【by Ding-Liang Chen, June 2021】
Although the projects of modernization in the past centuries have promised a more progressive world, such a globalizing force has resulted in various forms of precarities, ranging from environmental crises, uneven developments, to ideological disparities. In addressing the incommensurability “between the ideal of the global and the reality of planet Earth” in their curatorial statement of the 2020 Taipei Biennial, Bruno Latour and Martin Guinard invite the audience to not only ponder on such divided realities from differentiated ideas and viewpoints, but return to the material composition, elemental organization, and terrestrial condition of the Earth. Such a critical transition, as the curators believe, might enable a productive negotiation between antagonistic standpoints, and gesture “toward a ‘terrestrial’ mode of existence” (n.p.).
The reception of the biennale, however, has emerged otherwise. Most of the reviews foreground the epistemological conundrum of the corresponding relationship between the curators’ thesis statement and the artists’ aesthetic production. With “the seemingly endless halls of infographics, sleek screens displaying statistics, wall-text art, science-fair projects, and documentation of good deeds performed,” art critic Travis Jeppesen suggests, the biennale simply stands as a blatant performance of Latour’s theoretical frameworks, while lacking necessary critical agency to reframe these Western narratives through localized artistic imagination and engagement (n.p.).
The biennale, in this regard, seems to be a curatorial version of what philosopher Ian Bogost terms “Latour litany” in Alien Phenomenology. In coining the phrase “Latour litany,” Bogost foregrounds a specific kind of writing strategy that takes into consideration the diversity of things and objects, with a significant effect of decentering the humanistic sovereignty (50-51). The long-winded listing of critical jargons and their supporting evidence shown through artworks and technical objects in the biennale has ironically consolidated Latour’s discursive authority as a Western theorist. One of the most salient criticisms, circulating among the reviews, lies in how the artworks had been rendered merely visual tools that endorsed the prevalence of the Western vision. While these attempts at dismantling Latour’s curatorial authority seem powerful at the outset, the clear-cut binary codes of practice/theory, art/technology, and local/global continue to dictate the reception of the biennale, so much so that a more productive evaluation of the biennale has been excluded.
In sharp contrast to the aforementioned reception of the biennale, this essay argues that Yu-Hsin Su and Aruwai Kaumakan are two of the many artists that had productively engaged with this thesis exhibition and actively assembled alternative modes of terrestrial existence beyond the global vision of the Earth.
Taking cue from Christopher Whitfield’s review, the emergence of the global vision could at least be traced back to the rapid development of astronomy and space science in the Cold War period, when the crew of Apollo 17 took the very first photography of the whole terraqueous globe. Later known as The Blue Marble, this clear global vision of the isolated and vulnerable planet set in the darkness of the universe has become an important signifier that stimulated later environmental activism in the 1970s. However, the globalism and the common humanity that this photograph assumes, as geographer Denis Cosgrove reminds us, has not only erased the imperial and geopolitical competition of Cold War space race, but “establish[ed] a transcendental, univocal, and universally valid vantage point from which to sketch a totalizing discourse” (288).
Yu-Hsin Su, Frame of Reference I & II (2020), Installation view in Taipei Biennial 2020: You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet, Taipei Fine Arts Museum. (Courtesy the artist. Photo: Yuro Huang)
Situated in the long history of measuring and observing the Earth through technical devices, Su’s serial video installations Frame of Reference I & II (2020) do not ask how to construct a global vision of the whole planet with the assistance of state-of-the-art equipment directly from the universe. Instead, in collaboration with GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Su collected datasets regarding the degradation of biophysical environment occurring in Taiwan’s Taroko Gorge site, and reorganized them into a digital juxtaposition of gradient visualization of seismic waves, aerial photography of landscapes, and macroscopic presentation of geological texture to create a volumetric investigation of the planet.
Although the seismometers, camera drones, surveillance cameras, and weather stations, from which the artist gathered data, are designed to continue atmospheric measurement of the Earth as a whole, they have been deployed as infrastructural networks that afford a more situated representation of terrestrial existence in critical zones. The aesthetic rendering in Frame of Reference, as Minh Nguyen succinctly summarizes, not only directs the audience’s attention to ecological disasters, but asks “how some scientists’ desire to maintain the natural process of erosion is often at odds with the static precision of their digital replication tools” (n.p.). In other words, what Frame of Reference has endeavored to reveal is a process of dynamic interference among scientific observation, terrestrial realities, and the position of the observer, through which a reflexive perspective of investigating our relationship to the planet might be formulated.
