Arriving in Bangkok on a sticky December morning, our gregarious taxi driver sang along to loud Thai music while shoving pamphlets at us advertising elephant rides and drugged tigers. We were not there for tigers, nor the other typical offerings this popular holiday destination is famed for; we came to see the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennial (BAB) (Nov 2018-Feb 2019).

The question many have asked of the BAB is whether Thailand needs more tourists, or if it is simply aiming to attract a different ilk of visitor. Apinan Poshyanada, the chief executive and artistic director of BAB stated in an interview in November 2018: “we need quality tourism in Bangkok, and the biennial can help promote the city’s rich heritage and culture.” With 75 artists from over 30 countries exhibited across an array of venues in the city, the premise is simple: art lovers and tourists can experience a diversified Bangkok - a city that can be famed for its art, alongside its rich culture and heritage.

Komkrit Tepthian installation at Wat Arun temple in Bangkok. Photo: Leora Joy

Komkrit Tepthian installation at Wat Arun temple in Bangkok. Photo: Leora Joy

Calling Bangkok the ‘Venice of the East’ is one way to sell this city as a top contemporary art destination. Inviting a slew of famed international artists is another. This event attracted some of the art world’s biggest contenders: on the bill was Marina Abromović, now a household name famed for her physically taxing endurance performances; and Yayoi Kusama, a long standing cult Japanese artist who was just recently the subject of an acclaimed documentary There was a large puppy sculpture from Yoshitomo Nara, best known for his drawings of cute dogs and grumpy children; as well as work by the Danish art duo Elmgreen & Dragset.

Chumpun Apisuk  I Have Dreams.  2018 video installation. Collection of the Artist. Photo: Bangkok Art Biennial.

Chumpun Apisuk I Have Dreams. 2018 video installation. Collection of the Artist. Photo: Bangkok Art Biennial.

These, and many more famed international names were placed alongside local Thai contemporaries like Imhathai Suwatthanasilp, a delicate weaver and braider of human hair; and Nino Sarabutra, who placed 125,000 white glazed skulls around the entrance to a stupa at Wat Prayoon and invited visitors to walk over them. Other notable artists include the painter Pannaphan Yodmanee, who is gaining quick traction for her detailed historic tableaus of Thai history, as well as Komkrit Tepthian, who splices together large gods from various religions. All these works were sprawled out across sites as diverse as heritage buildings, public parks, high-end hotels, gleaming shopping malls and ancient temples (or wats) along the newly cleaned Chaophraya River.

What to expect from the land of smiles but a biennial full of heart?  We are encouraged to view the BAB 2018 theme of Beyond Bliss as a universal one in this age of “disruption, delusion, and fear”. Being beyond bliss, according to Poshyanada’s curatorial statement, is a state of “neither happiness nor sorrow”, but rather elevated above and beyond these states of being. This open ended, paradoxical title not only allows for free interpretation but offers the curators a chance to showcase emergent artists alongside those who are also more critical of the current political status without violating any laws. “People said to me: ‘Why ask for trouble?’” Poshyanada said in an interview with the Guardian in October 2018, “And yes, we chose to take the difficult path. But under the military we’ve gone through five years of intense scrutiny and it’s time to have a breather and be able to freely express ourselves.”

The 2018 BAB indicates that something vital has shifted in Thailand. Indeed, it seems the tourism-flattened rendition of Thailand once held in popular imagination is getting a makeover. By showcasing work that challenges Thailand’s taboos and restrictions, the BAB complicates a simplified notion of Thailand. This biennial tackles sensitive topics such as the friction between the country’s Muslim and Buddhist communities, political topics like the Rohingya’s exile from Myanmar, as well as social stigmas. The difficulties experienced by women and migrant workers were also examined in depth.

Chumpon Apisuk, a pioneer in Thailand’s performance art scene, added to this conversation when he interviewed more than a dozen Thai and migrant sex workers. I Have Dreams (2018) is a compilation of seventeen women’s simple hopes and all-too-familiar aspirations. Leaning against bar stools or standing in front of massage parlours, backlit by red strip lights, these marginalised women offer their everyday desires directly to the camera, sometimes self-consciously. “I have a dream, to build a new house for my family,” Peung says. “Then I can open a small grocery shop.” Presented simply as they are: young women struggling to earn an income, and help support their families, the stereotypical flattened versions of these individuals are no longer applicable. Initiated with defiance, the 2018 BAB does more than just promote the city’s rich heritage and culture: it moves beyond bliss.

