THE DESPERATE UNCOOLNESS OF TAIWAN

28 Sep

Taiwan’s pavilion is in a grim upstairs dungeon attached to the Doge’s palace via the Bridge of Sighs, so called because prisoners passed over it from the palace to meet their usually horrible fates. In Venice, even the torture chambers are on the primo piano in case of floods. Torturers hate getting their feet wet. It may or may not be deliberate that the formerly dictatorial Taiwan’s pavilion is situated where the Doges would have their political or personal opponents browbeaten and tortured. Probably not. Plaques on the wall say “[famous person] was imprisoned here, [year] to [year]”.

Most of the presentation is more enthusiastic than good or exciting, like a commendable effort by enthusiastic A Level students. There’s a wobbly video of sugar mill workers making a sound work that initially doesn’t seem related to anything else. Most of the remaining periphery is occupied by what they call ‘Soundscape Taiwan’ or the ‘Sound Library/Bar’, which is essentially an adolescent audiovisual mix tape of Taiwanese indie bands, performance artists, DJs and so forth, with iPads running a slick interface.

Presumably this is all supposed to be very cool and maybe it is by Taiwanese standards, but it all seems rather naïve, a bit shoddy, blithely amateurish and embarrassing… overall not the worst thing you’ll encounter at the Biennale by an extremely long chalk but not very good either.

I suppose Taiwan can at least be praised for trying to be overtly youthful in a superannuated Biennale where any artist under 35 is considered “young” and “emerging” even if they’ve been in exhibitions for ten years, leaving us without a sensible definition for somebody who’s 22, talented and recently graduated. Some of the Biennale’s PR puffs and written material even crow about the fact that there are several people under 35 in the exhibition, as if it’s the curator’s achievement rather than than a triumph for the artists. Taiwan’s pavilion is also admirably upfront about the fact that the Biennale is (and always has been)  primarily a kind of advertising market for national identity, even if in practice the Taiwan team’s chosen manner of branding themselves seems a bit ill-judged.

One thing that is truly worth the effort of visiting is Hong-Kai Wang’s video installation ‘Music While We Work’; it’s related to the aforementioned sound recording video but is in an entirely different league to it. The installation is compelling and almost painterly, particularly as projected here onto somewhat light-absorbing stone walls that mute and smear out the HD harshness of digital video. The double screen projection features workers at a sugar processing factory in Wang’s home town, and their erstwhile colleagues occasionally lurking around with recording equipment. It’s not quite a documentary, just poetic, languid, nicely shot and well-edited images of factory workers with no commentary, romanticism or condescension. Wang’s work is the only grown up thing in the whole pavilion.

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