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Taipei Biennial 2020: Environmental issues tackled through political and diplomatic strategies

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Photo from TFAM
Lin Ping (third from right), Director of Taipei Fine Arts Museum, with the 2020 Taipei Biennial co-curators Martin Guinard (second from right) and Bruno Latour (on the screen) at the Nov. 20 press conference.

By Yali Chen
Taipei Biennial 2020 has kicked off with a wide selection of artworks from Taiwan and overseas at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM), and will run until March 14, 2021.
Now in its 12th year, the biennial was co-curated by French sociologist-philosopher Bruno Latour and Paris-based independent curator Martin Guinard. They also invited Taiwan’s Mt. Project founder and director Eva Lin (林怡華) to join their team and take charge of this year’s public programs.
Born in 1947 in Beaune, France, Latour is now Emeritus Professor of the Médialab and the Program in Political Arts at Sciences Po in Paris. Since January 2018, he has been a visiting professor at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe as well as Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design in Germany.
The major international exhibitions curated by Latour include “Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art” with Peter Weibel in 2002, “Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy” in 2005, and “Reset Modernity!” in 2016.
Latour now serves as a visiting curator for the on-going exhibition “Critical Zones, Observatory for Earthly Politics” at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe. A member of several academies and recipient of six honorary doctorates, he received the Holberg Prize in 2013. The curator has also written and edited more than 20 books.
Guinard is a Paris-based independent curator with rich experience in visual arts and art history. He has worked on a series of ecological mutation-themed interdisciplinary projects.
Over the past few years, Guinard has worked with Latour on several international exhibitions, including “Reset Modernity!” at the ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe in 2016. Their projects also include “Reset Modernity! Shanghai Perspective” and “Reset Modernity! Tehran Perspective.”
Geopolitical tensions as an exhibition concept

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Photo from TFAM
“Muzungu (which means those who go round and round in circles)” (2016) by French poet-artist Franck Leibovici and legal analyst Julien Seroussi.
Taiwanese independent curator Lin specializes in interdisciplinary curatorial projects exhibited at unconventional venues. Her recent projects include “Parallax: Damage Control” in 2017, “The Hidden South” in 2018, “The Upcoming Past” in 2019, “Ryoji Ikeda Solo Exhibition” with Jo Hsiao (蕭淑文) in 2019, and the 7th Taiwan International Video Art Exhibition – ANIMA with Wei Yu (游崴) in 2020.
Latour and Guinard set the theme of this year’s biennial as “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet” (你我不住在同一星球上). They worked through the many layers of their curatorial concept and reached the conclusion that everyone needed a new framework to explain the current ongoing geopolitical divisions and worsening ecological crisis. The biennial aims to express how political and diplomatic strategies are in fact integrated into any discussion of environmental problems.
They used the concept of a planetarium as the starting point for their curatorial work for the exhibition and presented each of the 57 participating artists and groups from 27 countries as planets that exert their own gravitational pull.
Everything has a “persona”

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Photo from TFAM
“Soldado (Red)” (2001) by Mexican artist Fernando Palma Rodríguez.

 Fernando Palma is a Mexican indigenous artist with an engineering background. His works are strange-looking robots moving through the entrance hall. Each of them, composed of electrical and building materials, is dressed like a Nahua. The Nahua are a middle American Indian people of whom the Aztecs are probably the best-known members.
In the Nahua culture, humans are not the only ones to have a persona. For Palma, his robots are alive. His piece “Soldado (Red)” (2001) express the traditional Nahua belief that people could have beneficial symbiotic relationships with their environment if they accepted that everything had a “persona.”
 In 2016, French poet-artist Franck Leibovici and legal analyst Julien Seroussi expressed the problem of international justice by creating “Muzungu (those who go round and round in circles)”. They applied principles of art, poetry and social science to the fact-finding process in international justice and presented one of the first cases taken up by the International Criminal Court (ICC) –  the killing spree in Bogoro. In 2003, this small village in Ituri Province in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was attacked by militiamen.
Seroussi, a former analyst with the ICC, had participated in the investigation of the Bogoro massacre. Most legal practitioners take as their starting point legal principles and then prove their point by gathering evidence. However, Leibovici and Seroussi took principles of art, design, poetry, and social science as their starting point and then looked at the evidence gathered.
Visitors to the biennial are also invited to use the evidential images to create new narratives and discourses from their own viewpoints. With this, they act as international judges working with the evidence or as art curators holding an exhibition.
A crisis-ridden history and future

