Sun, Jul 14, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Should Taiwan quit the Venice Biennial?

Only if organizers continue to use it as a soap box to thump on about the nation’s international isolation

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff reporter

The title of Esther Lu’s (呂岱如) curatorial project, This is not a Taiwan Pavilion (這不是一座台灣館), serves as a metaphor for the country’s international isolation, and revolves around using the three artists to “explore ... politics and narratives of subjectification,” in all its Foucauldian resonance of power relations.

“The title of this project brings us directly to these undisclosed contradictions of the phrase ‘Taiwan Pavilion,’ and also suggests a new proposal for the Taiwan Pavilion’s repositioning, as well as a break from its incoherent and impotent national representation,” she writes in her catalogue essay. So, as usual, politics trumps art.

And so we witness Seda and her collaborators hitting the biennial grounds with a map to randomly ask tourists to point out the Taiwan Pavilion’s location. Inevitably they can’t — and that’s the point, as if it needed to be made. The idea, of course, is to start a conversation about the country and its position at the Venice Biennale. But so what? Where’s the pith?

But at least Seda makes a conscious attempt to capture the attention of her audience — one, it has to be admitted, that was quite entertaining to watch as performance. Bernd Behr’s video installation, Chronotopia, looks interesting on paper (in the catalog) in that it uses three separate but joined narratives related to Taiwan — identity and migration, architecture and film — to reflect on the nature of history. But the single-channel video fails to engage. I have to admit, I couldn’t sit through the entire thing (though I read the transcript of it). Behr’s droning voice lulls the listener into a kind of torpor, while the choppy production values made the visual narrative difficult to follow — a statement about history’s contingencies, perhaps, but it flies in the face of our species’ obsession with organizing details into coherence. As with Lu’s curatorial statement, Behr’s video suffers from an excess of theory.

So too, Hsu’s investigation of boundaries — spiritual, national, regional, personal and imaginative — through his mixed media installation Marshal Tie Jia (鐵甲元師). Marshal Tie Jia, also known as the frog deity, escaped from China during the Cultural Revolution and found a new home on one of Matsu’s outlying islands. The artist presents the viewer with the process of trying to film on the island, along with several texts and objects associated with the deity. But the video is inscrutable because it employs a complex religious cosmology that left many visitors, including this one, scratching their heads.

Cutting the feet to fit the shoes

Walking out of the Palazzo delle Prigioni after attempting to watch Behr’s and Hsu’s works, a question, which I’d been asking myself over and over, struck me again: who is the audience for the Taiwan Pavilion? Is it the international curators, critics and artists who can boost the reputation of the exhibited artists and the show’s curator — and by extension TFAM, the Taipei City Government, Ministry of Culture and Taiwan? Or is it the thousands of tourists wandering past on their way to visit the famous Saint Marco Square who will (by osmosis?) all of a sudden become aware of and develop sympathy for this polity called Taiwan?

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