Third Taipei Biennial

Viewers entering the Taipei Fine Arts Museum were immediately confronted by Arena, 1997, Rita McBride’s enormous, semicircular sculpture in the form of curved empty stadium bleachers made of Kevlar. McBride put the viewers on stage, so to speak, in a performance of their own making and yet allowed them, if they wished, to sit down and take in the museum’s surroundings and the ongoing, ever-incipient play of others. This tension between potentiality and vacancy, between acting and watching, informed “Great Theatre of the World,” which took its title from a play by the seventeenth-century Spanish playwright Calderón. The biennial featured numerous works directly or indirectly involving theatricality and sought to extend the notions of “theater” and “world” to questions concerning globalization, simulation, and possibilities for political action.

Not surprisingly for an exhibition curated jointly by a Spaniard (Bartomeu Marí) and a Taiwanese (Chia Chi Jason Wang), this midsize biennial was dominated by European and Asian art. Much of it consisted of, or portrayed, stage sets—from Thomas Demand’s immaculate color photographs of architecturally inflected paper-and-cardboard scale models through Miriam Bäckström’s and Ursula Rogg’s photographic documents of TV or movie production sets to Shao Yinong + Muchen’s photographic series of once politically potent “assembly halls” in the People’s Republic of China.

Other works explored the theatricality of city streets: Chinese artist Song Dong’s three looped videos portrayed bustling crowds of people in Shanghai and Beijing shot through different kinds of mirrors; in Song’s powerful Broken Mirror, 1999, the artist shows himself suddenly shattering a handheld mirror with a hammer and catching the crowds’ curious but fearful reaction. In decided contrast, in a series of digitally altered photographs, Yuan Goang-ming, from Taiwan, presents the normally thronged Ximen district (Taipei’s Shinjuku or Times Square) as completely devoid of people; in order to create this impressive picture of city-street-as-empty-stage, he had to cut and paste over a hundred images of momentarily empty spaces.

Two artists, one from China, the other Taiwan—this national distinction is, of course, the subject of an ongoing (and quite theatrical) political standoff—exhibited videos portraying closed portals, offering brief glimpses of action behind their apparently still surfaces. In his allegorical Red Gate, 2002, Wang Gongxin, from Beijing, projects images of four sets of red doors on four screens, forming a rectangle around the viewer. The layout evokes the sihe yuan, the four-walled compound surrounding a central courtyard that until recently was typical for Chinese residences, first for wealthier families, then, after the revolution, for collective living. Sequentially, the doors open, revealing couples dancing, soldiers practicing marching, and glimpses of back-alley life, then shut again; the viewer, too, has to “dance” in a circle in order to take in the unfolding action. Young Taiwanese artist Wang Ya-hui presented a quiet installation that initially seems like an empty room but is actually a video of a white wall projected onto the museum’s white wall and surrounded by three “real” white walls. If we watch the screened wall long enough, and listen, it creakily opens a sliver, disclosing images of landscape, or twilight, behind it.

While a majority of the work in the biennial was camera-based, two painters and one digital artist offered quirkier, quieter versions of theatricality: Glen Rubsamen presented coolly lit, eerily artificial-looking landscapes; Naofumi Maruyama showed color-drenched images of his own, perhaps misremembered, childhood memories; and, using computer programmed LEDs to simulate, simply with red dots going on and off, a wounded-seeming figure “walking,” Jim Campbell exposed the core of cinematic perception while simultaneously resisting cinema’s aura. Campbell’s superb work, animated yet very still, preserves the viewer’s cognitive distance with which to examine his theatrical “sympathy” for the wounded. The Taipei Biennial, placing these various positions on theatricality on the “world stage,” offered one of those rare, felicitous liaisons of East and West—terms of power/knowledge that may themselves be facing curtain time.

Nico Israel