For the 7th edition of the Asian Art Biennial, Taiwanese and Singaporean artists Hsu Chia-Wei and Ho Tzu-Nyen invite us to “break our existing knowledge frameworks” in order to reach out to renewed perspectives on today’s Asian society.
TEXT: Caroline Ha Thuc
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artists and Asian Art Biennial
Entitled “The Strangers from beyond the Mountain and the Sea,” the exhibition stretches between two contrasting geographic poles—high altitudes and lower seas—and two timeless opposites—minerals and clouds—with the idea of de-centralizing, and thus destabilizing, our established modes of thinking. The curators’ choices have been directly inspired by James C. Scott’s, The Art of Not Being Governed, the now inescapable reference book on “Zomia.” This imaginative country is conceived as a zone of refuge and resistance where “hill people” from Southeast Asia live. The book tells us how they succeed in creating pockets of resistance to state-making projects and centralized governments. Against the rigidity and authority of such modern states, people from the hills protected by rugged terrain, mountainous spurs or ravines, but also people from low-lying wet places protected by hidden creeks, swamps or dense mangrove-covered coastlines, have developed different models of societies based on fluidity, orality, plurality and porosity.
These concepts illuminate the whole exhibition which focuses on the fruitful and enduring entanglement of geography and politics. Very rich and dense, it can be approached from a multitude of entry points and multitude of perspectives. Fom Zuleikha Chaudhari’s research on an Indian nationalist who tried to overthrow Indian British rules to Ting Chaong-Wen’s exploration of the history of quinine, or from Tcheu Siong’s shamanistic embroideries to Yee I-Lann’s mythological representations of the Sulu sea, all the featured artworks contribute to bring forth an alternative vision of Asia that welcomes at the same time cosmological beliefs, traditions and scholarly research, individual destinies and History. The exhibition especially sheds light on the ability and willingness of artists to participate in the current production of knowledge by proposing innovative and artistic epistemological languages.
Contrasts and tensions are constantly at play in this Biennial, both materially and metaphorically. The exhibition opens with Wang Si-Shun’s vast collection of stones originating from across the globe: from diverse sizes, textures and forms, they dialogue with each other and straight away connect the audience to a different spatiotemporal dimension beyond the human scale. The installation also suggests the humility of the artist when facing natural creations, an attitude epitomized by Lee Ufan’s installations which rhythmically guide the visitors’ route and reminds us that human beings cannot be at the center of a history if seen from a geological perspective. Still, artists reorganize and transform these raw materials while history and culture charge them with significant meanings. Jadeite, for instance, forms itself under high pressures underground and originates from earlier important uplifts of the earth and deep turbulences. In Friction Current: Magic Mountain Project (2019) by Thai duo Jiandyin (Pornpilai and Jiradej Meemalai), a jadeite sphere rolls in a basin of human urine contaminated by methamphetamine, giving birth to a toxic water fountain. Here, the stone embodies today’s deep interconnections between drug smuggling and the mining of minerals in Southeast Asia. The fluidity of the device ironically suggests the great fluidity of the money laundering involved in these processes and implies that drug trafficking and labour exploitation could ease the physical extractions of minerals. The massive jadeite ball rolls gracefully on itself, glossy and well-polished under the action of the current flow of the contaminated liquid, insinuating how beautifully smooth such illegal trafficking looks like when all relevant authorities turn a blind eye. However, insidiously, the acidity of the urine attacks the stone and, in the long-term, will corrode it, so that both the urine and the stone actually transform each other.
The other parts of the installation are documenting the artists’ research, but the scientific references to molecular chemistry are perhaps here unnecessary to appreciate the work: is it because too much knowledge numb the mind rather than excite its critical senses? Most of the featured artworks in the Biennial are actually research-based, and these practices raise the key issue of the representation and artistic transformation of the artists’ research findings.
