanese art had broken out of its isolation “to engage in confident, meaningful dialogue with the art of the world’s nations.”
But this “soft diplomacy” and its perceived international conversation about art was, and remains, an illusion because right from the start Taiwan’s participation has been about its political representation abroad, rather than focusing on the quality, style and technique of the artists who represent it. For every version of the biennial, the Taiwan Pavilion has employed a kind of strong-arm tactic to draw attention to Taiwan’s international isolation, an all too obvious kind of coercion meant to evoke sympathy in the viewer, rather than any kind of aesthetic pay off. Soft diplomacy? Please.
It’s natural, of course, that with Taiwan’s uncertain position in the international community and biennial hierarchy — the country lost its nation status in 2001 due to pressure from China (so much for Tsai’s “transcending politics with art”) — as well as issues relating to Taiwan’s national identity, national unity and liberalizing political system, a certain degree of politicization was inevitable. But art has consistently taken a backseat to these considerations and has been subsumed by political discourses that employ a conceptual framework of art, and abstruse style of language to explicate it, that does little to engage the average art spectator and boost the nation’s (political) cause. And as the language has become increasingly rarefied under the influence of critical theory, so too has the art that language describes.
Moreover, the Palazzo delle Prigioni, the Taiwan Pavilion’s venue, chosen, again, out of political considerations, fails to attract the curators, critics, artists and art journalists who can create a stir in international art circles.
I traveled to Venice at the end of May under TFAM’s sponsorship to report on the Taiwan Pavilion, having first read the above-mentioned official history and spoken to art historians, gallerists and journalists in Taiwan about the nation’s participation in previous years. My initial plan was to write a story about this year’s three-artist exhibition. But the more I looked into the history of Taiwan’s participation, the more I realized that artists are not being well served by this international opportunity.