Pannaphan Yodmanee  Sediments of Migration . 2018. Acrylic on concrete, iron. Size Variable. Collection on the Artist. Installation at Wat Arun Temple. Photo: Leora Joy

Pannaphan Yodmanee Sediments of Migration. 2018. Acrylic on concrete, iron. Size Variable. Collection on the Artist. Installation at Wat Arun Temple. Photo: Leora Joy


Co-written with John Stephenson.

Originally published by The News Lens.

Photo: Jut Art Museum

Photo: Jut Art Museum

'Vase of an Anti-Aircraft Gun' is Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s first large-scale installation in Taiwan. Juxtaposing an ordinary living room with a weapon of war, the work speaks to issues of displacement, curatorial conflict of interest, and power.

Two anti-aircraft gun barrels penetrate up through floorboards, piercing the small coffee table, and – posing as vases – hold two large bouquets of lilies. The space features a comfortable sofa, and a large television looping news reports from 24-hour Taiwanese news channels. There are bookshelves to peruse, magazines strewn across a coffee table, paintings on the wall, and a calendar with the days marked off. But, it’s not a normal space. The room is built on scaffolding. The flowers are in gun barrels. It’s so easy to forget this – seated on a sofa, with the news on, rain mutely hitting the roof. This is "Vase of an Anti-Aircraft Gun," Japanese artist Tatzu Nishi’s first large-scale installation in Taiwan.

A must-see work

This is a striking and well curated show. Put together by Huang Shan-shan (黃姍姍) at the Jut Art Museum, “The Flying Land” is an inquiry into contemporary living in globalized urban spaces, and constitutes a powerful examination of ideas of “temporary lodging” and the “migratory” nature of the modern world. 

Nishi’s installation is the exhibition's centerpiece, and his playful style ricochets off every aspect. Once inside, however, the viewer reels from sudden cognitive dissonance. Nishi has created an illusion that reveals both the real and non-real nature of the private spaces we wrap around ourselves. There may be no cannon in our living rooms, but the dangers and dominance of power exists as an ever-present reality. This uneasy feeling of displacement pervades “Vase of Anti-Aircraft Gun.” Any attempt to reconcile the discomfort by sitting on the sofa and leafing through a magazine is shattered by the presence of the ‘vases’. The scene recalls Chekhov’s Gun in its theatrical arrangement – the artillery part of an ex machina plot that is bound to play out regardless of our involvement or consent.

Photo: Leora Joy

Photo: Leora Joy

Sticking to her guns

In her curatorial statement, Huang explains that by invoking "The Flying Land" as both title and a metaphor, this show references The Flying Dutchman (De Vliegende Hollander) – the legendary ghost ship that can never make port – and touches on the “human condition of ceaseless struggle over diaspora in contemporary civilizations.”

Huang told The News Lens that the show is the culmination of three years of research inspired by her experiences of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe. In her view, the works provide a thoughtful platform for discussion and examination of our world of “constant migration and temporary residence.” The setting of the Jut Art Museum in Taipei’s Da’an District also raises interesting questions about the role land development plays in the psychological and geographical displacement of people in contemporary urban environments.

Indeed, displacement is the foundation of Nishi’s work. The public monuments and spaces he uses are often very familiar to a city’s residents, and function as markers of specificity. Static, permanent, often overseeing the metropolis from a pedestal, these sculptures are distant and inaccessible. Some – like the Queen Victoria Statue in London, or the Merlion monument in Singapore – signal specific places and histories; their meaning couched in their physical contexts.

The anti-aircraft gun employed in Nishi’s work was used by ROC Navy marines during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958. Taken from a small park near Yuanshan, it was displaced to its current location at the Jut Museum for the duration of this show, in the process losing a key aspect of its site-specificity.

When asked by The News Lens why the monument was moved, Huang said she wanted to bring an audience to the museum. It took nine months to get permission to move the guns. The government at first wanted her to leave the piece in place at the 823 Artillery Battle Memorial Park (八二三砲戰紀念公園), and veterans and the navy opposed the moving of a war memorial. Sticking to her guns, the piece was relocated.

