history refracted by art

chris reid: 2012 taipei biennial, taiwan

The Museum of Ante-Memorials, Robert Filliou

The Museum of Ante-Memorials, Robert Filliou

The Museum of Ante-Memorials, Robert Filliou


Sparking this theme is Taiwan-born Harvard Professor of Chinese Literature David Der-wei Wang’s The Monster that is History: Violence, History and Fictional Writing in 20th Century China (University of California Press, 2004). He states in the online catalogue:

“… never have we seen such a moment as we have in modern times, when official history has been so dictated by the ideological and institutional machines as to verge on make-believe, and representational art so arrested by a desire to reflect the past and future as to appropriate the functions of traditional history with respect to facts.” (Taipei Biennial webpage, 2012).

In examining the role of the museum and the appropriation of traditional history, curator Anselm Franke’s Taipei Biennial expands the field of art. Visiting it feels like visiting a museum of history and culture rather than an art exhibition.

priming the viewers

At the entrance of the magnificent Taipei Fine Arts Museum, viewers at the Biennial opening first encounter Hannah Hurtzig’s The Waiting Hall, Scenes of Modernity, where artists and theorists discuss aspects of modernity with members of the public in a series of booths, the conversations recorded for subsequent listening. Hurtzig asks, “What is modernity? an epoch, a condition, a mental state, an idea, a method or a technique?” (Catalogue). This forum primes viewers for engagement with history and the analysis of modernism, and establishes this engagement as a relational process.

artists as revisionist historians

The Biennial artists become revisionist historians: Joachim Koester considers the role of the Calcutta opium trade in 19th century British colonial expansion. To recall socialist internationalism, the Otolith Group shows archival photos of Indian women delegates on official visits to the USSR, Japan and China in the 1950s. Photographer Chang Chao-Tang’s work over several decades establishes an individual history of modern Taiwan. Maryam Jafri’s Independence Day 1936-1967 (2000), a photographic record of independence ceremonies in former African and Asian colonies that became new nations, addresses the concept of the nation state.

Central to this Biennial is the consideration of the nature of documentary film. John Akomfrah portrays the life and times of his teacher, noted cultural theorist Stuart Hall. Eric Baudelaire examines the lives of May and Fusako Shigenobu, the latter a former Japanese Red Brigade member, and Masao Adachi, an activist filmmaker. Kao Chung-Li’s biographical documentaries consider the history of Taiwan through the life of his father, a KMT member who fled China for Taiwan with the exodus following the Communist Revolution. Angela Melitopoulos and Maurizio Lazzarato’s videos analyse the work of influential psychiatrist and philosopher Félix Guattari.

the documentary as visual art

These documentaries are rich visual artworks dramatising particular cultures and events. Akomfrah’s three-screen work shows the British social conditions of Hall’s youth. Referencing the Japanese idea of landscape, Baudelaire blends Adachi’s material with his own as he reconstructs his subjects’ stories. Melitopoulos and Lazzaroto mix critical interviews on Guattari’s work with archival footage from his experimental clinic La Borde to challenge traditional psychiatry as a controlling device of the modern state.

Political commentary runs throughout the Biennial. In Roee Rosen’s video Out (2010), two women from the Israeli BDSM scene discuss and then conduct a bondage and discipline session in which the spirit of (then) Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, regarded as a reactionary, is exorcised from the submissive masochist who quotes Lieberman during the beating, an overdubbed male voice replacing hers as the beating progresses.” Out metaphorises power structures and dependency, satirically critiques Israeli politics and suggests that bad ideas must be firmly exorcised from all of us. The two women are the actors playing themselves in this film, dissolving the boundary between documentary and fiction.

As Franke points out, “fiction—or the imaginary—nests at the centre of reality. It is through fiction-as-figuration that cognition and recognition becomes possible” (Catalogue).

museology as art

As well as individual artists’ works, the Biennial comprises several mini-museums curated by artists, overtly positioning museology as art and encompassing some novel approaches to historical research. The Museum of the Monster that is History includes James T Hong’s video compilation of apology speeches by government leaders, Kevin Rudd’s amongst them. Bavand Behpoor and Reza Abedini consider martyrdom through a display of anguishing personal accounts of the Iran-Iraq War. Hong, Tony Wu and Kelvin Park show equipment used in chemical weapons factories in Cold War Taiwan. And Eyal Weizman, Paulo Tavares and Steffen Kramer’s video The Mineral Geology of Genocide (2012) documents the forensic analysis of Guatemalan mass graves. This mini-museum utterly dispels any belief in the self-righteous or utopian claims of modern governments. It also repositions museums as critical devices in contemporary art.

