Taichung: 2021 Asian Art Biennial
By Christopher Whitfield
Full text also available in Chinese.
In architect Wang Dahong’s novel Phantasmagoria (2013), satyrs chase nymphs through tapestries in the dining hall of the spaceyacht Medusa as a young prince and his tutor munch on foie gras while touring his solar empire. In the spirit of Wang, a pioneer of Taiwanese modernism, the 2021 Asian Art Biennial, titled “Phantasmapolis” and held at National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung, used both architecture and science fiction to examine the past and chart new courses toward the future. Yet the traces that were etched throughout the exhibition amounted to more than just a careful mimicry of the contours of history; chief curator Nobuo Takamori, working with a curatorial team comprising Ho Yu-Kuan, Tessa Maria Guazon, Anushka Rajendran, and Thanavi Chotpradit, registered the impressions that both crisis and progress leave on our environments, and reflected on a coming future with insistence on maintaining forms of care.
In the opening galleries of “Phantasmapolis,” the curators examined the history of architecture as an instrument of forward-thinking fantasy, gathering archival material that documented the Republic of China (ROC)’s involvement in Expo ’70, held in Osaka. While world’s fairs have historically offered a platform for states to boast of their own magnificently architectured futures, for the ROC it would be the last opportunity to project its national self-image on the global stage for at least two decades. Included in the selection of ephemera were mock-ups of Taiwanese postwar architect Chen Mei’s failed brutalist proposal for the design of the Pavilion of ROC—a stark contrast to the successful pagoda-style pavilion, presented at the biennial in a sketch by artist Shiy De-Jinn. Collected among such atmospheric relics of Expo ’70, Chen’s blueprints for a departure from tradition remind us of the varied perspectives on futures to come that underpin any juncture in history.
Taro Okamoto’s symbol of Expo ’70, Tower of the Sun (1970), still stands in Osaka to this day. However, in Tsunehisa Kimura’s photomontage Brave Scolding (1970), the artist depicts an explosion tearing through the tower, a distinctly distressed expression on its iconic birdlike face. Created to protest the lavish spectacle made out of national ambition for the future, Brave Scolding served to wrestle control of such avant-garde art and the progressive fictions it conjured away from the state, even if it meant the monument’s (symbolic) destruction. In the context of “Phantasmapolis,” the collaged image of the crumbling tower set multiple precedents. Much of the work in the biennial borrowed from publicly available imagery, cobbling together similarly cautionary scenes in order to interrogate possibilities for our shared future. Mark Salvatus, for his multichannel video project Human Conditioned (2017– ), appropriates images from Google Street View and restitches them into a meandering journey through a barren, near-Earth-like world, where all that the roving camera captures of the human subject are legs and feet, such that we appear to be fading into the horizon of a desolate future, one last footprint in the sand before oblivion. This bleak atmosphere is echoed in Korean duo Bang & Lee (Bang Jayoung and Lee Yunjun)’s installation The Place That Has No Name (2021), which inhabits the disembodied gaze of popular first-person-shooter games in an arid wasteland. With a familiar, frenzied camera suggesting violence—as though a gun could go off at any second—the carcasses of grain silos, shacks, and filling stations are the lone antagonists, with the quiet insinuation of a long and empty future.
The “ruin” as the defining architectural feature of the future is a suggestion that permeates many of the works in the biennial. Accompanying Lim Sokchanlina’s ongoing documentation of reckless development in Phnom Penh was his staged photographs Wrapped Future II (2018), in which the artist positions walls of corrugated iron scrap across the landscape of Cambodia, using remnants salvaged from the city’s architectural past to brace against the onslaught of treacherous futures. Similarly, with Vestige of a Land (2017), Lê Giang constructed ghostly monuments to northern Vietnam’s đình pavilions, gathering places for rituals and communities. With a sense of apprehension for the future, her alabaster-white replicas capture the tumbling structures like plaster casts of fossils, immortalizing both the intricacies of their cherished character and the extent of their decay.
Elsewhere in the biennial, a sense of anticipation germinated fantastical responses to crisis. In the room-filling installation Escape Route (2021), Liu Yu and Wu Sih Chin invited biennial-goers into “God’s waiting room,” lined with rich emerald drapes and punctuated by willowy street-lamps, where an exploration of doomsday prophesies unfolded across two layered screens, with a countdown that reaches a dizzying crescendo. As smoke poured into the room, a soft voice spoke to the collected audience, regaling them with a gentle reminder of how they came to be gathered in the space, insisting that they were family, travellers toward bright new horizons, united by love. The work evokes not only the countdowns that we are subject to daily—spiraling numbers of Covid infections, or the incremental rise in warplanes buzzing the island—but our imaginative strategies for the futures that launch when they culminate.
Many of the works in the biennial contributed to this reinvention of the future by calling into question the aesthetic touchstones that we have come to rely on in our futurist thinking. The exhibition was adamant in its rejection of popular culture’s grimy, hyper-technological, cyberpunk image of Asian futures. With a vintage Fujifilm sign clinging to the windows in the museum’s north corridor, Lee Yung Chih’s printed window coverings turned the clock back on the neon billboards that have become a staple of the genre, as the clean Taichung sunlight that streamed through his print obliterated any suggestion of the apocalyptic metropolis. Likewise, He Kunlin’s film 2092: Tale of Moon Trip (2021) reinscribes the cartographies of Western space-exploration with the alternative knowledge and mythologies of his far-flung lunar community. Childlike diagrams remap the moon as the artist chronicles his settlers’ art, their struggles, and their queer social structures. His innocent scrawling documenting the triumphs of a generation yet to come—completely removed from a terrestrial past—were fitting in an exhibition that championed relinquishing authorship of the future to our descendants.
Work that focused on intergenerational relationships best made the case for our way forward. Artist Catalina Africa collaborated with her daughter Arjuana to “remix” an iteration of her own earlier work in A View from the Womb (Remix) (2018–19), which rendered a series of portals in vivid color—the mouth of Tabon Cave, a green-screen, a doorway—but this time offered the key to her young progeny. In a gesture that represented this seizing of this responsibility, Lin Shu Kai took industrial byproducts from the mold factory in Tainan that his father built from the ground up and incorporated them into a fantastical city of his own design with meticulous care. As he littered the gallery floor with miniature towers, homes, and other buildings—implied by the forms that remained of his father’s work—he dwelled on the irrevocable entanglement of the past and future, and the inevitability of legacies even as we accept new ways of being.
Returning to outset of the exhibition, a similar journey portended a tragic end. In Shigeji Ogino’s short silent film A Day After a Hundred Years (1933) envisions the artist’s resurrection a century into his future on a shuttle bound for Mars that explodes, weighed down by his ghostly self. Wang’s Prince Denoh, in Phantasmagoria, also wrestled with how best to act on the promise of a future as he sat feasting on bonbons in his library, his ship hurtling already towards the stars. Throughout “Phantasmapolis,” the gathered artists assert that a ship can in fact reach its destination with the spirit of the past in tow.