Break a Lag


Left: Tapei Biennial 10 co-curator Tirdad Zolghadr. Right: Tapei Biennial 10 co-curator Hongjohn Lin. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

JET LAG IS BORING, it really is. And it has become such a common feature of the biennial experience that the mere mention of it feels obvious, embarrassing, and trite. Still, three sardine-can flights and twenty-four hours of bleary-eyed, every-airport-is-uncomfortably-the-same travel for the opening of the Tenth Taipei Biennial on September 7, and I felt an irrepressible need to reread the first page of William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition, on which he lays out his (or his character’s) memorable theory of jet lag: “that her mortal soul is leagues behind her, being reeled in on some ghostly umbilical down the vanishing wake of the plane that brought her here. . . . Souls can’t move that quickly, and are left behind, and must be awaited, upon arrival, like lost luggage.”

Gibson’s theory came to mind more clearly after I nearly crushed the artist Claude Wampler, hidden in soul-reeling slumber beneath the cushions of a couch in the biennial press office, where I almost threw myself down to sleep. More still, after the wide-eyed wonder of seeing at least two sleep-starved artists struggling to install their work, screaming “Fuck-fuck-fuck,” and then tearing off at full sprint through the angular white-walled halls of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. And moreover, after a few distance-reducing days in Taipei, when a theme began to slowly percolate through the biennial itself, revealing itself to be, if not jet lag proper, then at least a curious and all-consuming interest in lag time––most palpably the lag between the last biennial and the next, but also the strangely elusive gaps and lulls between the initial stirrings and full expressions of an idea, a work, an exhibition, or an institution, which could also be called the slippery slope on which a radical or rambunctious initiative goes through a process of institutionalization.

One of the best things about this Taipei Biennial is the fact that curators Hongjohn Lin and Tirdad Zolghadr failed to name it. There is no title––cute or coy––to guide your way through the works on view or inform your reading of the strands that may or may not connect them. Another good thing: The biennial is small, incredibly small by today’s standards, with just twenty-four artists and thirty-eight works. Five pieces are part of the TB08 Revisited Series, for which Lara Almárcegui, Burak Delier, Irwin, Allan Sekula, and Superflex have reconfigured works they presented in the last Taipei Biennial, curated by Manray Hsu and Vasif Kortun. Eleven of the artists in TB10 are also part of a relatively novel two-year project that involves proposing works more or less now, presenting them at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in 2012, and in the meantime partaking in a long, intimate, and involved conversation on the potential for a productive relationship between the biennial format and the so-called educational turn in contemporary art practice. The two-year project is closely tied to the implementation of an artists’ PhD program at a local university, and some of the biennial’s participants have been invited to at least enroll in, if not fully commit to, the first flexing of that program.

Left: Artist Olivia Plender. Right: Istanbul Biennial director Bige Örer and co-curator Adriano Pedrosa.

Lest this sound like another staging of exhibition as art school, it’s worth noting that the biennial itself is far from academic or pedagogical. The preview days were delightfully shambolic, with little physical evidence of an impending biennial at all, save the occasional tantrums and technical difficulties. Swarms of backpacked schoolchildren flooded into the museum not for TB10 but for two other, competing shows: the Philadelphia Museum’s reliably blockbuster “Manet to Picasso” and a terrific retrospective, sunk down in the basement, for the Taiwanese video artist Chen Chieh-Jen. The day before the biennial opening, walls were still being painted and lightbulbs were still being screwed in. On opening day, artists were still tweaking and testing out their installations, their video monitors, their wall texts, all the while nursing their jet lag, or their hangover, or simply their other obligations in life. Down to and over the wire, the atmosphere was surprisingly jovial, and there seemed to be no pressure for showmanship or spectacle. All of that came later anyway, with the opening night rigmarole, when Lin and Zolghadr were made to endure the hilarious humiliation of being cued to speak by the sound track from Dallas (at least the DJ for the evening had a sense of humor) and everyone was fairly well lubricated by the promise of Free Beer, Superflex’s open-source, do-it-yourself beer-brewing project.

Inside the exhibition were twenty new commissions, ranging from Silvia Kolbowski’s triptych of prints with wall text and video loop titled A Few Howls Again? to Hito Steyerl’s Strike, featuring a smashed LCD monitor and video footage of the artist, hammer in hand, doing the damage (an act of fabrication, it turns out). A number of artists––including Shahab Fotouhi, Christian Jankowski, and Pak Sheung Chuen––subjected the museum and its management of the biennial to a bit of institutional critique (a strategy haunted by the specter of an alternative biennial being staged in explicit opposition to this one, at the newly formed Taipei Contemporary Art Center). Olivia Plender and Michael Portnoy gave relational aesthetics another spin. And according to Lin and Zolghadr, it was entirely unplanned that well more than half of the works included in the biennial are wrestling with other, older works––Kolbowski with Richter’s 18 Oktober 1977, Shi Jin-Hua with Beuys’s 700 Oaks, Mario García Torres with Michael Asher’s caravan that went missing from Münster in 2007.

Left: TB 10 volunteers. Right: Artist Hito Steyerl.

Lin sold himself and his biennial short when he said that because he and Zolghadr had only six months to put everything together, and did so in a time when the museum had no director, “maybe the best we can shoot for is a different biennial instead of good biennial” (to which Adriano Pedrosa, up to his eyeballs planning the next biennial in Istanbul, groaned: “What curator would ever say he wanted his biennial to be the same?”).

But it was Suhail Malik, giving a concise talk on arts education and resistance to the seemingly inevitable ascendance of the art PhD, who may have formulated the biennial best: Only exposure to other artists makes for better art. Lin picked up that thread and said, even more plainly: Artists learn from other artists, and from scholars they like. All of this was stating the obvious, to be sure, but it also cut to the simple, uncluttered core of where biennials and art schools could more productively meet.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie