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

Sun, Jul 14, 2013 - Page 12

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.

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.

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?

Lu seems pretty clear: “This is not an art site, but a tourist site,” she tells me at the venue. She’s not the first to say so.

“The works chosen [are] largely those most suited to the layout of the Taiwan Pavilion venue — those that could integrate and bring out the best in the venue, but not necessarily the most outstanding works,” writes Chen and Hu in their introductory essay. So, as a Chinese expression has it, the feet are cut to fit the shoes.

Yet looking at Lu’s curatorial statement, and the displayed works, it is clear that the audience they want to attract are professional critics, curators and artists. The problem is, they don’t usually show up.

Should it stay or should it go

In an editorial headlined “Art Biennials: Heading South?” for the UK’s ArtReview, Chris Sharp writes that with over 100 biennials throughout the world, Venice is increasingly seen as no longer king of the hill.

“Venice is not necessarily where you are going to see what’s new. If you want to make discoveries … you’d be better off going to Taipei, Marrakech or Montevideo,” Sharp says.

When asked if Taiwan’s participation at the Venice Biennial is worth it, Lu says “not in its current form.”

“They are not helping artists, not helping the career of curators. [TFAM] invests so much money, but with very little benefit.”

Ultimately, the best way for Taiwan to boost its soft power is to reconsider what art can do and represent it in a solo exhibition of talent without raising political issues, unless they are somehow internal to the art itself. In other words: art should come before politics. Only then will it be able to attract the audience it wants while bringing in the intended benefits of international recognition.