Smoke and Mirrors

2002 Taipei Biennial Great Theatre of the World
29 November 2002 - 2 March 2003

The 2002 Taipei Biennial feels more like a thoughtful group show than the fanfare 'big' exhibition format of many biennials. This is not, in itself, a bad thing - the extravaganzas that have come to characterize the contemporary art scene are beginning to groan under their own weight.

Joint curators, Bartomeu Mari (Spain) and Chia Chi Jason Wang (Taiwan), selected the works of thirty-one artists under the rubric 'Great Theatre of the World'. The title is taken from a sacramental play by Spanish playwright Pedro Calderon de la Barca (1600-81), which tells the story of a play occurring within a play.

But how does this seventeenth-century religious play, steeped in European tradition, relate to the ideas of contemporary art presented in an east Asian city? Without knowledge of the the title's heritage, it could be read as whatever you conceive theatre to be - entertainment, artifice, a reflection of the world. The curators have cast the works as actors, using the idea of theatre as a narrative medium, as storytelling.i

The theatre is a broad stage, and despite what Mari states, that the stage is shrinking 'day by day' ii - it seems closer, but it increases, as do our ways of accessing the action. In a world where bedrooms and public squares have been brought into the public domain, the stage - what we accept as stage - is expanding.

Wang balances the eurocentric theme of the exhibition, explaining that the stage of Chinese opera is simple, with only 'a makeshift division' separating front from back: "Curious spectators, expecially children can easily go to backstage and peep at the make-up area of the actors"..There is no deliberate separation of reality and the play, implying that the play is everywhere.iii This transparency suggest spectacle, the entertainment value - for all theatre must have this, whether your value is measured in colour and movement or the provocation of thought.

The curators make a strong statement for art taking a central place as theatre, while at the same time Mari states: "In our time, the Great Theater of the World is indubitably politics."iv The opening celebrations became their own theater, a politicized theater, perhaps in keeping with the theme, the idea of a play within a play - an act within an act, and outside of it.

On the night the curtain was raised on the 2002 Taipei Biennial, an artist was traveling with a security guard and police patrolled the forecourt of a museum. A performance, a James Bond intruige? But the police and security, a presence perhaps the Taipei Fine Arts Museum hoped would go unnoticed, were there to protect an artist, whose name had been linked to the removal of Taiwan's name from another art event earlier this year.

The politicization of art events is a generally accepted, little-discussed phenomenon. Usually, it takes the form of governments and their agencies using the arts, and their support of the arts, to give themselves a veneer of culture, of being involved in the community. Art events have not been without political overtones.

Taiwan's involvement in these, and other international cultural, political and sporting events have been marked by Chinese government pressure on host bodies, government and private, for Taiwan's official name to reflect their official position on the island, as a province of China. Until recently, the name China insisted on was 'Chinese Taipei', but their view of the island is reflected in the name they now ask for - 'China, Taiwan', as they did during the 25th Sao Paulo Biennial in March 2002.

Chinese officials, and according to some, the Chinese artists in Sao Paulo, complained of Taiwan being treated as a country. The Biennial officials acquiesced, and the word 'Taiwan' was removed from Chang Chien-chi's exhibiting space before the show opened.

The artist responded by closing the Taiwan display and sending a protest letter to the Biennial organizers, which was copied to each of the 190 participating artists. On the eve of the Biennial's opening, Austrian artist, George Thomann, responded by posting a bulletin on the closed door of the Taiwan display, calling for donations of English letters.v

Thomann took the letter "t" from Austria's name plate and artists from five other countries followed his lead - Canada donated the letter "a," Croatia donated the letter "i," Puerto Rico an "o" -- which was cut into two pieces to form the letter "w" -- Singapore donated another "a" and the "n" came from Panama.

All official documentation for the Sao Paulo Biennial replaced 'Taiwan' with 'Taipei Fine Arts Museum', the body organizing Chang's participation. At the time, the director of the museum, Huang Tzai-lang, described the new word "Taiwan" on the name plate as a creative work of art: "We admire the artists from the six donor countries for their courage in standing up to support our protest," he said.

The creative work continued during the Taipei Biennial - Chinese artist, Wang Gongxin, who participated in the Sao Paulo Biennial, was shadowed by a security guard, a figure that was hard to miss in Wang's video installation. With Chinese-language media reporting that Chang Chien-Chi's outrage at the artist being invited, it seems the museum decided the most prudent course of action was to protect the artist and release a statement. When interviewed by the press, Wang Gongxin commented on the event in Brazil, saying, "I am an artist, and I am not involved in politics. I am not interested in answering questions of what happened in Sao Paolo. Just judge me on my artistic exhibit at the show here."vi

But his presence turned the museum into a protected zone. Outside the museum, police talked into their walkie-talkies, and looked nervous. Or perhaps confused. In Taiwan, this is a new level of politicization, a direct line from the events of eight months ago. An act within an act. An act no-one wanted to talk about.

