8th Asian Art Biennial Looks Back to Look Forward
Joyce Ho, DOTS (2021). Single-channel video. 1 hr 36 min. Collection of the artist. Courtesy the artist.
Conceived during the unsettling period of the pandemic, Phantasmapolis, the 8th Asian Art Biennial (30 October 2021–6 March 2022) presents 417 artworks by 38 artists and art groups from 15 countries, including 28 newly created works and an extensive selection of archival material spanning a century.
Directed by Taiwanese curator Takamori Nobuo, a curatorial team of curators from Asia—Ho Yu-Kuan, Tessa Maria Guazon, Anushka Rajendran, Thanavi Chotpradit—were brought together to reflect on themes of the future from a multicultural perspective.
The term 'Phantasmapolis' was inspired by Taiwanese architect Wang Dahong's English sci-fi novel Phantasmagoria (2013), whose protagonist recalls his earlier life experience on 20th-century planet earth, as he travels through space in 3069.
Serving as a point of departure, the conceptual axes of 'Asian Futurism' and 'Asian sci-fi culture' anchor the show, which brings together historical and contemporary artistic imaginations of the future—including pioneers in the use of technology like Shu Lea Cheang, Hung Tung Lu, and Wang Jun-Jieh—to review the different shapes of futurism in the Asian context.
With remote work and lack of local access a default for this edition, the curatorial team decided to strategically divide their collaboration. Rajendran curated the Biennial's video art project and the online platform that hosts the virtual manifestation of this exhibition, conceptualised by Pad.ma (the artist-run online archive initiated by CAMP & 0x2620).
Chotpradit programmed the forum 'Songs from the Moon Rabbit', during which the curators highlighted that non-linear time and issues around colonisation, diaspora, geopolitics, and technology were central to the exhibition's thematic.
At the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung, where the show is staged, Guazon presents an archival section titled 'Prospecting: Archival Documents from the Philippines', an introspective proposal to think through archaic propaganda and the ideals they portray with exposition catalogues from the early 20th century and government reports and articles from the Department of Information from the 1950s to 70s.
Organised by the five curators, the exhibition at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts presents a narrative closely knitted with the art history and political climate of Taiwan, and Asia more broadly.
It opens with Taiwanese artist Joyce Ho's new installation DOTS (2021), which transforms Covid-19 public space regulations into a new performative ritual. Every visitor passes a catwalk platform marked with social distancing bars, earning a bright yellow dot sticker before entering the museum as a levitated experience of such new norms.
The first gallery area on the ground floor reveals much of the curatorial emphasis on 20th-century historical documentation. 'Archive of the Pavilion of the Republic of China at EXPO 1970, Osaka' unfolds the old imagination for modern life back in the Cold War era, indicating the last official participation of Taiwan in the World EXPO as the representative of China.
The original commissioned steel sculpture for the EXPO, The Advent of the Phoenix (1970) by Yuyu Yang, takes central position in the space: a phoenix dances with open wings. More historical pieces carry on the exhibition narrative, including the black and white animation A Day after a Hundred Years (1933) by Ogino Shigeji, which depicts space travel to Mars in 2033.
The immersive multimedia installation Escape Route (2021), a projection on a double-mesh screen amid fog and light by artists Liu Yu and Wu Sih Chin, presents a powerful switch from past to present. Focusing on two speculative prophecies of Armageddon, a hypnotic voiceover accompanies images that dive into the collective unconscious while reviewing the Anthropocene crisis, searching for salvation in a consumerist reality.
Monira Al Qadiri's video Diver (2018) connects pre- and post-oil worlds in the Arabian Gulf in a video of synchronised swimmers performing in a pearlescent night sea.
The swimmers' movements are choreographed to a traditional pearl-diving song, and their bodysuits, the shimmering colour of oil slick, shine like pearls, extending the exhausting physical exercise as an abstract form of histories and identities.
The second gallery houses contemporary works that depict ecological devastations. Sharbendu De's An Elegy for Ecology (2016–ongoing), a photography series surrounding a manmade garden installation with the reference book The World Without Us, shows a colourful fantasy world where people breathe via respirators.
UuDam Tran Nguyen's video installation Serpents' Tails (2015) shows motorcycle emissions filling a soft sculpture made of tubed plastic bags, that occupies and covers dancers and riders in both indoor and outdoor spaces. The complex choreography between bodies and bags responds to the urban infrastructures and landscapes of Vietnam while poetically mimicking entanglements of social relations in public and private space.
The Darkside of Moon (2021) by the local architecture firm office aaa can be considered an extended curatorial research manifestation of Wang Dahong's postwar modernist architecture style.
Under a strong blue light, the Chinese style wooden framed door that is roofed under grid panels creates an impression of a surreal virtual space. Located in a hallway connecting the lobby to the main galleries on the ground floor, it creates a subtle ambience that is both nostalgic and futuristic.
Along the end of the same hallway, The Hunger Tales (2021), a research-based installation by Indonesian collective Bakudapan Food Study Group. Taking the form of the board game Monopoly, the participatory game exposes the political parameters behind today's food crisis, with visitors invited to explore various factors that determine the creation of their daily meals.
Suspended throughout Phantasmapolis are futures that are encapsulated in the dreams of many yesterdays; where redistributions of power and knowledge come up against a mapping of the past.
The first gallery on the second floor accommodates another archive of Wang Dahong's architecture drawings that were inspired by the moon landing mission, aptly shown alongside modern artist Liu Kuo-sung's ink paintings on the motifs of the sun and moon from 1969 to 2007.
In the next room, Tan Zi Hao's Monuments to the Dust We Become (2021) looks to the other end of the scale, employing a microscopic slider to show a delicate collection of household insects who build their homes from dust, human hair, and other debris, turning traces of human activity into architectural elements.
Exploring a different microcosm of human activity is Chulayarnnon Siriphol's Give Us A Little More Time (2020), a four-channel animation video installation shown alongside an archive and catalogue that reflects the political dystopia in Thailand.
Collages of news clippings collected and made daily during the 13th coup d'état in May 2014, until the announcement of national elections in March 2019 visualise a sense of stolen time, with the video animation mocking the military's propaganda song 'Return Happiness to Thailand'.
Moving from concrete events to speculative futures are new video installations by Kim Ayoung and He Kunlin—At the the Sirisol Underwater Lab (2020) and 2092: Tale of Moon Trip (2021) respectively—which both imagine new technologies and civilisations. The former invents a future technology that turns algae into energy, while the latter speculates on art histories and beliefs in the future of a colony on the moon.
Both videos touch on the subject of 'Asian Futurism' being explored across the Biennial, which proposes an unusual gesture of looking back at past coordinates, even sometimes from a future point, as if to hold back from leaping too far forward in time.
With that in mind, Gan Siong King's three-channel video essay Chatting with Nik Shazwan about Amplifiers (2019–2021) is a grounded interrogation of politics and social construction from a material perspective.
Extensive inserts of YouTube clip montages featuring playful visual commentaries range from body motions to close-ups of various machines, accompanied by an interview with Nik Shawn, a tube-based electric guitar amplifier maker. The footage reveals the configurations and manufacturing process of amplifiers while eloquently implying the technological conditions behind world-making and image-making.
At one point in Gan's video, a line of text appears that reads: 'the past, present and future are but a copy of a copy.' The comment gets to the heart of this Biennial, whose worldview or historiography seems to relate more to the philosophy of Saṃsāra, of finding balance amid cyclic changes.
Suspended throughout Phantasmapolis are futures that are encapsulated in the dreams of many yesterdays; where redistributions of power and knowledge come up against a mapping of the past. —[O]