Small yet big
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Small yet big

Taipei Biennial returns for its 13th edition with messages on social, political and human issues

Natascha Sadr Haghighian's Watershed. (Photos: Arusa Pisuthipan)
Natascha Sadr Haghighian's Watershed. (Photos: Arusa Pisuthipan)

Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, residents of Jalandhar in northern India were never able to see the Himalayas as the view of the mountain range -- even in close proximity -- had always been clouded by air impurities. However, after traffic pollution dissipated following lockdowns, the Himalayas suddenly came into view, unveiling mountain peaks that had otherwise been unfamiliar to residents.

The reappearance of the Himalayas after the global Covid-19 crisis served as a starting point for the curation of the 13th Taipei Biennial, said director and curator of the Beirut Art Centre in Lebanon, Reem Shadid, who co-curated the Biennial along with Hong Kong-based independent curator Freya Chou and New York-based senior writer and editor Brian Kuan Wood.

On view now until March 24 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan, the contemporary art exhibition this year is organised under the concept of "Small World" and features works from over 20 cities as well as 58 local and international artists and musicians.

Shadid, a curator, researcher and cultural organiser who works on emancipatory possibilities within artistic practice with expertise in exploring the way art intersects with ecological, political and socio-economic forms, said in an interview with Life that she -- along with the other two curators -- took the fact of locals in Jalandhar being able to see the Himalayas for the first time after the pandemic as a starting point for the entire exhibit because it is one of the tensions and contradictions that became clear after the public health catastrophe.

Aditya Novali's The Wall-Asian (Un) Real Estate Project.

This, according to Shadid, is one of the incidents that best illustrates the "Small World" concept.

"Much of the concept is looking at contradictions and tensions that came up during the pandemic. However, a lot of these things already existed. It's just that the pandemic made all the micro details that affect our everyday life clear," said Shadid.

The "Small World" theme also addresses the relationship between humans and machines following Covid-19.

"Everyone during the pandemic felt isolation, but of course we were isolating in front of our screens and we kept saying [that we are isolated]," said Shadid. "So our relationship with machines is also a big factor that makes us realise how it affects our life, even though we know we cannot live without it."

A lecturer for the Master of Arts in Curatorial Practice at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Wood added that the way the three curators worked together to execute the exhibition was also a "small world" in a sense, especially since they are based in three different countries and time zones.

"We had a window of about one or two hours a day when we could meet," Wood recalled. "Reem was in the middle of the 12 to 13 hours difference between Hong Kong and New York. We only met Freya when it was like 9 or 10pm and she was exhausted after a long day of work. Reem is a director of an art centre in Beirut and at 4pm was in the middle of work, so it was hard to get a director in an endless Zoom meeting. And I was just waking up at 7-8am having coffee. We had all these intense discussions on screen and it was a miracle for us to comfortably meet two to three times a week."

So Wing-Po's The Bookmaking Habits Of Select Species.

Participating in the Taipei Biennial for the first time are Indonesian artists and musicians Julian Abraham "Togar" and Wok the Rock -- both of whom were invited to host The Music Room, a dedicated space in the Taipei Fine Arts Museum where music events will be happening every weekend from January.

According to Wok the Rock, the fact that Togar and himself are "small" within the big music industry in Indonesia coincides with the Biennial's "Small World" concept.

"The art world always addresses big issues -- humanitarian, war and more. But we are very small. Togar and I don't really work in the big-scale music industry in Indonesia. We are sort of underground. But we have inter-local networks. It's not international. It's not global. It's local. There are many small local art collectives or communities around the world that we try to connect, so it becomes something not big but wide. It becomes a network through small entities, small proxies," said Wok the Rock.

Though small in size, Togar strongly believes the audience can expect to experience openness from The Music Room programme.

"Openness means open to listening. They will be listening and then be listened to," Togar commented. Wok the Rock echoed the sentiment.

The Psychedelic Spiritual Ceremony by Li Jiun-Yang.

"The weather in Indonesia is constantly hot," he explained. "Even in the rainy season, it's still hot. It makes us open our windows, open the doors, because it's so hot. The house is very open. Because of that, people become open and from there very communal. We are always open to helping each other.

"And this reflects the way the art landscape has been built in Indonesia. That's why there are lots of artist collectives in Indonesia who live in a very communal environment. We sell resources to help each other. And this makes us different from many countries in Asia or even Southeast Asia."

Wood is based in New York where the art scene is market-driven. So to him, the art landscape in Taiwan projects a nice and more familiar environment.

"Taiwan has more dialogue and similarities between generations, but there is also a very rich and healthy kind of DIY, self-made culture and climate. That's inspiring for us. There are communities of artists and friendship, and it's a bedrock for each other and for each other's thinking," Wood commented.

"We really felt genuine interaction in the art scene [in Taiwan]," Shadid added.

Thanks to that, Wood expects to see a lot of exploration in the art market in Taiwan, if not all of Asia, in the next five to 10 years.

"I hope certain forms of exhibition can become supportive so that they don't look to the market and collectors or commercial galleries to become legitimate. This is something very interesting to see," Wood concluded.

The 13th Taipei Biennial runs from now until March 24, at Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Visit for more information.

Your Tears Remind Me To Cry by Yang Chi-Chuan.

Exploring indonesia's regional art landscape

What does art landscape in Indonesia look like?

Wok the Rock: The art world in Indonesia is very big. It's the centre of contemporary art in Southeast Asia and probably the biggest and strongest.

What are some of the most important challenges facing artists in Indonesia?

Togar: We lack media, critique or writers that are not so dependent on heavy-funding bodies. There should be more independent media or practitioners within the art world and within art communities.Wok the Rock: The biggest challenge is money. Sometimes it splits us up. As I said, mostly we are self-funded. But sometimes we get big funding and we are not ready. If we are not ready, that's a disaster. You have to be wise if you get lots of money. You have to still be friends, still be family.

What about state support for art in Indonesia?

Wok the Rock: We got state support in 2014 after many years. Before 2014, we didn't have any support from the government. They only care for traditional art and have lots of money for that, but they are afraid young people won't embrace or be interested in it.

How do you foresee the art world in Asia in the next decade?

Wok the Rock: Contemporary art has become very popular now especially in big cities. Common people are willing to go to contemporary art exhibitions and it's going to be bigger and bigger. But the problem is we don't have good art education from the bottom, such as in elementary schools. That's why when people come to an exhibition, they don't really understand what it is.

I think that government or art practitioners who work on state policies should propose to the Ministry of Education that art education should be better – not just the history of art but also how to see art and how to criticise. I think it's important because somehow art is far from the people. There's a gap somehow. Artists present philosophical issues but somehow people don't understand what they are. So we need a hub that connects people to art. The government should provide better education for the people so that they are ready to absorb the works.

Taipei Fine Arts Museum in Taiwan. Arusa Pisuthipan

Curators of the 13th Taipei Biennale Reem Shadid, Freya Chou and Brian Kuan Wood with director of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum Wang Jun-jieh, second left. Photo courtesy of Taipei Fine Arts Museum

DJ Sniff's Transformer.

Nadim Abbas' Pilgrim In The Microworld.

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