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What can an Asian biennial do?

The Kuandu Biennial asks questions about Asia and the potential of its contemporary art

By David Frazier  /  Contributing reporter

Installation view of the Auroville Project (2017).

photo courtesy of Kuandu Biennial

Four years ago, a conference at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) was organized to ask a very interesting question. It was titled “An Emerging Paradigm Derived from the Asian Biennials?” The discussants, composed of about a dozen mostly Western art critics on a fairly limited tour of four biennials in Taiwan and South Korea, were unfortunately stabbing into the wind with their answers. The great irony of their attempt was to seek uniquely non-Western characteristics for a form –– the biennial –– that had been transplanted from the West and whose entire discourse is built on the history of Western thought, especially the modern and postmodern academic traditions of France and Germany.

Really, what would they hope to find that was uniquely Asian? Could one imagine a biennial of contemporary art that derived from ancient Asian thinkers like Confucius or Vedic traditions? And even if such a contemporary art was possible, would these Europeans and North Americans have the vocabulary to intelligently discuss it? Or, could these critics somehow accept Asia’s really existing anti-liberal political philosophies, such as the “Asian values” of Singapore and Malaysia, Xi Jinping (習近平) Thought (Chinese authoritarian capitalism) or other similar ideas that are anathema in liberal Western academies? Or perhaps more plausibly, were they hoping to find some new offshoot or hybrid of the Western critical tradition that describes the novel experience of contemporary Asian societies? For example, could there be an exciting and uniquely Asian sequel to post-colonialism?

The Holy Grail of such an Asian paradigm would also need to stretch across at least several of an incredible diversity of Asian countries, cultures and languages, and for there to be an actual discourse, it would need a lingua franca –– probably but not necessarily English.

In the opening paragraph of the conference essay that launched “An Emerging Paradigm Derived from the Asian Biennials?” Marek Bartelik, President of the International Association of Art Critics, admitted that the game was fixed. Asia’s biennials, he wrote, “heavily rely on the Western Enlightenment approach to art and culture, and because of that prevent a new paradigm to emerge.”

The conclusion of these international critics seemed to be: So we came, poked around a bit and didn’t find anything. Now we’re going home.

ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

But this should not be a moot argument, and here in Asia, it is certainly not going away. Questions about Asia and the agency of its biennials are once again being asked and in a more positive spirit at a new exhibition, the Kuandu Biennial in Beitou. Titled “Seven Questions for Asia”, it seeks to frame better questions, including “what an Asian biennial can do and cannot do.” The exhibition opened last weekend at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts and runs until Jan. 6.

The exhibition’s chief organizer, Hongjohn Lin (林宏璋), Director of the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, has organized the exhibition as a series of questions about Asia that are posed by its participants, including seven curators who are paired with 13 artists from both East and West. Curators include international academics, including former Shanghai Biennial co-curator Henk Slager, ICA Singapore director Bala Starr, Turkish curator and critic Ali Akay, German curator Ute Meta Bauer and Taiwanese curators Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo (羅秀芝) and Yang Kai-lin (楊凱麟). Lin has previously served as curator of Taiwan’s 2007 Venice Bienale pavilion and co-curator of the 2010 Taipei Biennial.

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