And what of the actor's. Wang Gongxin's powerful video installation The Red Gate reveals worlds behind the traditional gates - worlds that are rapidly disappearing. The gates, the curtains open to show the multiplicity of activities in Beijing - marching soldiers, mahjong-ing old men, dancing couples. The installation recreates the sihe yuan, the for-walled compound surrounding a central courtyard. The scale makes you feel you could move through the doors, but as you approach, they open to reveal activities - you cannot be part of.

Song Dong's three works Burning Mirror (2001), Broken Mirror (1999) and Crumpling Shanghai 2000 enunciate the inside/outside idea, smashing and burning the view, clearing it for a view of the 'truth':

"Only after the false image in the mirror has been exposed, is the viewer able to transcend it, and thus clearly recognize the truth hidden behind the mirror's surface'.vii

But what is this truth? What is this easy use of such a layered word? Song Dong has tricked us once, shown us one reality, and destroyed it to see another. And so we have to question this reality, too. And its fragility.

As in a few instances in the exhibition, a lovely dialogue is established, between Song's work and that of American, Jim Campbell, whose images created from LED (Light Emitting Diodes) have a particular resonance in this island of lights. Motion and Rest #2 on first glance looks much like the walk/don't walk signs of Taipei. But like Song's work, time reveals more - that the figure is practising to walk, without their crutches. It is a quietly painful work.

Chen Chieh-jen's more viscerally painful video installation Lingchi - Echoes of a Historical Photograph was developed from one image, taken in China during the early 1900s by the French military. The execution by dismemberment, frozen in gelatin one hundred years ago has been brought into a gruesome reality - for film fills in those elements that our imagination may care to neglect. Chen's choice of workers from the RCA electronics factory and the processed textiles factory's dormitory for women workers in Taoyuan, as actors, speaks of the sublimination of cruelty - dismemberment no longer takes place for the cameras, but is hidden. Occupational diseases, reliance on overseas companies, destruction of the environment. The powers have turned their cameras away.

The figure's art historical centrality is turned around by Yuan Goang-ming's digital images. The madness that is Taipei's Ximen District, where the cool kids hang around movie theaters and funky clothes stores, has been transformed into a neighbourhood of ghosts - the spectre of the people, the cars, the noise seems louder than if it were a snapshot. The absence makes the reality more powerful. It is an apolyptic scene - City Disqualified - Ximen District in Day Time created by painstakingly cutting and pasting digitally manipulated images, taken with a conventional camera.

Positioned across from Edwin Zwakman's Facade I and II with Yuan's work brings the non-real together. Zwakman's photographs seem like the epitome of veracity. But the artist creates each reality, from existing realities - toy cars, cardboard - and then lights them carefully - the reflections make them real. A simulacra of reality. Yuan makes the world non-real, Zwakman creates his own.

Early in his catalogue essay, Bartomeu Mari says 'Art is not made for space, but spaces are made for art'. And so this exhibition could be made anywhere. It is professional, quiet, cool, reserved. It is distant, from the geographical location of its being, and from those who view it.

i Bartomeu Mari, Sculpture in Tongues, 2002 Taipei Biennial Great Theatre of the World, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 15.
iiiChia Chi Jason Wang, From Shadow Magic to the Spectacle, 2002 Taipei Biennial Great Theatre of the World, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 36.
ivMari, ibid, p. 23.
vwe would like to invite you [your country] to donate one letter from your country's name as shown next to or on the outside of your exhibition space to our colleague chien-chi chang from taiwan. the country's name tag 'taiwan' has been removed. let's rebuild it together. please remove your letter from your tag and bring it to the taiwan room (2nd floor,#47).
viAs one of the sponsors of the event, the Taipei City Cultural Affairs Bureau defended the decision to invite mainland Chinese artists to Taiwan. In a press release Thursday the bureau said if Wang Gongxin had indeed attempted to ouster Taiwan from the Sao Paolo Biennial because of politics, then we should welcome him even more to come to Taiwan so he can experience Taiwan's cultural spirit and our notion of artistic endeavor. The statement said it does not matter what Wang did outside of his artistic efforts. If the exhibition organizers invited him here, then Taipei should also welcome him. Political controversy tarnishes Taipei Biennial.
viiSong Dong, 2002 Taipei Biennial Great Theatre of the World, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, 2002, p. 63.