Life in the Fast Lane

Left: Taipei Biennial artistic director Nicolaus Bourriaud with artists Marlie Mul, Nathaniel Mellors, and Tala Madani. (Except where noted, all photos: Kevin McGarry) Right: Wu Den-yih, vice president of the Republic of China.

“IT’S IRONIC that the theme of the show is ‘accelerationism,’ when so much art made in Taiwan seems drawn from the experience of tropical slowness,” pointed out MoMA’s Stuart Comer the morning before the Taipei Biennial opened at the Taipei Museum of Fine Arts. Nicolas Bourriaud had titled his exhibition “The Great Acceleration: Art in the Anthropocene,” and as the terminus of the latest East Asian -ennial express (following stops in Gwangju, Seoul, Yokohama, etc.), many rising stars working at these intersections convened on the island formerly known as Formosa to put the French aesthetician’s theories into motion.

“When I was young, everything said MADE IN TAIWAN on it,” said Caroline Valansi of the Rio-based collective OPAVIVARÁ!. “Especially the Disney stuff.” Along with the back-and-forth colonial presence of Japan, China, and, fleetingly, Portugal, Taiwan’s manufacturing legacy has cast it as a place better known for propagating foreign cultures than its own. But nonetheless, Taipei has a thriving local art scene and a history of artist-run spaces that predates the arrival of the biennial in 1992.

The evening before the show’s opening, TheCube—a project space dedicated to sound and media art near National Taiwan University founded by curator Amy Cheng—launched an installation by Brussels-based artists Gast Bouschet and Nadine Hilbert. It was curated by Casino Luxembourg director Kevin Muhlen as the reciprocal end of an exchange between the two institutions. An island in its own right, albeit landlocked, maybe Luxembourg can relate to Taiwan’s hybrid singularity, though this show all but dispensed with cultural identity, mixing recordings of London’s Financial District and Iceland’s Eyjafjöll volcano eruption of 2010 into a discordant, black-and-white meditation on crisis.

Left: Artists Ian Cheng and Rachel Rose with the Fridericianum’s Susanne Pfeffer. Right: MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka with Stuart Comer, MoMA's chief curator of media and performance.

The next morning I joined Comer and MoMA colleagues Jenny Schlenzka and Yu-Chieh Li on a research tour around the neighborhood described to us as the Taipei “meatpacking district”—i.e., a light industrial zone once famous for sex trade, now ground zero for creative enterprises. The most established artist-run space of Taipei is IT Park, founded in 1988 on the second floor of a converted former English-language school. Lee Ming-Hsueh’s solo show there features an entertaining cast of readymades ranging from visual puns (a lowly lighter propped beside a taller hi-liter) to disorienting gimmicks (a flat-blade fan that only produced a sideways breeze) to vaguely socially charged juxtapositions (two bottles of popular cleaning agents, Mr. Muscle and Dr. White, locked in anthropomorphic negotiation).

At VT Artsalon we met impresario Sean C. S. Hu, whose corporation, Hu’s Art Company, seems to have a monopoly on independent curating in Taipei. He recounted the grassroots founding of his incubator, which counts more than forty artists, writers, and curators as key members. “In the beginning we just wanted a bar—we wanted to have fun. We raised money and made a nightclub, but lost a lot because we weren’t good at doing business. So we turned it into an alternative space, and the rest is history.”

That afternoon, everyone made their way through end-of-monsoon-season rain to the Fine Arts Museum, where previews were beginning for the biennial. We wandered past OPAVIVARÁ!’s languid installation featuring hammocks and tea, Po-Chih Huang’s endless rack of blue shirts, Marlie Mul’s slick resin spills imitating naturally occurring puddles of garbage, and Haegue Yang’s forest of hangers hung with lights, cables, and wigs, until we arrived at two heads—one Neanderthal, the other twisted into a monstrous face—by Nathaniel Mellors. Suspecting robotics, we tried to activate them. “Is it a Jordan Wolfson kind of thing?” Mul wondered aloud. And as if by the invocation of Wolfson’s name, the heads sprang to life, one growling, the other spouting pleasantries like a talk-show guest.

Left: TheCube founder Amy Cheng and artist Gast Bouschet. Right: Artists Harald Ancart and Maria Loboda.

“It’s not for claustrophobics,” remarked the Fridericianum’s Susanne Pfeffer as we stepped through the revolving yellow wall of Mika Rottenberg’s installation and into the viewing cubby for her video. While this particular work didn’t concern dough, plenty was on view a floor up in Anicka Yi’s work, a room-size plastic stomach of sorts encasing a suite of projectors and surfaces that were themselves ensconced in leavened putty. As the narrator of Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s film put it, summing up the biennial’s convergence of material absurdity and “post-human” ontology: “You can’t eat an air conditioner.”

Unfortunately for the legions of artists who worked overtime all week, you also cannot, at an event hosted by the Taiwanese government, serve alcohol. So by nightfall, the first wave of guests scattered out of the building, past an outdoor K-Pop concert that had attracted a crowd twice the size (and a third the age) of the biennial’s, and into the afterparty in a triangular cantina which, predictably, lasted into the wee hours.

The next day we slouched toward a panel about artists’ relationships to machines and nature featuring Maria Loboda, Mellors, Shimabuku, Yi, Yang, Kuo-Wei Lin, and Po-Chih Huang, moderated by Bourriaud and TFAM director Huang Hai-ming. Bourriaud argued that the anthropocene is “the end of the straight opposition between nature and culture, which is the core of European Romanticism.” Touching on the implicitly ecological rhythms of relational aesthetics, he also cited as inspiration for his show last year’s Parisian museum exhibitions of Huyghe and Parreno.

“Taiwan was for a long time the world’s factory,” said Huang, commenting on the stereotype that has shaped late-twentieth-century perceptions of his country. “We didn’t design the works, but in the limited space of the factory, we can address person-to-person collaboration and feelings—the warmth between people.” No matter the velocity or species of production, human relations still matter.

Left: Members of OPAVIVARÁ in their installation. Right: Artist Nadine Hilbert and Casino Luxembourg's Kevin Muhlen.

Left: Liu Wei-kong, chief of Taipei department of cultural affairs, with Nicolas Bourriaud. Right: Manager of FreeS Space, artist Isa Ho, and curator Sean C.S. Hu. (Photo: Kevin McGarry)

Left: Liu Chingtang, founder and director of IT Park, with Dai Hsiaotsi, manager of IT Park. Right: The opening of the Taipei Biennial.