Here again, the contrasts are important between almost didactic and documentary-like artworks where texts or subtitles highly contextualize the work, such as Hong-Kai Wang’s This is no country music (2019) or Ho Rui An’s Student Bodies (2019), and other works which appear more embedded in innovative modes of knowledge transmission, such as Jiandyin’s fountain, The Alchemy (2019). At one end of the scope, two collectives from Taiwan and Indonesia, OCAC (Open Contemporary Art Center) and Lifepatch, have been collaborating to engage in participative practices and to reflect on local issues through fieldwork. Their research on sugar cane production and rice wine led them in particular to set up a casual bar in the middle of the exhibition where traditional cocktails can be served and where conversations are encouraged. Music is also enhanced throughout the exhibition, especially with the participation of Wukir Suryadi who invents musical instruments from traditional tools such as the agricultural plough and combines them with contemporary technological devices.
As to him, Antariksa converted dry historical and military archival material into a sensory installation work where these archives glow in the dark. For Co-Prosperity #4 (2019), the Indonesian artist, who is also a historian, used a UV sensitive ink to print a series of biographies of Japanese and Indonesian intellectuals who worked for the Japanese propaganda during their occupation of the country in the early 1940s. For many Indonesians, the arrival of the Japanese meant a possible overthrow of the Dutch and access to independence. Furthermore, the Japanese were handing over free studios and equipment to all artists willing to collaborate, a radical break from the colonizer’s discriminative policies. Both in Japan and Indonesia, though, this period of history remains largely unknown and partially taboo and constitutes a part of the artist’s long research on the impact of the Japanese occupation of the region. The high piles of documents refer to the huge amount of existing evidence of these collaborations which have been kept secret for a long time before the archives open. Everyone is invited to take away some pieces of evidence. However, as soon as the viewer comes out of the room, the text disappears. This apparatus gives value to the artist’s research and undeniably triggers the audience’s curiosity. For the artist, it aims at reaching a wider audience and at opening up the academic field of history, judged too restrictive and elitist.
Research appears thus as a powerful strategy to expand knowledge and shed light on hidden realities and stories. Charles Lim’s video Alpha 3.9: silent clap of the status quo (2016) shows for instance more than two hours of archival footage from the bottom of the sea where Internet cables are laid. The work strikes by its simplicity but functions very well in giving tangibility to what is usually conceived as floating in the air. It also highlights the dependence of the Internet on physical infrastructures and its environmental impact (sharks are disturbed by their electromagnetic vibrations). It took years for the artist to access this secret material and the exact locations of the cables have been blanked out for they reveal highly political issues. Similarly, in Sea State Six (2015), Lim investigates underground caverns created at 130 meters below sea level in Singapore which provide infrastructural support to the petrochemical industry and where liquid hydrocarbons are stored. Again, what is at stake are the invisible connections between geography and politics that the artistic practice brings forth. The primary humble gesture is here belied by the artists’ desire to reveal the complexity and multi-layered reality and to recover agency in today’s production of knowledge-based representations.
Yet, does art really have the ability to “break existing knowledge frameworks” as it is originally proposed by the curators? And which frameworks are we talking about? The research tools used by most of the artists remain academic and based on Western concepts. The curators are also using academic and conventional language in order to contextualize the artworks, especially in spaces where the viewer can pause and think, and where notes, books and references are displayed. What the artists are challenging is perhaps less the existing frameworks of knowledge than the ideologies that model them, namely the dominant Western academic and scientific discourses as well as local ideologies (religious, morale, political). Instead of breaking these frameworks, they rather invite us, with success, to expand them radically, making space for the voices of the “hill people,” mythological beliefs, the movements of the Earth and other long-neglected parts of Asian identity. In any case, this ambitious exhibition aptly points out these essential and contemporary issues and leaves the visitor with plenty of food for thoughts.
The 7th Asian Art Biennial: “The Strangers from beyond the Mountain and the Sea”
5 October, 2019 – 9 February, 2020
National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung
Caroline Ha Thuc is a French Hong Kong based art writer and curator. Specializing in Asian contemporary art, she contributes to different magazines such as ArtPress in France and Artomity/Am Post in Hong Kong.