Looking Backwards into the Future: 2021 Asian Art Biennial “Phantasmapolis” 

Joyce Ho, DOTS, 2021, single-channel video, 1 hour 36 min. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of the artist.
Sharbendu De, An Elegy for Ecology: The World Without Us (after Weisman), 2019, inkjet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag® 91.4 × 137.2 cm. Supported by grants from MurthyNAYAK Foundation and KHOJ. Image courtesy of the artist.
UuDam Tran NGUYEN, Serpents’Tails, 2015, 3-channel video, 14 min 53 sec. Collection of the artist. Supported by CDEF, Sàn Art Vietnam and QAGoMA @ 2012~2021 UuDam Tran Nguyen. Image courtesy of the artist.
HE Kunlin, 2092: Tale of Moon Trip, 2021, 4K image, 43 min 30 sec. Image courtesy of the artist.
LEE Yung Chih, Neo n’ Old: Separation/Integration, 2021, multi-channel video installation (HD resolution, 8 synced screens), dimensions variable, 8 min 49 sec. Image courtesy of the artist.
Monira Al Qadiri, Spectrum 1, 2016 (detail), 3D printed plastic, automotive paint, 20 x 20 x 20  cm each, 6 works in total. Photo by Stroom Den Haag. Image courtesy of the artist (Commissioned by the Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon).
Wang Jun-Jieh, Project David III: David’s Paradise, 2008, HD video, 5-channel synchronous projection installation, color, sound, 17 min 21 sec. Collection of National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Supported by National Culture and Arts Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist .
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The 8th edition of Asian Art Biennial, titled “Phantasmapolis”, is a collaboration amongst five curators from across Asia—Tessa Maria Guazon, Anushka Rajendran, Thanavi Chotpradit, and Nobuo Takamori and Ho Yu-Kuan. Focusing on “Asian Futurism” and “Asian sci-fi culture”, 38 artists and artist groups from 15 countries re-examine the past and the present culture of Asia through sci-fi perspectives.

TEXT: Isabelle Kuo
IMAGES: Courtesy of various

 

The 2021 Asian Art Biennial begins on the green field in front of the museum building with artist collective Hootikor’s Breathing Beneath the Heavy Fog of Desire (2021). A tent-like bedroom, mobile kitchen, toilet, shower, and clotheshorse—all made from recycled materials—are neatly arranged in the open-air space, where vegetables are grown in recycled buckets alongside. As part of Hootikor’s ongoing Gaia Project, Breathing Beneath the Heavy Fog of Desire is a human residence with minimal requirements where the inhabitants will adapt their lifestyle to the surrounding environment. “Gaia” refers to the goddess of Earth in Greek mythology, meanwhile the project also concurs with many aspects of Gaia hypothesis.

Despite that onsite residence cannot be realised under pandemic protocols, Lama Motis, a member of Hootikor, did live with the facilities in various locations over the past decade, demonstrating that a more sustainable lifestyle is possible. The scene immediately reminds me of the God’s Gardeners in Margaret Atwood’s 2009 novel The Year of the Flood. As an environmentally focused religious movement, the God’s Gardeners lead a pacifist, green lifestyle in a future dystopia where a corporation acts as the government and carries out a violent autocracy. The sect does not eat meat; they live on the roof of a worn-down apartment building where they cultivate vegetables, herbs, and bees. Not surprisingly, James Lovelock, the British scientist who first proposed Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s, becomes Saint James Lovelock and revered along with many other environmental pioneers and activists in the calendar of the God’s Gardeners.

The world Atwood created for the God’s Gardeners is a dystopia in which they use prayer and devotion to the Earth to prepare for the approaching cataclysm, which turns out to be a human-induced global pandemic. On the other hand, Hootikor attempts to create a utopia out of a technology-dependent democratic state when a global climate crisis seems to be inevitable, hoping the right act will slow humans down from destroying the environment and themselves. Their appeal certainly became more relevant after COVID-19 hit the world.

According to the exhibition statement, the title of 2021 Asian Art Biennial, “Phantasmapolis”, is a new term comprised of “phantasma” and “polis,” meaning apparition or specter and city in Greek respectively. The title is inspired by an English sci-fi novel Phantasmagoria (2013), written over several decades since the 1930s by Taiwanese architect Wang Dahong.

