Months before the 2010 Taipei Biennial opened on Sept. 7 at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, one of the organizers, the Taiwanese curator and artist Hongjohn Lin, promised an “anti-biennial biennial.” He and co-curator Tirdad Zolghadr, a professor at Bard College and curator of the first United Arab Emirates pavilion at the 2009 Venice Biennale, had chosen to abstain from the arms race of escalating budgets and expansive artist rosters. Instead, they invited 24 artists (a paltry number by most biennial standards), left the exhibition untitled and invited an additional eight artists from the 2008 Taipei Biennial to return and create art that critiques their previous work, the earlier exhibition and the institution of the Taipei Biennial itself.
Questioning the biennialization of contemporary art is not altogether new, and it is also not easy to pull off in exhibition form. In 2008, São Paulo Bienal curator Ivo Mesquita declared that he would exhibit no art objects in order to reflect on the proliferation of international surveys, and while he did leave the 820-foot-long main exhibition hall empty, dubbing it the “void,” opposition in the press and art community eventually forced him to install a small display. That same year in Cyprus, the pan-European biennial Manifesta was to be transformed into an experimental art school and artist residency program, but the Greek Cypriot government pulled the plug on funding once it learned that part of this art school would extend beyond militarized checkpoints and into the contested Turkish Cypriot zone. In those two cases, as in Taipei now, there was a desire to reinvent the biennial as an extended event with greater power to transform its host community, rather than simply to present a short-term, massive spectacle of international art stars. Lin and Zolghadr cited both exhibitions as precedents. (Okwui Enwezor’s “Platforms” for the 2002 Documenta and the “Utopia Station” section of the Venice Biennale  are even earlier examples.) In Taipei, the 2010 biennial comes amid a heated dispute between local artists and the biennial’s host institution.
In late August, in response to mounting criticism of the museum, one of Taiwan’s most prominent artists, 50-year-old Chen Chieh-jen, showed up at a press conference for his own retrospective at the museum to announce he would never exhibit there again. According to local news reports, Chen charged the museum—which has vowed since its opening in 1983 to support contemporary Taiwanese artists—with becoming “thoroughly box-office oriented and commercialized.” Chen, whose video works are currently on view in the São Paulo and Shanghai biennials, told reporters, “It has lost the functionality an art museum should have—the production of local knowledge and discourse from local experience.”
Many in Taiwan’s arts community agree, accusing the government bureaucrats who run the museum of neglecting local artists and simply outsourcing important shows. In 2009, major exhibitions came from the Centre Pompidou and the U.S. animation studio Pixar, while a Cai Guo-Qiang show was curated by the artist’s Taipei gallery, Eslite. In response to Chen’s attack, the museum issued a press release countering that in 2009 it raised annual attendance by 250 percent, to a historic high of 1.15 million visitors (essentially confirming Chen’s charge that box office comes first).
A few works (all 2010) in the current Taipei Biennial respond to this charged atmosphere, albeit obliquely. For his video Elevator Pitch, playing on a monitor in one gallery, Shahab Fotouhi arranged for a discussion of cultural policy between Zolghadr and government officials on a local television talk show, where Zolghadr unfortunately did not pose the hard questions the moment perhaps demanded. The exhibition also makes a more straightforward comment on museum-viewer relations through a great deal of direct engagement, which sometimes leads viewers outside the museum. Olivia Plender’s Google Office is a multifunctional space with office facilities, a foosball table and a conference area where discussions among local and international arts figures were scheduled almost every day of the biennial’s opening month. Larry Shao’s Salsa Class offers biweekly dance instruction. And Pak Sheung Chuen’s Going Home Projects has the artist spending an evening at the home of a different museum visitor each day. Because of all this activity, the museum galleries tend to be visually spare.
Another of the biennial’s precarious experiments is a two-year plan, for which the curators have commissioned 11 of the artists to expand their works over time and exhibit them in 2012. Lin and Zolghadr hope to transform the biennial into a work-in-progress, with events ending just before the next biennial begins, at which time the new curators may or may not take up the project. The museum initially balked at the plan, Lin told A.i.A., saying that no gallery space or funding would be available to continue the 2010 biennial’s initiatives after the exhibition officially closes on Nov. 14. But as this issue went to press the museum’s website stated: “Possibilities for sustainable ideas beyond closing day are also being developed, so that the show might have an afterlife.” One way or another, the curators’ plans for a follow-up exhibition and forum, which will probably take place at one of Taipei’s alternative spaces, are still very much alive.
Photos: (left) Larry Shao leading a salsa class at Lumi Dance School, Taipei. (right) Shahab Fotouhi, Elevator Pitch, video, taped at a TV station in Taipei.