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

Wed, Oct 10, 2018 - Page 13

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.


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.

The Kuandu Biennial uses a unique and heavily academic format, with every curator paired directly with one or two artists, making for a lot of discourse and discussion. In the current edition, installations tend to be full of documents, texts, photos, videos and other elements of historical narratives. There is not much of poetics or aesthetic beauty.

Yet the ideas are interesting. Curators and works address a multiplicity of “Asias,” the impossible unity of a continent named by the West and encompassing diverse cultures of the Mediterranean “Middle East,” the Indian “subcontinent,” “East Asia” and “Southeast Asia,” the difficulty of finding common history across the region, and vastly different experiences of “Asian” modernity.

The art itself uncovers quirky histories. In the photographic installation International Friendship: The Gifts from Africa, South Korean artist Che One-joon, working with Dutch curator Slager, explores the bizarre history of gifts traded between the governments of North Korea and various African nations during the cold war. The exchange has left numerous monolithic social realist statues of African leaders dotted across the African continent, and an equally bizarre collection of African tchotchkes in the collection of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung.

Taiwanese artist Chen Fei-hao (陳飛豪), working with curator Sandy Lo, looks at the history of Beitou as a hot springs brothel town during the Japanese colonial period, both through historical documents such as postcards and a guidebook listing the prices of prostitutes, as well as a video work called Love Suicide at Snow Melting Train. The video is based on the true story, from around 1900, of the forbidden love affair between a Japanese prostitute and a Japanese clerk at the Chamber of Commerce in Taipei. The couple committed suicide together in Taipei’s Dadaocheng area and were buried in a hiyokuzuka, or “lovers’ grave,” in a cemetery in San Banqiao near Tamsui. The story was adapted to the theater in Japan and became a popular tragic love story of that time. We now revisit this tale through Chen’s installation and 10-minute film.

Other historical or geographical examinations in the exhibition include Christoph Draeger and Heidrun Holzfeind’s installation on Auroville, a still existing utopian commune of 50,000 set up by Europeans in India in 1968, Taiwan’s Orchid Island, and Fiona Tan’s look at representations of Asia by the West, from Marco Polo’s memoirs to modern film and video clips.


The most delightfully irreverent work in the exhibition is Frenchman Rene Vienet’s 1973 film, Can Dialectics Break Bricks? (La dialectique peut-elle casser des briques), which overdubs a Hong Kong kungfu movie with the rhetoric of France’s 1960s radical politics.

It was one of the first films produced by the French Situationists, a group of avant-garde artists and social revolutionaries in the 1960s who sought to reveal the newly forming “society of the spectacle” through jarring juxtapositions. Vienet, a close associate of philosopher Guy Debord, also claims it was the first film produced by completely overdubbing an already existing film with new dialogue.

After one skirmish, for example, a defeated gang bemoans, “They have turned another proletariat! They made him a foreman, then he put down a union strike and bought a television on credit!”

“Woody Allen did something similar with What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966),” said Vienet, interviewed at the exhibition opening, “but I think it is the first film completely done this way,”

“I wanted to make a film, but I didn’t have any money,” Vienet said. “So I bought the film rights from a Hong Kong company for US$1,000 and simply changed the dialogue. It was just 400 lines of text. It only took me two days and it was finished.”

Now 45 years after its release, the film still views as a wonderful, absurdist comedy.

But what does all of this say about Asia and its contemporary art paradigms? The answer seems to point towards emphasizing cultural identities, which is to say, a key approach in this exhibition is about working through tangled histories in order to discover what sorts of local identities can function in a globalist context. Hardly incidentally, this is one of the most significant themes of recent decades in Asian contemporary art, including works of individual artists and large, critically oriented exhibitions throughout the region, including several biennials. At its core, the question perhaps boils down to this: How can we participate in a global system and still maintain a local cultural identity? For the international critics of the TFAM conference, this problem may seem a bit pedestrian, but Asia still has much history to come to terms with, and this is one way to start.