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Photo from TFAM
“The Axis of Life” (2018) (left) and “Vines in the Mountains” (2020) by Paiwan artist Aruwai Kaumakan.

The exhibition curators gave the name “Security Planet” to the view generated by people like Steve Bannon, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist. He directed numerous documentary films to shape the alt-right propaganda in the U.S.
The films depict a frightening future beset with economic crises, Islamic fundamentalism and secular hedonism. Bannon implied that only a strong leader could serve as a rampart to defend family values, Christian faith, military power, and, of course, the U.S. economy.
Dutch visual artist Jonas Staal analyzed Bannon’s films and dissected the ultra-right prophecy of a grim decadence.
Instead of criticizing such populist propaganda, the Rotterdam-based artist used art installations to explain why the propaganda attracted people and how the public could better understand and combat such propaganda.
The Terrestrial Planet

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Photo from TFAM
“Exomind (Deep Water)” (2017) by French artist Pierre Huyghe.
In Taiwan, “security” is an issue under constant review and discussion.
The Shilin and Beitou districts, neighbors to Taipei Fine Arts Museum’s Zhongshan District, used to be the military and administration center of the KMT regime. They were also the centers of the Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. Both governments built monuments as well political and military infrastructures to define the two areas and placed local citizens under surveillance between 1920 and 1990.
“Making Friends/ Fire” by Taiwanese artists Chin Cheng-te (秦政德), Lee Chia-hung (李佳泓), Ling Chuan-kai (林傳凱), and Chen Yi-chun (陳怡君), centers around the theme – “Cold War Experience in the Shilin and Beitou Districts.”
Its three parts are arranged as a pentagon to symbolize the five petals of the “plum blossom.” The KMT regime used the “plum blossom” as a symbol of its power when it ruled Taiwan.
The first part is a stele called “The Cold Plum Fort – A Cold War Monument in Taiwan.” The second is a set of rearranged files, documents and objects about the KMT regime. It conveys how the KMT government carried out physical and psychological surveillance to maintain its power.
The third part, under the name “Making Friends/Fire,” is an installation of five videos that include the other two parts. It offers two different narratives of the ruler and the people.
Coming from a Paiwan tribe in southern Taiwan, artist Aruwai Kaumakan (武玉玲) used wool, cotton, recycled cloth, copper, silk, and glass beads to make sculptures. “Lemikalik,” a Paiwan weaving technique, has been integrated into her artworks, such as “Breathing” (2015), “The Axis of Life” (2018), “Blooming” (2018), “Myself” (2018), and “Vines in the Mountain Forest” (2020).
Her creations represent Paiwan culture and traditions. Her works also express some unhappy events that she and her tribe experienced. For example, Typhoon Morakot struck Taiwan in 2009, leaving many people dead, missing or homeless. The calamity drove the artist’s tribe to relocate to the Rinari tribe.
This inspired Kaumakan to change her style into one that connected her works more closely to her displaced community. One of her pieces, “Blooming,” embodies the features of what the curator Latour called the “Terrestrial Planet.”
In the garden outside the south entrance to the museum, French artist Pierre Huyghe’s work “Exomind (Deep Water)” is a striking sculpture of a crouching female figure whose head is enclosed in a beehive of busy Buckfast bees. Her honeycombed head keeps changing and growing as the bees pollinate surrounding flowers.
This art installation represents the complex systems in which interdependent agents, biotic and abiotic, real and symbolic interact and co-evolve in a dynamic and unstable mesh. Visitors to the garden will need to stand at a slight distance from the bee-saturated structure.