 

Joyce Ho, DOTS, 2021, single-channel video, 1 hour 36 min. Collection of the artist. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Phantasmapolis, being “a city of apparition”, is situated in the museum building, where Hootikor states that they have no intention to enter. The entry to the exhibition ground in the museum is framed by Joyce Ho’s new work DOTS (2021), a performance with audience participation. Visitors are invited to walk up a platform marked with social distance bars and pick a yellow dot sticker at the checkpoint. The health monitoring and containment system, introduced as the new normal in the years of pandemic, is thus transformed into an element of ritualistic experience.

During the retreat from her urban residency to a mountain cottage when COVID-19 swept Japan, Yuko Mohri was fascinated by the tranquil yet rich sounds of nature at the ancient lake. As live performance was implausible amid the pandemic, Mohri changed the course of her ongoing project—which originally involved dancers, poets, and other performers to play with a piano system—to a presentation where a piano system interacts with ambient sounds and sounds of a video recorded from nature. In a room filled with yellow light, 2 SOLOs (Quarantine) (2021) creates a serene cosmos in solitude, and would also respond to the visitors when they come.

 

Sharbendu De, An Elegy for Ecology: The World Without Us (after Weisman), 2019, inkjet print on Hahnemühle Photo Rag® 91.4 × 137.2 cm. Supported by grants from MurthyNAYAK Foundation and KHOJ. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

The pandemic strikes human society by surprise, but it is not the only concern of our present world. Climate crisis is another approaching global catastrophe and has been the theme of Sharbendu De’s ongoing series An Elegy for Ecology since 2016. With delicate setting and photography, the series unfolds a post-climate-crisis dystopia where temperature shoots high, clean water and air become luxuries, and the extinction of floral and faunal species speeds up, leaving humans struggling to survive in loneliness.

 

UuDam Tran NGUYEN, Serpents’Tails, 2015, 3-channel video, 14 min 53 sec. Collection of the artist. Supported by CDEF, Sàn Art Vietnam and QAGoMA @ 2012~2021 UuDam Tran Nguyen. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

A series of works from Serpents’ Tails (2015) by UuDam Tran Nguyen reveal a formless but immediate threat of modern life: air pollution. Motorcycle emission is used to blow up soft sculptures made of plastic bag tubes which in turn wind around and disturb the vehicles and riders. The three-channel video of Serpents’ Tails displays a parade of motorcycles and plastic bags in the city. Contemporary Saint Gióng (2020) compares motorcycle riders confronting monsters created by their own mounts to dragon slayer St. George.

By naming the biennial “Phantasmapolis” in tribute to Wang Dahong, the curatorial team highlights the legacies of the 20th century, many of which are presented through several archive and research projects. First of all, “252710: Distance to the Moon” explores Dahong’s SELENE—Monument to Man’s Conquest of the Moon (hereafter SELENE) (1965), a monument design—which is coincidentally also concurrently explored in another exhibition at Taipei Fine Arts Museum—inspired by the Space Race. It was an era when human’s expedition to space became possible for the first time, while SELENE is an example of how space travel inspired an entire generation thereafter. Though the monument was never fulfilled, it remained one of Wang’s most valued projects. Presented in the adjacent room are Liu Kuo-sung’s ink paintings from his famous Space series, beginning in 1969, encouraged by the groundbreaking images of Earth taken from space following NASA’s successful landing on the moon that year.

Ironically, the advancement of technology has empowered humans with a greater ability to both destroy and create; it was during the Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union in Cold War—highlighted with the moon landing in 1969—that really took humans to space. It seems that to ponder on the future, we are bound to look back upon the 20th century. The Space Race has dramatically changed the way people imagine the cosmos and their place within it, thus served as a brand new foundation for their vision to the future.

 

HE Kunlin, 2092: Tale of Moon Trip, 2021, 4K image, 43 min 30 sec. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

LEE Yung Chih, Neo n’ Old: Separation/Integration, 2021, multi-channel video installation (HD resolution, 8 synced screens), dimensions variable, 8 min 49 sec. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

The moon continues to be the longed-for destination today, as illustrated in He Kunlin’s multimedia project 2092: Tale of Moon Trip (2021). Here a future moon-observing space trip is narrated, in which the tour guide introduces various landscapes and constructions that have been constantly renamed by different people, reflecting the possibility of cultural and religious conflicts when humans have even colonised the moon. In the series of Neo n’ Old: Separation/Integration (2021), Lee Yung Chih imitates recreates out-of-date neon commercial billboards with videos and transparent prints. Nostalgically, the works recall the prosperity of which once upon time people had dreamed of once upon time—a kind of expired futurism. While He takes us up to the moon, and Lee highlights a bygone era, Kim Ayoung’s video At the Sirisol Underwater Lab (2020) leads us down underwater. Also touching on the subject of Asian futurism, Kim’s work depicts a post-climate-crisis utopia, where algae serves as the main energy resource. A survivor from the civil war in Yemen has now become a researcher in the underwater lab. Looking back at our present world from a future perspective, Kim recalls how human society had changed when COVID-19 plagued the world in 2020.

