Kao Chung-Li, The Taste of Human Flesh, 2010–12, image from a slide projection with sound, 15 minutes. From the Taipei Biennial 2012.

Kao Chung-Li, The Taste of Human Flesh, 2010–12, image from a slide projection with sound, 15 minutes. From the Taipei Biennial 2012.

Taipei Biennial 2012

Taipei Fine Arts Museum/The Paper Mill

Kao Chung-Li, The Taste of Human Flesh, 2010–12, image from a slide projection with sound, 15 minutes. From the Taipei Biennial 2012.

In The Monster That Is History, literary scholar David Der-wei Wang considers the taowu, an ancient Chinese monster described as “like a tiger with a human face.” This fiendish beast was made all the more ominous by its divinatory ability to see both past and future. Ancients cautioned others to “remember and recount [the taowu’s] wickedness so as to take precaution,” and eventually the taowu came to be seen as the embodiment of history itself. This, Wang argues, makes it an adept metaphor for both the violence of twentieth-century Chinese history and the literature that seeks to depict it.

Anselm Franke, curator of this year’s Taipei Biennial, takes up this premise in “Modern Monsters / Death and Life of Fiction.” With Wang’s book as its point of departure, the exhibition asks: If history has always been a monster, what new monstrosities has modernity wrought? Is the modern monster a different creature, and what does it take to face down the beast? The entirety of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, including six thematically distinct “mini-museums” distributed between the main site and an off-site venue housed in a repurposed paper mill, is given over to exploring this question.

Previous editions of the Taipei Biennial have come under heated criticism for their neglect of local community and history. Franke’s edition not only includes its fair share of Taiwanese artists—ten, to be precise—but directly confronts the island’s past. In one mini-museum, the Museum of Infrastructural Unconscious, archival records document the public and industrial processes—spanning vastly different political conditions—through which Taiwan was built. Kao Chung-Li’s The Way Station Trilogy, 1987–12, is a video biography of the artist’s ninety-three-year-old father. The work explores the intersections between his life and the broader currents of Chinese history, physically manifest in a bullet, acquired during a decisive battle during the Chinese Civil War and still lodged in his head.

This biennial often confronts systemic acts of violence, which Franke sees as driven by the ruthlessness of rationality. A collection of archival documents testifying to Taiwanese attempts to develop nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons (“Taiwan WMD,” a subset of “The Museum of the Monster That Is History,” compiled by James T. Hong, Tony Wu, and Kelvin Park) illustrates both the political and theoretical stakes in such processes: Taiwan is not officially recognized as a sovereign state, so its ambiguous political status exempts it from international conventions meant to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Ultimately, the exhibition seeks not only to animate the monster that is history but to declaw the beast. The Museum of Ante-Memorials imagines scenarios in which the creation of memorials might actually serve to prevent the events they commemorate—a monument to the destruction of Hiroshima that might have persuaded Americans not to drop the bomb, for example. It’s fanciful, admittedly, and the whimsical Museum of Crossing might be more effective at dispelling some of the misunderstanding that animates so much historical conflict. Dedicated in part to George Psalmanazar, a European fabulist who lived in the seventeenth century and claimed to be a native of Formosa, the museum illustrates the apocryphal descriptions of savagery that fill Psalmanazar’s Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa. For example, a placard displayed next to a photograph of a snake reads, “We eat breakfasts about seven of the clock in the morning, first smoke a pipe of tobacco, then drink bohea, afterwards we cut off the head of a viper, and suck the blood out of the body; this, in my humble opinion, is the most wholesome breakfast a man can make.” Here, the horror of the foreign is entirely fictional, and monsters are vanquished through simple subversions of history.

Angie Baecker