Asian Art Biennial 2019

Adeline Chia on the task of Asian decolonisation

By Adeline Chia

Jiandyin (Jiradej Meemalai and Pornpilai Meemalai), Friction Current: Magic Mountain, 2019, mixed media, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artists Shilpa Gupta, Song of the Ground, 2017, mechanical installation with borderland river stones, 79 × 22 × 18 cm. Photo: Tom Callemin. Courtesy the artist and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Beijing, Les Moulins & Havana

A common fengshui feature, a spinning ball on top of a water fountain, is said to circulate positive energy around a room. A strange version has been commissioned for this biennial, made with materials sourced from Zomia, a highland region in Southeast Asia that has, because of its remoteness, historically existed outside of the control of any government. In Taichung, the fountain structure is constructed out of jadeite mined from the conflict-ridden Kachin state on the border between Myanmar and China, and the ‘water’ that flows around this is methamphetamine-laced urine from Thai drug users. Meth is another Zomia product: according to a report published by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group earlier this year, the jungle labs of Myanmar’s Shan state cook most of the word’s crystal meth.

Comprising dodgy substances harvested from lawless areas and recombined into unusual harmonies, this work (Friction Current: Magic Mountain, 2019, by artist duo Jiandyin) could serve as the centrepiece of the show. Artist-curators Hsu Chia-Wei, from Taiwan, and Ho Tzu-Nyen, from Singapore, ask: ‘How to rethink the unfinished project of Asian decolonisation?’ Their answers? Get high. Consult the I-Ching. Ponder a rock. 

Featuring 30 artists and collectives, and celebrating new, funky orthodoxies forged from often esoteric and proudly shady sources, this is an elegantly conceived boutique biennial guided by a central geographical schema. According to the curators, the mountain in the exhibition’s title refers to Zomia, and the sea refers to the Sulu Sea, a body of water around Malaysia’s Sabah state and the Philippines. It is also a notorious hotspot for piracy, robbery and kidnap. The hope is that these untamed frontier lands and porous borders can inspire an adventurous, open-ended state of mind, and prompt us to embrace an ongoing process of transformation and becoming. 

Get high. Consult the I-Ching. 

On a literal level, the geographical trope throws up materials derived from places with fuzzy boundaries. There are stones from the area around the Teesta River that crosses the slippery border between India and Bangladesh (Shilpa Gupta, Song of the Ground, 2017), and eerie inspection videos of underwater internet cables running under the no man’s land of the high seas (Charles Lim, Alpha 3.9: silent clap of the status quo, 2016). More poetically, but less frequently in the show, there are works that move away from rational frameworks into other forms of knowledge, such as Tcheu Siong’s dreams of guardian spirits of the highland Hmong people, depicted in embroidered cloth panels (Three Hmong Protectors 3, 2018).

Despite the occasional mystic, this is, for the most part, a heavily intellectual show. Most of its pleasures are slow and long, involving complex, research-heavy investigations into historical figures and moments, which are sometimes deathly dry, sometimes luminous and surprising, but always require patient attendance. A good example of this is the 40-minute video Bitcoin Mining and Field Recordings of Ethnic Minorities (2018), in which Liu Chuang takes viewers on a journey through, amongst other things, dams in Asia, bitcoin mines that sprang up near the hydroelectric plants, ethnic minorities in Zomia and sci-fi movie characters apparently inspired by them. Or you could ponder any one of four Lee Ufan works. The Mono-ha granddaddy is a bit of a surprise addition, but it is the logical conclusion to the curators’ radical impulse to decentralise. In an ideal world where nowhere is the centre, everywhere is the centre. The uncompromising stillness of Lee’s compositions, which is in fact a dynamic tension between the artwork, viewer and her surroundings, creates these special sites. 

There are wild places on the map, and also wild places within human experience. The best works in the exhibition honour the multitudinous unknowability of the world. 

Henry David Thoreau wrote that ‘in Wildness is the preservation of the world’ (Walden, 1854). There are wild places on the map, and also wild places within human experience. The best works in the exhibition honour the multitudinous unknowability of the world. They re-endear us to the world by taking us to its darkest, or least endearing places.

Nationalism, fanaticism and the sublime meet in Park Chan-kyong’s extraordinary two-channel video installation Kyoto School (2017). The work coalesces around the Kegon Falls in Japan, the Kyoto School philosophers and kamikaze pilots. Kegon Falls was a popular spot for youth suicides in the early twentieth century and also an image favoured by the Kyoto School, an influential movement of the twentieth century that integrated Western thought with Eastern ideals of nothingness. Some of its members were pro-war.

Displayed on one screen are quotations from ‘The Standpoint of World History and Japan’, a 1941 roundtable of scholars from the Kyoto School on the cusp of Japan’s entry into the Second World War. From this account, you get an idea of what has been projected on Kegon Falls as a symbol – the sublime, the absolute, noble sacrifice, the spirit of Japan and world history, and so on. 

The other screen features excerpts from the diaries of the kamikaze pilots. Faced with their impending martyrdom, these soldiers, often university students steeped in Western literature and philosophy, wrote passionately about thinkers and writers such as Friedrich Schiller and Émile Zola. In contrast to their elders, the youths reached out to the world, and did not attempt to conquer it. ‘I found in Thomas Mann, my painful longing for death since my boyhood.’ Desperate times begot poetry. ‘My time is crying. My watch is laughing.’ Sometimes there was grim acceptance. ‘Tomorrow / I shall plunge into a group of enemy aircraft carriers. / If you perform a memorial service, the date should be April 10.’

The ultranationalism of one generation contrasted with the cosmopolitanism of the next; abstracted notions of sacrifice juxtaposed with those actually doing the dying – those two worlds converge on Kegon Falls, a place of beauty and death. Park has no commentary. A slideshow plays views of the majestic falls, a long view of its silvery sheets and a closeup of the rocks below. And of course, the eternal crashing water.

2019 Asian Art Biennial: The Strangers from beyond the Mountain and the Sea at National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, through 9 February

From the Winter 2019 issue of ArtReview Asia