Gender diversity is another important element when we imagine the future. I-Chun (Nicole) Wang presents her research “Beyond Time and Sex: An Opsis of Queer Sci-Fi in Asia” (2021) as one of the archive and research projects. The archives are displayed online as well as in The Darkside of Moon (2021), a revamp of the museum’s Gallery Street by architectural firm, office aaa. Under a sci-fi context, gender diversity, as well as removing or changing sex boundaries, has flourished to allow more space for imagination regarding identity, intimate relationship, and social orders. Two gender-related films, I.K.U (2000) by Shu Lea Cheang and Supernatural (2014) by Thunska Pansittivorakul, are also screened during the biennial.

 

Monira Al Qadiri, Spectrum 1, 2016 (detail), 3D printed plastic, automotive paint, 20 x 20 x 20  cm each, 6 works in total. Photo by Stroom Den Haag. Image courtesy of the artist (Commissioned by the Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon).

 

Nobuo Takamori, a member of the curatorial team, wrote in his curatorial notes: “Through the works exhibited, we can say that Asian modernity is where utopia and dystopia overlap.” For Asia, modernisation was indeed a process in which alien civilisations had replaced the native ones, and the consequences included a painful destruction and transformation of pre-existed lifestyle. The beauty and sorrow of the industrial transformation—from traditional pearl-diving to oil drilling—in the Gulf is the theme of Monira Al Qadiri’s Spectrum 1 (2016) and OR-BIT (2016) series, and her 2018 video installation Diver.  Additionally, the photographs from the Wrapped Future II (2018) series by Lim Sokchanlina show walls of corrugated sheets in various fields across the provinces of Cambodia, implying the endless separation, distance and absence that haunt the nation.

Without promises, all the challenges and possibilities of a beautiful future could be stressful and anxious, as expressed in Chen Chen Yu’s Anxious Flicker (2018). Comprising a bizarre hybrid of industrial materials, plants, flashing light tubes, moving mechanical devices, and rubber balls, the works present themselves in human finger-shaped spikes rolling around the floor, depicting the anxiety of attempting to harness the chaotic material surroundings.

 

Wang Jun-Jieh, Project David III: David’s Paradise, 2008, HD video, 5-channel synchronous projection installation, color, sound, 17 min 21 sec. Collection of National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts. Supported by National Culture and Arts Foundation. Image courtesy of the artist .

 

The spiritual domain might be a good place to pacify the anxiety. In the immersive installation Lines of flight (2021) by Liu Yu and Wu Sih Chin, a hypnotic voiceover takes the audience looking back at two prophecies of doomsday, accompanied by images projected on a mesh screen surrounded by mist and light. These elements collaborate at a flowing and enchanting pace, leading the audience to descend to the recurrent motifs of doomsday and salvation, shuttling from the past to the present, between collective unconsciousness and personal faith. It is an attempt to comprehend the need for salvation and the creativity of the mind when confronted by crisis. We can find the beauty of such creativity in Wang Jun-Jieh’s Project David (2004–2008) trilogy, a series of slow, indulging videos that the artist devoted five years to create—in remembrance of a departed friend. With exquisite rendering of a man and his surroundings floating in infinite regression, the videos present a cosmos where time and directionality are absent, bringing about an experience close to eternity.

The Phantasmapolis is not an imagination of a future city; it reveals the illusions of the past, the hidden present, as well as the alternatives to reality, which could become the future. When a person is bound by collective faith, one could feel insignificant and powerless in current situations. Nevertheless, individuals’ will and actions could assemble to become a collective consciousness that in turn influences the future. Humans have always been surprised by their own creativity and imagination, however, until the time comes, we can never know where our decisions will lead us. 

 

2021 Asian Art Biennial
30 October 2021 — 6 March 2022
National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung

 

*Amendments made on 2 December 2021 on the request of updated information provided by the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts.

 

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