The original site of the gun used in 'Vase of an Anti-Aircraft Gun' at the 823 Artillery Battle Memorial Park (八二三砲戰紀念公園). Photo via Google

The original site of the gun used in 'Vase of an Anti-Aircraft Gun' at the 823 Artillery Battle Memorial Park (八二三砲戰紀念公園). Photo via Google

This act should, in principle, have brought the park and its monuments itself back into the public consciousness. In an interview earlier this year, Nishi said in that, “because these monuments stay in the same space for a really long time, people just start forgetting what is there.” 

But the guns’ displacement to a private art gallery means the work is cut off from the public – an eventuality Nishi implicitly criticized in a 2012 interview with Art In America: “Exhibitions of contemporary art should be placed in [the] exterior, where there are more audiences, and even more where people who are not interested in art are passing by,” he said.

Either way, getting Tatzu Nishi to Taiwan is a big deal, and certainly a coup for Jut Art Museum. Moreover, it will do little to harm to their catalogue claim of being “the first art institution focusing on issues concerning ‘future’ and ‘city’ in Taiwan.” Other internationally recognized artists on the bill include Ulla von Brandenburg (Germany), Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan (Philippines), and Wei Leng Tay (Singapore).

Jutting out

The story behind how this exhibition ended up in Taipei and at the Jut Museum in particular provides an alternative lens through which to view its overarching theme of displacement.

The organization behind the Jut Art Museum, the Jut Foundation for Arts and Architecture, is part-funded by its parent, Taiwan's Zhongtai Construction Group Co. Foundation CEO Aaron Lee says in the organization’s 10th anniversary publication that, “as a land developer, I have always believed that I am greatly responsible for and have been actively involved in the city’s urban development, architectural design, and lifestyle shaping.”

Tatzu Nishi’s elevated installation is relatively inconspicuous amid the neighborhood's embrace of concrete and steel. Photo: John Stephenson

Tatzu Nishi’s elevated installation is relatively inconspicuous amid the neighborhood's embrace of concrete and steel. Photo: John Stephenson

One example of this claim in action is Project UrbanCore, which makes use of undeveloped land by allowing artists, architects and researchers to try out their ideas in their transitory non-spaces, often working with or through local community groups. Ultimately though, Zhongtai is in the business of building high-end residential tower blocks. They are all tall, shiny buildings whose project titles indicate a utopian future in the making – Zhongtai Symphony and Will See Tomorrow being apposite examples.

The problem with utopias, as art historian and critic Claire Bishop states, is that they are “predicated on the exclusion of those who hinder or prevent [their] realization.” Bishop aims this criticism at contemporary art’s tendency to leave behind a “feel good factor” while failing to deal realistically with the underlying issues. She believes that good art should also antagonize; and show us the things we don’t want to admit are there.

Developing unease

While the largest elephant in Nishi’s room is China’s reservation of the right to use force to invade Taiwan as mandated under its Anti-Secession Law, and the current icy state of cross-Strait relations, there is also a subtle, small-elephant dynamic at play between the host institution and the artwork. 

Curator and art critic Lu Pei-yi captures the framework for the conflict of interest at play here in her 2010 paper “What is Off-site Art?

Off-site art is often confronted by difficulties arising from broader social, economic, and political arenas and is sometimes commissioned for specific pragmatic purposes, as a means of propaganda, to promote a city’s image or its urban regeneration.

In the case of “The Flying Land” and Nishi’s installation, these broader difficulties include the displacement of communities and people in Taipei in the name of urban regeneration and land development, and the difficulties inherent in placing an exhibition of this nature in a museum with connections to a land development company. 

This antagonism may not have been to the fore when creating this show, but with the Jut Foundation HQ and its accompanying steel-and-glass buildings looming over the installation, partially blocking Nishi’s piece from public view, the connection between institution and artwork, like the gun in the artist’s room, becomes impossible to ignore.

Is a land development company really the appropriate leader in a discussion of urban regeneration? This is a group that has the clout to move a war memorial to one of their sites, ostensibly to boost the profile of their art museum. And are we dealing with a genuine interest in urban innovation, or is this another example of, in the words of political scientist Jamie Peck, the harnessing by powerful groups of “creativity strategies”, which, “for all their talk of local ‘authenticity’ [...] reconstitute urban-elitist, ‘leadership’ models of city governance, despite their ritual invocation of grassroots efforts?” In any case, it is encouraging to see that the Jut Foundation is willing to engage and explore better ways to build a city, and that Huang was given full creative license to do what she wanted in this show is to be commended.