Architects and urbanists Ann-Sofi Rönnskog and John Palmesino (aka Territorial Agency) co-curate the Museum of Infrastructural Unconsciousness, which explores how physical infrastructure and techniques of measuring and ordering influence society. It includes Nabil Ahmed’s samples of local drinking water, with hitherto undetectable traces of arsenic, which caused significant health problems in Taiwan, foregrounding the importance of measurement and metaphorising the slow impact of small, unseen forces on society. Rönnskog and Palmesino’s own contribution juxtaposes satellite imagery of the topological evolution of the island of Formosa with Taiwanese government archival records of significant events to demonstrate the interdependence of human activity and the environment and show how history and culture evolve from innumerable individual actions and political forces.

Eric Baudelaire’s overwhelming Museum of Ante Memorials comprises a copy of a 1945 memorandum to the US Secretary of War in which Manhattan Project scientists try (unsuccessfully) to persuade the US Government against using the atomic bomb on a city; a 1945 scientific observation film of the plane that dropped the Nagasaki bomb flying over the city of Kokura, which was the originally intended target that day; and Fluxus artist Robert Filliou’s 1970 work Commemor, in which he doctored photos to fictionalise the swapping of war memorials between European cities. These works are bookended by Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965) and Deimantas Narkevičius’ The Dud Effect (2008). Watkins’ film, commissioned by the BBC but withdrawn because of its potentially alarming impact, sets out in documentary style a fictionalised account of nuclear war in Britain. Narkevičius’ film, depicting the launch procedure for Soviet nuclear missiles in the 1970s, is shown to counterpoint Watkins’ film.

None of the elements of Baudelaire’s mini-museum was made for the Biennial, and some were never intended as artworks. Most are now themselves significant historical artefacts. But assembling and recontextualising them in this Biennial creates an extraordinary artwork that, by offering alternative histories, questions the decisions taken.

museum futures: distributed

The pivotal work in the Biennial is Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings’s Museum Futures: Distributed (2008), a sci-fi film set in 2058 that imagines the future history of the Swedish museum Moderna Museet, which commissioned the film in 2008 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The film’s perceptive predictions include artificial intelligence, advanced communication and information management, and significant political change The startling (possibly tongue-in-cheek) prediction is that Moderna Museet becomes an ‘immanent’ institution that actively mediates cultural production, communication and understanding. The concept of relational art—art as social process—is thus extended to its logical conclusion, with the museum acting as the central organising principle in that process. The film is also institutional critique pushed to its logical conclusion—the idea of the museum is completely re-imagined. The film even predicts that Modern Museet will seek an amendment to the UN Declaration on Human Rights to “…extend certain rights to intelligent organic/synthetic composites.”

The adroit inclusion of Museum Futures: Distributed adds a whole dimension to the Biennial by projecting modernism forward 50 years—here, the monster Taowu sees the future as well as the past. If the predicted developments eventuate, they would constitute a highly contestable utopian, or dystopian, modernity. And in addressing how museum practice structures debate, underpins ideology and shapes society, the Taipei Biennial critiques itself.

Artists are turning historical investigation into powerful art and offering alternative, albeit idiosyncratic forms of history that can illuminate and even challenge conventional history. This Biennial’s concerted assembly of these critiques consolidates the role of the museum as a primary forum for such critique. The definition of art, now merged with philosophy and the social sciences more self-consciously than ever, is significantly expanded. Correspondingly, philosophy and the social sciences express themselves through art.

The Taipei Biennial, curator Anselm Franke, Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the Paper Mill, Taiwan, Sept 29, 2012-Jan 13, 2013; http://www.taipeibiennial2012.org/

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 10

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

25 February 2013