…And Justice for All

Hanlu Zhang around Taipei

Opening performance at the eleventh Taipei Biennial by Mycelium Network Society. All photos: Hanlu Zhang.

AFTER ESCAPING THE GLORIES AND GLAMOURS OF SHANGHAI ART WEEK, I landed in Taipei on November 13, during election season, catching a break from the circuit of fairs and events for global art superstars. The subject more likely to be discussed among my art-world friends in Taiwan wasn’t who you bumped into at West Bund but who you were planning to vote for. If it’s true that Shanghai touches upon everything but local politics, Taipei is the opposite: There’s no way—and no need—to shun civics, anywhere.

Last December, Taiwan’s Legislative Yuan passed the Act on Promoting Transitional Justice; six months later, a panel was established to initiate investigations into the crimes and unjust prosecutions committed by the authoritarian Kuomintang rule against dissidents and other citizens from 1945 to 1992. I began my week by thinking through this history with artist Yunyu Shih, who gave me a tour around the new National Human Rights Museum. The institution, which opened this past March, is located in a former martial-law court house, where political prisoners were once taken into custody. Aside from formal apologies, legal investigations, and financial compensations for the victims, Yunyu, who is a project manager for an exhibition that recently opened at the museum, told me he thinks the task of transitional justice is a confrontation with “ghosts of the past” and possibilities of coexistence.

The next day, I visited the Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab (C-lab), a newly minted government-initiated art space that’s received criticism from some locals as a new model of gentrification. Formerly the Industrial Research Institute for the Taiwan Governor General’s Office, the space served as the Ministry of Defense Air Force Command Headquarters post–World War II until 2012. Today, C-lab is still referred to as kongzong (“airhead”), and it currently has a group show titled “Re-Base: When Experiments Become Attitude,” which explores the venue’s sundry histories. I toured the enormous yet underused complex to find all seven site-specific works, including Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ installations 100 Fortunes and Metafortune, both 2018,which feature text-based animations that loop nihilist sentiments such as “Please clearly see how reality crushes you” and “So, smile. It didn't go well but you're gonna be fine.” These words reverberated with the specters of past ideological slogans I felt lingering in the air.

Opening performance by Mycelium Network Society with seventeen local sound artists responding and augmenting the installation’s mycelial radio transmissions.

Opening the next day, the Eleventh Taipei Biennial includes a number of participating “artists” that are actually NGOs, activists, and community organizations—such as Ke Chin-Yuan + “Our Island,” Keelong River Watch Union, and Open Green. Among them, the Indigenous Justice Classroom’s presentation is particularly memorable. Here, a collective of artists from various backgrounds are advocating for the protection of native territories in Taiwan—a contentious debate ignited by a legal regulation passed last year that allows the state and corporations to occupy indigenous land. Their presentation, Ketagalan Boulevard Arena, 2018, at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum brilliantly recalls demonstrations in front of the Presidential Palace and introduces the audience to their creative approaches to gain support and popularize the issue. It was also through them I learned that “transitional justice” is an ongoing intersectional discourse, a conversation the biennial is attempting to join. Speaking about the show, which is titled “Post-Nature: A Museum as an Ecosystem,” cocurator Mali Wu told me that she believes the museum should take on the role of an advocator—and here it does.

However, the biennial as a whole doesn’t rush to blur boundaries between art and activism. Rather, it prefers a slower pace, giving viewers the chance to learn about long-standing practices. Several works are both progressive and poetic. Take, for example, the ongoing Migrant Ecologies Project by Lucy Davis, whose multimedia collages trace the “dna” and life stories of abandoned wood across Southeast Asia. In a similar vein, writer Wu Ming-Yi takes fiction writing and scientific illustration as means to narrate the stories of native Taiwanese flora and fauna in his trans-disciplinary installation Land of Hard Rain, 2018.

Artist Chen Chen-Yu and Samantha Shao.

For those tired of the traditional white cube and the overly scholarly biennial experience, the fifth edition of “Whiteumenta” is an antidote. After following the admission policy and paying one hundred kuai (for visitors from developing countries, and for those from developed countries, three hundred) and being stamped on the hand with an exhibition logo resembling a genome, I found myself in a former red-light-district basement space in the Zhongshan District. There, I encountered artist and curator James T. Hong, who, while giving a tour, asked: “There are Asian film festivals, African film festivals . . . so why not a White Man Film Festival?” The show includes works by artists such as Koki Tanaka and Sowyee Au (historical figures such as Kazimir Malevich and William Blake are also on the roster) and some speculative documents on racism, white supremacy, and white masculinity. Although the curatorial concept was more remarkable than the individuals works included, it extended the discussion of power, chauvinism, and decolonization to a planetary scale.

At the Golden Horse Awards (aka Chinese Oscars), held on my last night in Taipei, a controversy went viral. Fu Yue, winner of Best Documentary for her film Our Youth in Taiwan (2018), advocated for the country’s full independence in her acceptance speech. It was reported that most guests from mainland China were absent from the post-ceremony dinner in protest against Fu’s remarks. Chinese netizens blamed Fu for letting politics slide into an art context, but their comments seemed to miss the mark, with their overly literal definitions of art and politics—notions one didn’t find at the Taipei Biennial or in “Whiteumenta.”

Director of Taipei Fine Arts Museum Ping Lin and Director of Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts Yulin Lee.

View outside of “Whiteumenta.”

The opening of the eleventh Taipei Biennial “Post-Nature_ A Museum as an Ecosystem”.

National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts director Chi-Ming Lin.

Jeph Lo and Amy Cheng from TheCube Project Space and Taipei Contemporary Art Center’s Shih-yu Hsu.

Installation view of “Whiteumenta.”

Inside Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab (C-lab).

A view from the National Human Rights Museum.

Co-curator of the eleventh Taipei Biennial Francesco Manacorda.

Artists Ting Tong Chang and Chu ChunTeng.

Artist Terike Haapoja and writer Laura Gustafsson from the collaborative project History of Others.