When it comes to ecological concerns, we tend to think that we are all in the same boat.
However, the 2020 Taipei Biennial highlights how the boat we call ‘planet earth’ can be experienced in very different ways.
To some, we are comfortably cruising the Mediterranean on a Costa Crociere. To others, we are clinging to the wet wood of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (hint: the shipwrecked folks are us).
That’s the postmodern, baby.
In other words, the multiplicity of points of view about the question of our planet’s survival does not create consensus. On the contrary, it divides.
Bruno Latour, Martin Guinard and Eva Lin, curators of this edition of the Taipei Biennal, spell it loud and clear: “Take people like Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg; Trump’s planet has infinite resources to exploit, Thunberg’s is fragile,” they note.
Fittingly, these themes tie into the title of this year’s Biennial: “You and I don’t live on the same planets”.
The curators see this polarisation of viewpoints as something that can help to clarify the situation in which we find ourselves.
“For ecology is not just one of many themes – it is very likely to organize the whole political discussion,” they note.
Latour and Guinard point out that environmental concerns will divide future generations, who will be more affected than the present ones: “It already divides internally, each person who would like to be more ecological, in (their) daily actions, even (in) something as simple as choosing between a vegetarian option and meat.”
By observing the work of artists from all latitudes at the Biennial, we can see how the ecological question divides geographically. The show presents artists who are in regions affected by environmental change alongside those who hail from places which are more preserved. Southeast Asia for example, offers many examples of traditional practices which evidence sustainability on a micro-level, while also being the home of mega-cities that display no ecological consciousness whatsoever.
We turned the questions of how the themes of the Taipei Biennial apply to the region, to curators Bruno Latour, Martin Guinard, Eva Lin, and Taipei Museum director Ping Lin.
The conceptual focus of the Biennale is on native philosophies, which differ from contemporary mainstream logic, and can represent perhaps the key towards saving our planet. How do these kinds of discussions articulate in Biennial’s public programs?
Eva Lin: The public programmes transform an art space into fieldwork, in response to local conditions and the impetus of knowledge. We anticipate re-establishing relations with all the living creatures of the land, an opportunity for open and mutual exchange and learning. The programs include both lectures and hands-on workshops spanning numerous disciplines, such as writing science fiction, air quality monitoring performance, critical reading, and the inspection of historical materials.
Meanwhile, we lead the public out of the museum and into the field, using bodily perceptions to depict spaces that traverse the boundaries of maps. The audience will follow the indigenous sages, hunters, artists, and scientists to use their bodies to perceive the environment and learn the land ethics and natural philosophy in mountain and forest.
You consider Taiwan as a sort of microcosm of the whole Earth in both geological and geopolitical terms. Could you expand on this idea?
Bruno Latour & Martin Guinard: Taiwan is an interesting place as it is at the intersection of geopolitical and geological “tensions”. Geopolitical because of its relationship with its neighbour, and geological, as one of the places where typhoons, landslides, and other phenomena make it one of the most eroded places on earth. This is interesting because now that the activity of some humans is impacting the earth’s system as a whole, geology will play (more of an) active role in geopolitics.
Indeed, we are in a situation where humans create perturbation on the climate (as much) as other geological forces such as volcanos or the movement of tectonic plates. This theme has been vastly explored in many art exhibitions (notably the 2014 Taipei Biennial). What interests us is the intersection of the new “geo-political” framework which results from this situation.
We simultaneously witness a division amongst those who seem to have abandoned planet earth, those who try to make it more inhabitable, and those whose cosmology never fitted within the ideals of globalisation in the first place. As curators how do you convey all these different points of view?
Bruno Latour & Martin Guinard: We invited artists who allow us to explore different perspectives on the topic. Let’s take two contrasting examples. Fernando Palma, who is part of the Nahua community in Mexico, explores what it means to consider his sculptures as “personas”. For him surrounding objects, landscape etc… are not objects without volition, they are alive, and from this logic, non-humans also deserve a certain sense of care and respect.
This is a very different approach than the one of Femke Herregraven who is fascinated by the bunkers built by the super-rich in case of the apocalypse:
If Palma works on ways to develop the connection between himself and his surrounding environment, Herregraven explores the imaginary of the ultimate disconnection, the escape from the surface of the planet Earth.
Does the uncertainty due to the Covid-19 pandemic make you approach curation differently?
Bruno Latour & Martin Guinard: It did for sure. But we had the luck to get nominated before the pandemic started and Taiwan handled the situation really well as you know. We were able to organize some research trips in Taipei (in 2019), which were very useful.
One of the points which is a disappointment is that one of the curators –Martin Guinard– was supposed to travel to Southeast Asia in January 2020 for several weeks. When the pandemic started those trips were aborted and many encounters could not occur. So we were unable to fully develop most of the projects in the end and therefore did not present as many artists from the region as we had expected.
Are there any Southeast Asian works and artists at the 2020 Taipei Biennale? And if so, how they are presented in relation to other works?
Bruno Latour & Martin Guinard: An interesting example is the work of Nathalie Muchamad who is an Indonesian and New Caledonian artist and explores cultural and historical connections between Southeast Asia and Africa with a collective called the School of Mutants. Their project explores the history of a utopian education project in Senegal in the 1990s which aimed at creating an elite university in Dakar and – was funded in part by Taiwan.
The project was never realized, due to various issues. But the collective of artists (Hamédine Khan, Stéphane Verlet Bottéro, Lou Mo, Olivia Anani, and Nathalie Muchamad) realized a set of research on the history of this project, as well as a multimedia installation addressing these questions of futurity and exchange between Africa and South-East Asia. In this context, Muchamad creates fabrics that feature visual patterns related to pan-Africanism and the non-aligned movement (i.e. the countries which refused to align with the USSR or the US during the cold war).
In terms of audiences, how does the Taipei Biennial situate itself in the Asian art ecosystem?
Ping Lin: Biennials are platforms of knowledge production through art, dealing with the most critical issues of the time while looking forward into the future with a vision. Countries in Asia have gone through similar processes of “modernisation”, and we are now keen to free ourselves from Western frameworks of knowledge and to create platforms to rebuild our own identities. As one of the first contemporary art biennials in Asia, the Taipei Biennial attempts to foster global dialogues between Taiwan and other cultures, promote local perspectives, and enhance cultural value exchanges.
How does Taiwan specifically view itself in relation to Southeast Asia?
Eva Lin: Although Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries have different languages, religions, and histories, there are similarities in the processes of colonization, decolonization, and then democratization. In the last decade, artistic exchanges between Taiwan and Southeast Asia have increased dramatically, and Taiwan’s demographic structure and social landscape have changed rapidly with the influx of new immigrants. The mother cultures brought by new immigrants from Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines, are unique and irreplaceable in the construction of contemporary culture and artistic creation in Taiwan.
The Southeast Asian art community is unique in its collective creation, interdisciplinary social practices, and flexible forms of creation, which also bring more dialogue to the contemporary art community in Taiwan, and the art exchange between the two sides extends from contemporary art to craft, cultural research, and even community construction, resulting in an accumulation of cross-site exhibitions, events, and writings. In a way, the contemporary art scene in Taiwan in recent years has paid more attention to a certain kind of “Southern Perspective” not only in response to the government’s southbound policy but also as a necessary way to understand Taiwan itself.
What would be the most important takeaway for a Southeast Asian art lover visiting the show?
Bruno Latour & Martin Guinard: The idea that ecology is not going to be a topic between many others but that it is likely to frame political discussions entirely. With land, air, water degradation, it will (only serve to) enhance inequalities.
The 2020 Taipei Biennial runs until 14 March 2021. More details can be found here.