The Taipei Biennial is something of a maverick, eschewing the fanfare of other mega-exhibitions. In six editions so far, it has never shown more than 50 artists, encouraging curators to make tightly focused and radical statements. This year, the seventh edition is headed by Taiwanese curator Hongjohn Lin, who oversaw the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007, and Berlin-based Iranian curator Tirdad Zolghadr, who co-curated the Sharjah Biennial with Ken Lum and Jack Persekian in 2005, and organized the first United Arab Emirates Pavilion at Venice in 2009. In an interview with ArtAsiaPacific in May, Lin and Zolghadr discussed their decision to experiment with showing fewer than 30 artists, several of them repeats from 2008, assembling what Lin calls an “antibiennial biennial,” an exhibition that examines itself and the conditions that created biennials everywhere.
So this exhibition has no theme?
Hongjohn Lin: There’s no title, but there’s a very clear theme. Basically, we want to create an exhibition that critiques the conventions of art-world institutions, particularly the biennial.
Tirdad Zolghadr: I guess it depends on what you call a theme. The problem with themes is that they turn the art into an illustration of whatever matters to the curator at a given time. Art has always traditionally struggled with the issue of having to make a clear point with a clear message. Art can be ambiguous and muddled, and be richer and weirder that way.
The 2008 Taipei Biennial also dispensed with a theme, but focused tightly on antiglobalization and activist art. Will you take any cues from that exhibition?
HJL: From 1998 to 2006, all the Taipei Biennials addressed a single, overarching topic—globalization. But in 2008, the curators started to deal with antineoliberal economics, or antiglobalization. Manray Hsu and Vasif Kortun provided a twist on the previous biennials, and so are we. Our twist is that instead of looking at international politics, we want to concentrate on the politics of art production.
TZ: Biennial curators often try to rebel against the previous curator’s outlook. So if the approach was funny, the next one is serious. This is also reflected in the choice of artists: you don’t use the same artists again. Or if you do, you’re lazy, you’re a crony, you don’t know the art world. But we’re using some of the same artists again, asking them to critically revisit what they did last time.
Which artists are returning?
TZ: Lara Almarcegui, Burak Delier, the Superflex collective and the Irwin collective. We’ve also invited Chen Chieh-jen to give a lecture on what it means to have participated in several Taipei Biennials in succession.
HJL: At the last Biennial, Burak Delier made Counter-Attack, an installation that addressed a land dispute between real-estate developers and Taiwan’s indigenous Shijou community, who live by the Xindian River in Taipei county. They work as low-wage laborers, but being unable to afford apartments, they live in makeshift homes by the river. However, the government owns the land and views their homes as illegal construction, periodically ordering them to be torn down. In response to this, Delier put up a large sign in the middle of a village that said “WE WILL WIN.” This time around, we’ve asked him to reexamine his work critically, so he’s sending out a survey asking about reactions to the piece and the conditions of its reproduction in the museum.
Why is now a good time to examine what biennials mean?
TZ: I don’t know. Maybe it’s a really bad time. Personally, it seems to me that the biennial format has run its course. It’s attracting wider audiences, but while it has become more successful, its distinctive features have been wiped out. For the professional crowd, the distinctive feature of biennials has been a certain measure of experimentation, and this is now being neglected, because biennials are becoming more like the Oscars. It’s harder to take risks, because they’re a career-maker or -breaker.
In our terms, taking risks means creating a certain set of premises that we don’t fully control. We invited the first ten artists we commissioned to take on a co-curatorial role. We asked, “What would you say is the problem of the biennial and how would you solve it?” What they came up with surpassed our wildest expectations. They decided that since this biennial questions the conditions of production—which range from the lack of artist fees to tight deadlines, erratic travel schedules and competing with other artists for resources, attention and infrastructure—we should improve those conditions, and the best way to do that is to turn the Biennial into a two-year process. Some of the artists will be showing just initial stages of work, which will be developed over two years and then shown elsewhere. We’re also aiming to establish something in an academic format that might resemble an independent studies program. Initially this would be for the artists participating in the show, who are to produce a new work over those two years of the pilot project, but the idea is to gradually produce a lasting infrastructure that would be open to all artists.
One potential critique of being self-reflexive is that while it is interesting to artists and curators, why would it be interesting to audiences and how would it make for good art?
TZ: It’s a justified critique. We’re doing our best to elaborate on artwork that resonates on different levels. But this biennial will demand a little more time of viewers.