LIU CHUANG, Lithium Lake and the Lonely Island of Polyphony, 2020, still from three-channel video with color and sound: 35 min 55 sec. Courtesy the artist and Antenna Space, Shanghai.

Taipei Biennial 2020: You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet

Also available in:  Chinese

In December 1972, the crew of Apollo 17 snapped a picture of home as they rocketed toward the moon. The Blue Marble has since become the most reproduced image of Earth, the view of our small and distant planet forever etched into our self-imagination. Preoccupied with different ways of seeing the world, and the ideologies and upheavals they reveal, the 2020 Taipei Biennial, conceived by Bruno Latour, Martin Guinard, and Eva Lin under the title “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet,” proposed a new vantage point for interpreting our place in the universe.

The sentiment of the French environmentalist zadistes—“we are not defending nature, we are nature defending itself”—was particularly palpable throughout the exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM). Covid-19 has provoked urgent conversations about our practices on and toward the Earth; as such, perhaps we are not sickened by nature, but are nature feeling the gravity of our own sickness. Moreover, the effects of the diseased and ecologically wounded planet are felt disproportionately by those with the fewest resources. Organized around this central schism, the Biennial reconstructed the museum into a “planetarium,” with five celestial bodies representing the global issues of our era.

The five sections in the exhibition’s stellar cartography claimed space unevenly, eclipsing or avoiding each other’s trajectories. Some were sprawling, others inhabited by a single artwork. The densest of these was Planet Terrestrial, the gravity of which grounded new frameworks for perceiving the Earth. Rather than considering the planet as something at the far end of a satellite’s telescope, it asked us to scrutinize the processes that occur in the Earth’s Critical Zone, from the top of the tree canopy to the bottom of the groundwater. In Oceans in Transformation (2020), monitors jut abruptly from the gallery floor, with off-kilter maps ticking slowly across the screens. Independent researchers Territorial Agency inscribe these just-fathomable oceanographic images with detailed records of human intervention, creating a meticulous catalogue of our impact on maritime ecologies. In a similar excavation of our extractive relationship with the Earth, Liu Chuang’s sumptuous film Lithium Lake and the Lonely Island of Polyphony (2020) casts an indulgent eye upon imposing dams and uncannily chromatic mineral lakes, which evoke a deeply felt connection to the landscape that many of the more clinical exhibits neglected.

Elsewhere on Planet Terrestrial, the Gaia hypothesis—microbiologist Lynn Margulis and chemist James Lovelock’s conception of Earth as a self-regulating system contingent on the synergistic life processes of all its inhabitants—offered an expanded understanding of the essential ways in which humans are bound up with the Critical Zone. Dozens of screens affixed to distorted geodesic scaffolds hum as clips of varied nature-human interactions flit asynchronously in Jean-Michel Frondon and Rasha Salti’s Interspecies Cinematic Encounters (2020). The work’s tone lurches between menacing and transcendent as humans are shown leaning into warm winds, bargaining with animals, or barely escaping the dangerous wilds, underscoring the plurality of our embeddedness in the ecosystems that surround us. However, the most definitive stroke with which the exhibition asserted its commitment to the Gaia principle was its presentation of John Feldman’s feature film Symbiotic Earth (2020), which uses a series of interviews with Lynn Margulis and those who knew her to unpack the extraordinary life of the scientist and her paradigm-shifting work.

MIKA ROTTENBERG, Cosmic Generator (AP), 2017, still from single-channel video installation with color and sound: 26 min 36 sec. Courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Landing on Planet Globalization, one was launched into a survey of the dream of worldwide convergence, and the ways in which it has been thwarted by climate change and the natural limitations of the Earth. Mika Rottenberg’s video Cosmic Generator (AP) (2017) burrows into the networks of exchange that shuttle goods and capital from one side of the planet to the other. Quaint studies of Chinese restaurants on the Mexican border, and Chinese markets trading in all possibilities of plastic are threaded together by sojourns through a fantastical subterranean railroad. Though globally networked systems often violently inhibit peoples’ movement, Rottenberg cleverly nods to the networks of understanding and solidarity that blossom in the wake of capital streams that leave those without privilege behind.      

