the world seen from Taiwan

Taipei (Taiwan). Bringing together around sixty artists from around twenty countries, the 13th Taipei Biennale was designed by three young international curators: Freya Chou (Hong Kong, Taipei), Reem Shadid (Sharjah, Beirut), and Brian Kuan Wood (Le Cairo, New York). Open until March 24, the Biennale entitled “Small World” succeeds “You and I, we do not live on the same planet”, the 2020 edition that the philosopher Bruno Latour and the independent curator Martin Guinard had co -directed.

Taiwan and the prism of art

The documentary series by Taiwanese photojournalist Hsu Tsun-Hsu (born 1959) attracts attention at the start of the tour. In this series called The More We Get Together, the photographs integrate major political events and scenes of daily life in Taiwan from 1988 to 1998, throughout the decade following the lifting of martial law in place from 1949. This evocation also reflects the history of the Biennale which accompanied the democratic transition of the island. An event launched in 1998 in its current configuration, its origins date back to the 1980s following the inauguration of the Taipei Fine Art Museum (TFAM) in 1983, a unique place where each Biennale is organized. Biannual contemporary art exhibitions were held there for around fifteen years before turning into an international biennial.

Pilgrim in the Microworld (2023) by Hong Kong artist Nadim Abbas (born 1980) offers a metaphorical approach to the island’s geopolitical issues. This installation takes the form of a monumental integrated circuit, in reference to semiconductors of which Taiwan is the world’s number 1 producer. On one of the walls bordering the installation, we discover a selection of black and white photographs by Paul Virilio (1932-2018), from his series “Bunker Archeology (1958-1965)” on military fortifications built by the Nazis, adding a dark historical reference to the dystopian character of the whole. A symbol of the island’s economic and technological ascendancy, the work seems to remind us that the fight for control of these semiconductors can also constitute a threat to peace.

Other geopolitical issues emerge in Laji No. 97 (2023), installation by Filipino Pio Abad (born 1983). It highlights the ethnocultural proximity between the indigenous people of the island of Lanyu, south of Taiwan, and those of the Batanes Islands. However, the maritime border that separates the Taiwanese island from the Philippine archipelago is located on the “nine-dash line” that Beijing uses to claim its sovereignty in the South China Sea. Concerning the visibility of aboriginal cultures, let us remember that it has become a showcase for Taiwanese insularity in relation to mainland China. The first International Triennale of Austronesian Art was also inaugurated in the city of Pingtung, in the south of Taiwan, a month before the opening of the Taipei Biennale.

Nadim Abbas, Pilgrim in the Microworld2023, sand, steel, pigments, variable dimensions.

© Nadim Abbas

Toilets open to the rooms

This international dimension extends to the Middle East and North Africa with a notable number of participants from the region. Artists of Lebanese origin are particularly well represented with Lara Tabet, Nesrine Khodr, Raed Yassin. The latter (born in 1979) exhibits China (2012), a collection of seven Chinese blue-white porcelain vases from 2012. Created in the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, renowned worldwide for its production, these vases represent the clashes of the Lebanon War from 1975 to 1990. Lara Tabet ( born in 1980) also evokes Lebanon through a series of photographs on the country’s natural resources, integrating her scientific and artistic research on the subject. Artists from North Africa are also present, such as the Franco-Algerian Massinissa Selmani (born in 1980), one of those selected for the Marcel Duchamp prize in 2023, and the Egyptian Basim Magdy (born in 1977). Both explore violence, past and present conflicts.

In a more symbolic way, we note the presence of walls or partitions in several monumental installations, such as that of the American Jacqueline Kiyomi Gork (Not Exactly (Whatever the New Key Is)2023), or the Chinese Wang Wei (Mirror, 2023). In a more subversive gesture, Taiwanese artist Lai Chih-Sheng (born 1971) chose to remove one of the site’s partitions separating the toilets from the museum galleries, thereby opening the museum space to this normally hidden place. Titled 2B205 (2023), this creation in situ is driven by the flow of air produced by around thirty fans fixed in front of the WC.

A Biennale cautious in the face of political issues

The Biennale addresses subjects engaged in the contemporary world, but rarely in a head-on manner. This precaution can perhaps be attributed to the political-cultural ecosystem in which it operates. Freya Chou, who collaborated on the 6th and 7th editions in 2008 and 2010, specifies that it is a “city biennial” who is not interested in “national representations”. This editorial positioning tends to align with the administrative structure of the event which depends on the City of Taipei, just like the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. This clarification is of particular importance given the profile of Chiang Wan-an, mayor of the city elected in 2022. Member of the Kuomintang (KMT), the main opposition party to the elected president, he is also the great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek, the general who ruled Taiwan with an iron fist until 1975. Furthermore, Ko Wen-je, the third candidate in the presidential election, was himself mayor of Taipei from 2014 to 2022. Given the pre-electoral context of a tense election with very high stakes, the Biennale probably wanted to avoid any risk of political reappropriation.

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