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How the 11th Taipei Biennial Questions the Role of the Museum in Raising Ecological Consciousness

The latest edition uses interdisciplinary collaborations between artists, scientists and activists to highlight a new approach to exhibition-making

I arrived in Taipei fresh from seeing the Shanghai Biennial, already somewhat fatigued. In the face of current global crises, the fact that so many biennials remain preoccupied with art’s ability to bring about concrete change can feel almost narcissistic. The 11th Taipei Biennial, ‘Post- Nature: A Museum as an Ecosystem’, does not share that hubris; instead, it questions the public role of the museum in raising ecological consciousness.

‘Post-Nature’ is presented as a form of institutional critique, foregrounded by recent ecological theory that warns us of the impossibility of thinking about nature and culture as opposites. Theoretical propositions about symbiosis and interdependency are here reframed as methods for institutional and creative practice. Curators Mali Wu and Francesco Manacorda have invited 42 practitioners and collectives from the diverse and intersecting backgrounds of art, science, architecture and activism into Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), highlighting interdisciplinary collaboration and, in particular, activist initiatives engaged with local histories and relations. The result is a constellation of competing approaches spanning two of the museum’s floors and part of its basement, where speculative artworks elbow activist projects.

While the inclusion of a large volume of activist projects outside the traditional purview of art is admirable, it’s hardly innovative: after all, in recent years museums worldwide have expended great effort in incorporating diverse practices. This lukewarmness is also reflected in the abundance of large-scale ‘biennial artworks’, including Henrik Håkansson’s Inverted Tree (Reflected) (2018), the first work that greets viewers at TFAM. A new iteration of an ongoing series, commissioned for the biennial, the piece features a massive local tree hung upside down from the ceiling of the entrance hall, reflected in an expanse of mirror on the ground. It makes for a slightly disconcerting preface to a show ostensibly engaging with the human exploitation of nature.

Nicholas Mangan, Termite Economies, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Taipei Biennial

Delving further into the exhibition, I was more impressed by works with a speculative, scientific-cultural interdisciplinarity. Taking up its own gallery space on the first floor, Melbourne-based Nicholas Mangan’s Termite Economies (2018) uses a failed scientific project to build an allegory of human behaviour. In 2008, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization began researching termite behaviour in the hope of using the insects to locate gold deposits. In response, Mangan has created a series of 3D-printed plaster models finished with a layer of dirt, then perfectly sliced into cross sections to give the impression of termite mounds forcefully exposed by human intrusion. The sculptures, installed on purpose-built tables, are accompanied by four small monitors that play looped images of termite mounds – some culled from found footage, others shot by the artist in western Australia, together creating the effect of a dystopian lab. The models, in fact, combine features of termite-mound interiors and human mining infrastructure, proposing a sci-fi infused narrative that, one the one hand, suggests an affinity between human and termite social structures while, on the other, critiquing the utilitarian dream of turning biology into a predictive science for human (economic) advancement.

On the second floor, The Broadcast Project: A Many Splendored Thing of the Coconut, a Belle from Penang and the Secret Agent (2018), by Malaysia-born, Taipei-based Au Sow-Yee, is a room-sized multimedia installation that recreates the Southern Pavilion from the 1935 Taiwan Exposition, held by the Japanese government in commemoration of 40 years of colonial rule. Comprising archival documents of the original pavilion, video clips of a weeping horse and a sculptural component of coconut tree miniatures, Au’s elaborate stage set prompts us to reflect on the colonization of nature through the transportation of flora and fauna.

Yuan Zhuan Xiao and Jiao Shi, Indigenous Justice Classroom, 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Taipei Biennial

As one of the most effective means of environmental activism, documentary films are amply featured in the biennial; curiously, however, they seem to reveal conflicting ideological functions. Our Island – Documentary of Environmental Change in Taiwan (1980–2018), by the venerable Taiwanese director Ke Chin-yuan, consists of 21 films re-edited for the exhibition. The collection is a powerful survey of natural disasters that have taken place in Taiwan and the changing vernacular of local environmental activists. In contrast, Contact Prints of Baileng Canal (2018), directed by Huang Hsin-Yao and produced by the Taichung City Government Information Bureau, opts for visual splendor to pay homage to the titular canal. Tracing the water from its source – the Dajia River – to Xinshe, where the canal is built, the serene cinematography grants the audience a sense of human mastery over nature, rather than the exhibition’s thematic focus on interdependence.

As a stopover writer, I cannot give a comprehensive overview of the exhibition (can we ever?) – especially since a considerable number of projects by local activists were present only in the form of documentation. Displayed in two ‘Eco-labs’, these are meant to be activated by a series of workshops, forums and discussions throughout the exhibition period. While such an approach feels appropriate, the presentation of these projects on makeshift wooden structures and in limited, isolated spaces – in contrast to the generous room given to other artworks – is disappointing, as if the biennial’s critique did not extend to institutional display. Ultimately, perhaps, the biennial’s modest proposal for a new interaction between institution, audience and environment does not go far enough.

The 11th Taipei Biennial, ‘Post-Nature: A Museum as an Ecosystem’ runs at Taipei Fine Arts Museum until 10 March 2019.

Main image: Henrik Håkansson, Inverted Tree (Reflected), 2018, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Taipei Biennial

Alvin Li is a writer and contributing editor of frieze, based in Shanghai, China.

Issue 201

First published in Issue 201

March 2019
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