Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 2, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 20 minutes 30 seconds. From the Taipei Biennial.

Zheng Bo, Pteridophilia 2, 2018, 4K video, color, sound, 20 minutes 30 seconds. From the Taipei Biennial.

Taipei Biennial 2018

Curators Francesco Manacorda and Mali Wu titled this year’s Taipei Biennial “Post-Nature—A Museum as an Ecosystem.” The theme was not exactly a startling choice, given that the Anthropocene is the art world’s issue du jour—though locally it feels like less of a cliché, as environmental activism played a key role in Taiwan’s democratization process in the 1980s and ’90s. Up until 1987, when the country was under martial law, criticizing the government directly was impossible. Staging pro-environmental demonstrations, however, was a subtle way for citizens to protest the dictates of the ruling elite. Green thinking has endured there to this day, arguably playing a more mainstream role in society than elsewhere in East Asia—which does not mean that Taiwan’s Edenic natural environs are unendangered. New conflicts between corporate interests, with their murderous disregard for environmental concerns, and an increasingly divided public continue to emerge. Such clashes are what make this beautiful country such an intriguing place—the perfect place, perhaps, from which to reflect on what’s going on not just locally and in East Asia but in the macroworld. This is the direction we’re all headed, like it or not.

Unsurprisingly, given the show’s theme, a documentary approach reigned supreme throughout the exhibition. One of the most interesting rooms was filled with screens playing Taiwanese public—television documentaries from the past thirty-some years, all devoted to different domestic environmental topics; these allowed locals and visitors alike to attain a deeper understanding of the history of environmental activism in Taiwan. Elsewhere in the exhibition, pages from the diary of a Taiwanese farmer, Lu Ji-Ying (1916–2004), illustrated the evolution of the nation’s agricultural policy between 1933 and 2004.

The artists included in the biennial found an array of poetic means by which to explore their ecological concerns, but the strongest and most memorable works were video installations. Martha Atienza’s mesmerizing Our Islands 11°16’58.4”N 123°45’07.0”E , 2017, staged an underwater version of a parade that takes place each January on Bantayan Island in the Philippines. Commemorating Santo Niño (Jesus Child), that annual procession serves as a sort of spiritual exorcism for the participants, who develop outrageous costumes and characters to portray and critique social ills. To stage this undersea version, Atienza collaborated with some of these same participants, many of whom are divers. The result is a surreal portrait of the Philippine media’s various contemporary fixations: gun-toting police running down a man with a DRUG LORD sign; survivors of Super Typhoon Yolanda; and emigrating female workers bearing suitcases (the Philippines has one of the highest populations of emigrant workers in the world, many of them middle-aged women).

In Khvay Samnang’s three-channel Rubber Man, 2014–15, the artist poured buckets of liquid white rubber over his body in the forests of his native Cambodia, where recently established rubber plantations have ravaged some 750, 000 acres of land. Zheng Bo’s plant-fucking extravaganza Pteridophilia 1–3, 2016–18 was also shown. I’m not sure whether it fit the theme of “post-nature” since it so clearly posited what might be better deemed a preter-nature, but, in any case, watching naked hot young guys figuring out new ways to get it on with forest flora at least aroused a tremendous sense of hope for all species!

As it is elsewhere in the world, this is a volatile period in Taiwan’s political history. Though a recent referendum on the issue of same-sex marriage recently drew international attention, key ecological issues were also put to the vote. One alarming outcome was a decision to reopen several nuclear power plants on the island nation, a site of frequent earthquakes and typhoons. This year’s Taipei Biennial suggested that now would be a most urgent time to reconsider these issues—before time has run out for good.