On the other hand, Antonio Vega Macotela’s monumental Burning Landscapes (2019) ominously reveal the manner in which the increased optimization of these conduits may circumvent the networks and needs of ordinary people altogether. Vega Macotela’s sinister tapestries of dark and lifeless scenes are encrypted with leaked information regarding the tax evasion of the ultra-wealthy. On close inspection, monochromatic cloudscapes and forested vistas emerge from a mass of pixels like shattered QR codes. The series deftly exposes how contemporary exchange may betray community and elude human cognition. It was a jarring counterpoint to Aruwai Kaumakan’s woven installation, for which the indigenous Paiwan artist worked alongside her tribe to knit the intimacy of community consciousness into the blood-red fabric of the work. The artist’s towering textile sculptures mushroomed out from the walls and grew into corners like lichen, their scale attesting to the labor-intensive and shared process of their creation. The two woven projects exemplified the tension between practices that facilitate interpersonal connection, and the workings of inhumane channels of data and capital.

Installation view of ANTONIO VEGA MACOTELA’s Burning Landscape VI, 2019, steganography on Jacquard, 440 × 560 cm, at “You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet,” Taipei Biennial 2020. Courtesy the artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Aware of the limits of unity—or, rather, its pretense—in an age of widening division between the “winners” and “losers” of globalization, the Biennial embraced plurality as a platform from which to negotiate a more sustainable and equitable future. Yet, the diversity of perspectives inherent in the ethos of the exhibition occasionally failed to emerge in the works. For example, in the participatory installation muzungu (those who go round and round in circles) (2016), former International Criminal Court (ICC) analyst Julien Seroussi and artist Franck Leibovici invite their audience to intervene in a case regarding a 2003 village massacre by armed rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Using magnetic boards, viewers can recombine evidentiary photos and diagrams from the ICC proceedings, essentially inventing their own narratives and coming to their own conclusions about the people at the heart of the events. The work thus becomes an uncomfortable exercise in which French practitioners and Taiwan-based audiences collaborate to exclude the agency of African subjects from their own judiciary processes. Similarly, Learning from Artemisia (2019–20), Uriel Orlow’s photo-documentary tribute to unnamed Congolese activists working to wrest control of malaria treatment from avaricious Western pharmaceutical companies, fails to give voice to the subjects it ought to center. In one segment, Orlow admits that the work itself could be an “extractive” process, but witnessing the Swiss artist tilling plots of African wormwood makes one wonder if the most pertinent solution might simply be to create space for someone else. In spite of the varied peoples alluded to by the far-reaching scope of the Biennial, a question arose as to whether the “You” and “I” of its title might be from planets more similar than the curators thought.

Throughout the exhibition, film emerged as a key medium for visualizing Earth. The Biennial foregrounded a reorientation from one lens to another, a shift from the telescope to the camera as the dominant tool for envisioning the planet. One of the most novel moments of formal experimentation was Karimah Ashadu’s Lagos Island (2012). Pushing a device forged from a camera and a wheel along the shore, Ashadu’s gaze reinterprets the beach and its denizens from a wilfully skewed perspective. Her journey across the sand captures life on the skin of the Earth, demanding a renewed attentiveness to the relationship between the land and the people. The work takes up the Biennial’s proposition of fresh vantage points, aligning it firmly with the eyeline of those so often lost sight of by global networks, and even at points by the Biennial itself. Yet in the furthest reaches of its planetary system, the exhibition redoubled a commitment to the potentials of a zoomed-in outlook on the planet that we do have, for now.

SUBSCRIBE NOW to receive ArtAsiaPacific’s print editions, including the current issue with this article, for only USD 100 a year or USD 185 for two years.  

ORDER the print edition of the March/April 2021 issue, in which this article is printed, for USD 21.

KUKJE GALLERY SAM ARNDT Artspace Massimo de Carlo ACAW Opera Gallery E-flux