Mapping the Taiwan Pavilion
An incorrect assumption to make about the Taiwan Pavilion is that it’s primarily concerned with art and artists. Sure, there are artworks on display, but they are just window dressing for the real issue: Taiwan’s lack of international recognition as a nation. A consistent feature of every catalog essay about the pavilion is to state that art is its raison d’etre, and then expend significantly more space discussing, typically political or cultural/theoretical issues, unrelated to art. And so we don’t read about the aesthetics of art, but the politics of art.
With the 1995 (Art Taiwan), 1997 (TAIWAN TAIWAN: Facing Faces) and 1999 (Close to Open: Taiwanese Artists Exposed) pavilions, the themes revolved around identity politics and localization. As art critic Lin Chi-ming (林志明) has pointed out, none of the “selected artworks, exhibition themes or catalog essays were able to avoid focusing on or explicating Taiwanese subjectivity, what Taiwan is, Taiwanese (art) history and Taiwan’s present situation.” Like Narcissus, the Taiwan Pavilion saw its reflection, and was transfixed with its own identity.
But the spell was partially broken in 2001. As a condition for its entry into that year’s biennial, China demanded that organizers demote Taiwan’s “nation status” to that of “collateral” participant. And so biennial organizers, like many other international events receiving pressure from Taiwan’s authoritarian neighbor, did.
The venue for the Taiwan Pavilion remained the same, but the focus shifted to include themes that were perceived as more global in scope: human affairs (Living Cell, 2001), for example, liberty (The Specter of Freedom, 2005), international relations (Foreign Affairs: Artists from Taiwan, 2009) and the politics of sound (The Heard and the Unheard — Soundscape Taiwan, 2011). But these themes were expressed through the lens of Taiwan.
Additionally, organizers have consistently stuck to the same old formula of the group exhibition, rather than the solo show. This is a shame because group shows are notoriously difficult to organize into a coherent theme related to art. It’s equally unfortunate because Taiwan has a surplus of artists who could represent the nation beyond local issues while dealing with their respective mediums in innovative ways.
Chang Chien-chi’s (張乾琦) photos of mentally disabled patients at a sanatorium shown at the 2001 biennial, for example, or Chen Chieh-jen’s (陳界仁) 1997 “computer paintings” that depict torture scenes, both express something fundamental about the human condition and would have represented teh country well, especially within the venue’s confined space.
Two outstanding shows at this year’s biennial — Richard Mosse’s The Enclave (pictured) for the Irish Pavilion and Sarah Sze’s sculptural installations (pictured) for the US Pavilion — illustrate what can be done with solo exhibitions. The former, a six-channel installation based on the three years Mosse spent photographing roaming rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, forces us to re-evaluate our notions of war photography, while Sze’s phenomenally intricate installations map human creativity.
Gimme some art
Taiwan’s participation this year differs from previous years in that two of the commissioned artists — Bernd Behr of Germany and Katerina Seda of the Czech Republic — are non-Taiwanese. The third, Hsu Chia-hui (許家維), is. Inviting artists from overseas should have been an ideal opportunity to evaporate the incessant reflective gaze that has come to characterize the Taiwan Pavilion. And the event’s overall theme for this year, The Encyclopedic Palace, offered a perfect context within which to ponder the ways in which “images have been used to organize knowledge.” Well, it didn’t work out that way.