View of “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet,” 2020–21. From left: Aruwai Kaumakan, The Axis of Life, 2018; Aruwai Kaumakan, Vines in the Mountains, 2020. From the Taipei Biennial 2020.

View of “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet,” 2020–21. From left: Aruwai Kaumakan, The Axis of Life, 2018; Aruwai Kaumakan, Vines in the Mountains, 2020. From the Taipei Biennial 2020.

Taipei Biennial

Right away, the latest edition of the Taipei Biennial announced itself as a thesis exhibition with its pseudo-provocative title: “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet.” Bruno Latour asserts that this slogan, once intended as a sort of ironic put-down, actually holds true, as humanity’s perceptions of the Earth’s processes in the twenty-first century have become so distorted and polarized that rival perceptions have inevitably altered what we once collectively visualized as Nature. Latour and cocurator Martin Guinard understand exhibition making as an exercise in pedantry. Visitors arriving with expectations of aesthetic enlightenment found that their new role was that of student; one was to be condescendingly informed, without any semblance of ambiguity that might cause you to accidentally arrive at some grand idea of your own. Among the seemingly endless halls of infographics, sleek screens displaying statistics, wall-text art, science-fair projects, and documentation of good deeds performed, viewers saw few imaginative responses to crises such as climate change and global pandemics, and perhaps even fewer that qualified as art, if that term even holds any exalted significance anymore. Perhaps that’s what the illustrious philosopher wished to drive home: that the time for imagination is past, in which case the few truly probing and engaging works on display, the ones that remained in the viewer’s memory after leaving the exhibition, were included by chance.

The exhibition was divided into sections, like any good dissertation; two of those memorable works were situated in a section titled “Critical Zone,” after Latour’s term for the surface layers of the Earth occupied and hence currently endangered by its human residents. I was immediately drawn to Aruwai Kaumakan’s magnificent large textile works incorporating recycled fabric. Their captivating weirdness, their bloodred invocations of some part-mineral, part-animal, part-spectral mutant forms of being, required no context or interpretation. These works simply stood on their own as totemic icons outside of language—though it was fascinating to learn that they were woven using the traditional Paiwan tribal technique of lemikalik, which entails weaving in concentric circles. Also worth mentioning is Liu Chuang’s Lithium Lake and the Lonely Island of Polyphony, 2020, specially commissioned for the biennial. The three-channel essay film draws fascinating parallels between the industrial production of lithium ore and the history of polyphonic music through such unlikely touchstones as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962). But the work collapses under the sheer weight of its own myriad sources without reaching any coherent conclusion.

The “Planet Globalization” section housed the bizarre neo-Futurist architectural paintings of Cui Jie, which depict skyscraper landmarks such as New Taipei City Hall and Salam Tower in Doha, Qatar, adorned with sci-fi superstructure additions. Jonas Staal’s Steve Bannon: A Propaganda Retrospective, 2018–19, dominated the “Planet Security” section in the next room. The installation takes as its subject Bannon’s little-known cinematic works, which the alt-right provocateur has deemed “kinetic” cinema, a form of propaganda inspired by the films of Sergei Eisenstein, Leni Riefenstahl, and Michael Moore. Rather than presenting the films in their entirety, Staal isolates clips on a series of monitors according to a certain set of recurring motifs: storms, crisis graphs, crashing vehicles, progressive movements, war, gambling and decadence, banknotes, collapsing buildings, and predatory animals. Bannon’s ideological universe is rooted in the theory of the Fourth Turning, devised by Neil Howe and William Strauss, which stipulates that every fourth generation faces a civilizational clash; for Bannon, his own generation’s is the battle between “white Christian economic nationalism” and what he deems “cultural Marxism” (read: left-wing Jews), “globalists,” and Islamic terrorism. A crackpot idea if there ever was one, but, presented in the manner of Staal’s installation, the film clips offer some insight into how crackpot has gone mainstream.

The exhibition’s last room contained the filmed recording of Moving Earths, Latour’s performative lecture in the Paris suburb of Nanterre in 2019. Finally, one understood that what one had just spent a day submitting to was not an act of curation but rather of self-promotion. Unwittingly, the exhibition did reveal one fundamental crisis of our time: a crisis of epistemology. Some of us wish to experience things directly and form our own conclusions; but an increasing number wish to be informed, to be told things, to receive knowledge from a reputed authority or some self-elected philosopher god. This year’s Taipei Biennial made the decision for us, and in doing so produced a present-day relic for a desired audience that never arrived.