“The Flying Land” thus offers much to contemplate about a “contemporary city’s ceaseless transition, regeneration and perpetuation.” But the fact is that the exhibition presents no plan for a better world. There is no solution put forward to the problems of living in a contemporary city like Taipei. When the viewer leaves Nishi’s room, China’s missiles will still be pointed at the island and Xi Jinping will not suddenly have decided that Taiwan is not part of China. We can sit in our houses and watch our televisions, and once again thrust to the back of our minds the precarious nature of the peace we enjoy.

TNL Editor: David Green


Originally published by The News Lens.  

Photo: Leora Joy

Photo: Leora Joy

"We should try to construct practices of vocation that can begin to address the deficit of felt powerlessness and to chip away at our capacity to interiorise power relations, to delimit by ourselves the realm of the possible." — Nigel Thrift "Non-Representational Theory" (2007)

Two-thirds of the world's population will live in cities by 2050, according to the United Nations.

But what makes a city? With longer lifespans than the people inhabiting them, cities seem everlasting: filled with cement and steel structures, high-rise towers and thousands of apartment blocks housing private lives.

They give the impression of being forever: permanent testaments to the public that make them home, monuments to people and their lives. But, make no mistake, despite their ubiquity, not all cities are as permanent as we think they are. Nor are they created equally, divvied up fairly, or even utilized as they were intended to be.

In the opening quote, Sir Nigel Thrift, a former Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University and a renowned expert in the field of human geography, encourages individuals to resist feeling powerless, but to rather utilize what is at their disposal, however limited it may be. Affirming that people live their politics on the ground, he reminds us that if these practices cannot be actualized, people will make do with what they have.

A city is an attempt at a kind of collective immortality. We die, but we hope our city’s forms and structures will live on. — Marshall Berman, author of 'Restless Cities'

Every part of society and culture can be studied: from art and laws to street plans, religion, and language. What is often overlooked in these studies is how they are utilized. In “The Practise of Everyday Life” -- a philosophical study on how people individualize mass culture -- 20th century historian, psychoanalyst, and cultural theorist, Michel de Certeau (who was also a Jesuit priest) contends that this oversight -- the lack of formal studies on how people actually use aspects of culture -- is a dangerous omission. Without it, we are left with an inaccurate appraisal of contemporary life.

Taipei City. Photo by Reuters/TPG

Taipei City. Photo by Reuters/TPG

According to de Certeau there are two trends at play: strategies and tactics. Strategies are implemented by organizations and systems with “will and power” like governments and businesses. Tactics by nature are “defensive and opportunistic, used in limited ways and seized momentarily within spaces, both physical and psychological,” says curator and author Andrew Blauvelt in his book “Strangely Familiar”, which leans heavily on de Certeau’s research.

Just under three million people live in Taipei City – not including New Taipei City which is tightly wrapped around it – with Da’an District alone housing over 28,000 people per square kilometer. While this is nothing compared to Shanghai’s population of 25 million, it is still dense. The membranes between private and public wear thin, and become permeable. Lovers embrace on park benches. Space is a luxury. Migrant workers congregate in large picnic style gatherings around churches and train stations as they are afforded no communal spaces.

Some religious groups meet in parks to worship. Privacy is precious, and scarce. That's why there’s an abundance of love motels, KTVs, and private movie rooms you can rent for hourly seclusion. Walking past Chiang Kai-shek (中正紀念堂) or Sun Yat-sen (國立國父紀念館) memorial halls, you’ll observe teenagers dancing, choirs rehearsing, and small orchestras tuning instruments.

Extended families live together in small apartments (三代同堂). Children often grow up with aunts, uncles, and grandparents in their shared family home, and many young adults only leave after they marry. Neighborhoods are crammed, and this makes available many different kinds of business services in one area. Residents assert their limited space and personalize their small patch of territory by raising plants and caring for each other in neighborly ways.

This lack of privacy and limited space spark improvisation. New adaptations of public places occur. In “Strangely Familiar,” Blauvelt, writes that de Certeau's investigations into the “realm of routine practices, or the ‘arts of doing’ such as walking, talking, reading, dwelling, and cooking, were guided by his belief that despite repressive aspects of modern society, there exists an element of creative resistance to these structures enacted by ordinary people”. If a system or situation isn’t working for the people it is meant to serve, they will creatively make do with what is afforded to them.

Working out in an open air gym on Elephant Mountain, Taipei. Photo: Leora Joy

Working out in an open air gym on Elephant Mountain, Taipei. Photo: Leora Joy

Resistance unfolds tactical solutions.

Here in Taipei, this resistance manifests in manifold ways. Firstly, illegal rooftop apartments - dinglou jiagai (頂樓加蓋) -- sprinkle the skyline of Taipei City. Housing prices in Taiwan are so expensive that Taiwanese media has said the average household would have to “neither eat nor drink” for over 15 years in order to buy property.

Ramshackle rooftop housing clutters the Taipei skyline. Photo: Morley J Weston.

Ramshackle rooftop housing clutters the Taipei skyline. Photo: Morley J Weston.

People often have to make do in their living arrangements, even if it puts their lives in danger. Often constructed of corrugated iron and steel cages, makeshift homes perch lightly on top of squeezed-together buildings. Balconies are transformed into enclosed rooms, while other property owners build over narrow lanes.

These shantytown rooftop apartments are fire hazards, and deemed unsafe to live in. In certain parts of Taipei and New Taipei, government-funded demolition teams are in the process of methodically tearing them down. A recent News Lens article affirms that this is a necessary course of action: over 10 people have died from rooftop fires. People, mostly foreigners and students, continue to live in them. This rogue strategy temporarily combats overpopulation, the absence of building regulations, and the inaccessibility of rental prices.

Another example of this tactic of making do with what is available can be seen in Taiwan’s infamous night markets: a must-see on every tourist’s list. Night markets are usually well regulated and vendors need permits to sell.

Yet some eschew the red tape and just show up with their wares. Unable to afford, or unwilling to own a shop front, many private merchants have carts or stands that are easily closed up for quick removal or storage. In Ximending (西門町), or Tonghua Night Market (通化夜市), the wide walkways filled with throngs of milling people will be lined with merchants selling xiaochi (小吃) -- literally small eats -- counterfeit apparel, a wide range of electronics and toys, and even carnival-style games.

Mobile vendor ready to roll out. Photo: Leora Joy

Mobile vendor ready to roll out. Photo: Leora Joy

At any time, given warning of a policeman on patrol, these stands disappear smoothly, with nothing but darkened oil splattering on the tarmac to indicate they were ever there. They’ll set up again around a corner or return after the police have moved on. This informal occupation on the streets serves to meet the needs of individuals who cannot afford to go the legal route of obtaining permits.

A more positive informal takeover, can be seen in the way people utilize and accentuate public property to meet private needs. Gyms have been established along the tops and slopes of mountains: take a quick trot up to the open air gym on Elephant Mountain (象山) and you’ll probably see shirtless men pumping iron with leafy jungle fronds swaying behind them.

There is a fair amount of guerrilla gardening, manifesting in small vegetable gardens grown beside public roads or in empty lots awaiting urban development, a response to the inaccessibility of arable land. Stretches of the riverside paths that meander through Taipei are lovingly attended to, growing produce that feeds extended families. Community-run gardens are found everywhere in this city. Unsuspecting dead ends meet small corner parks that double as vegetable patches. Construction sites, flood banks and the island in-between the Zhongxiao and Zhongsheng bridges are all homes to such flourishing guerrilla takeovers.

Tending an inner city communal garden. Photo: Leora Joy

Tending an inner city communal garden. Photo: Leora Joy

The inhabitants of all cities use and re-use what is offered to them. There’s an abundance of new ways to subvert rituals and regulations. These actions allow individuals to appropriate systems to meet their needs. Quietly subversive, most turn a blind eye to the tactics employed, or employ them themselves. These methods offer a substantial insight into a city's temperament and the inclinations of its inhabitants.

Amid this tempestuous state of global foment, who knows what subversive tactics will be needed to keep individuals and families afloat. “A city is an attempt at a kind of collective immortality” wrote Marshall Berman in an essay on urban ruin. “We die, but we hope our city’s forms and structures will live on.”

Places are temporary, politics are in flux, and as de Certeau says “stories about places are makeshift things.” Even these are subject to the erosion of memory. In order to be preserved a city must adapt. Growth is necessary, change is inevitable, but just how much change can be sustained? And how can these changes better serve city dwellers?

It would seem that finding ways to make a city work for its inhabitants has never been more important. But, as we've seen, Taipei will make do just fine, with its particular brand of creative resistance and the very keqi (polite) ways in which people discreetly ignore the rules, and are themselves ignored.

TNL Editor: David Green