Sharing similar environmental concerns in her aesthetic creation, Paiwan artist Aruwai Kaumakan chose to concentrate on weaving as a predominant cultural technique to characterize an indigenous mode of terrestrial existence. When Typhoon Morakot caused severe rainfall and flooding in the central and southern part of Taiwan in 2009, thousands of indigenous villagers were required to relocate from their homeland that had nurtured generations of indigenous culture and histories. In a time of post-disaster reconstruction, Aruwai, then a jewelry designer based in Taipei, returned to the Rinari tribe and used her artworks to rebuild the sense of community in a collective manner.
From The Axis of Life (2018), Blooming (2018), Myself (2018), Breathing (2015), to Vines in the Mountain Forest (2020) showcased in the biennale, the making of traditional totems, spiraling scrolls, concentric patterns, the weaving technique of lemikalik and other indigenous cultural elements in Aruwai’s serial works does not simply resort to the lure of identitarian essentialism. Take the black slate tiles of Paiwan houses, a recurring figure in Aruwai’s contemporary artworks. The traditional slate houses, as another Paiwan artist Sakuliu Pavavaljung explains, “were built on the sides of the hills on the natural terraced fields following the course of the river,” and looked like “a moving snake slithering down a hill” (qtd. in Blain). When Aruwai wove this intimate and organic relationship that Paiwan community shares with the surrounding environments into her artworks, such a cultural technique in Paiwan oral tradition should thus be considered as an alternative form of writing system that helps transcribe and translate traditional architectural designs, living environments, and cosmological beliefs into a new form of art.
What’s noteworthy is that such artworks were not done by a single artist. Instead, during the preparation period of the biennale, we could see how Aruwai gathered together a group of Paiwan women in the museum, weaving textiles, vegetal elements, and other used objects on-site. In every recreation of her artworks, the cultural memories hidden in the act of weaving would be lived again and could be shared with tribal members. While practicing indigenous knowledge in post-disaster zones seems to be backward glancing, it is indeed a journey, as environmental activist Vandana Shiva suggests, “forward into a future embracing that liminality and inseparability between the communities and their common resources” (ch. 6).
Aruwai Kaumakan, The Axis of Life (2018) and Vines in the Mountain Forest (2020), Taipei Biennial 2020: You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet, Taipei Fine Arts Museum. (Photo courtesy of the artist)
In reading against the grain of the biennale, this essay has tried to salvage some of the counter-discourses embedded in the artworks and their technological implications that help complicate the curators’ governing thesis, when most of the reviews claim the opposite. Su and Aruwai stand as intriguing examples in the biennale not just because their artworks navigate potential terrestrial modes of existence through extremely varying forms of technologies, but the distinct sensorial experiences they created. While the former allocates different monitoring and measuring devices to challenge the global vision through digitized visuality, the latter does so by centering on weaving as a tactile medium that reinvents indigeneity.
The omnipresence of Latour in the biennale is indeed hard to be fully denied, but it might even persist in remaining so if we stop at refusing consistent interpretation and engagement. As Su and Aruwai demonstrate through their aesthetic creation, critical projects that aim at provincializing any forms of universality require both revelation of one’s positionality and devotion of collective efforts. This review hopes to serve as one of the many possible starting points in initiating such laborious processes.
Ding-Liang Chen, Taiwan-Asia Exchange Foundation, Taiwan
 For a more positive view on the emergence of Latour litany in contemporary art, see Halsall.
Blain, Lachlan. “Taipei Biennial 2020: Aruwai Kaumakan.” Garland Magazine. 26 May 2020. https://garlandmag.com/loop/taipei-biennial-2020-%E2%9C%BF-aruwai-kaumakan/
Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2012.
Cosgrove, Denis. “Contested Global Visions: One-World, Whole-Earth, and the Apollo Space Photographs.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 84.2 (1994): 270-94.
Halsall, Francis. “Actor-Network Aesthetics: The Conceptual Rhymes of Bruno Latour and Contemporary Art.” New Literary History 47 (2016): 439-61.
Jeppesen, Travis. “Taipei Biennial.” Artforum International. April 2021. https://www.artforum.com/print/reviews/202104/taipei-biennial-85295/
Latour, Bruno, and Martin Guinard. “Curatorial Statement.” Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
Nguyen, Minh. “Su Yu Hsin’s Digital Cartography.” Art in America. 29 December 2020. https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/su-yu-hsin-digital-cartography-1234580445/
Shiva, Vandana. Reclaiming the Commons: Biodiversity, Traditional Knowledge, and the Rights of Mother Earth. Santa Fe: Synergetic P, 2020.
Whitfield, Christopher. “Taipei Biennial 2020: You and I Don’t Live on the Same Planet.” ArtAsiaPacific. March/April 2021. http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/122/TaipeiBiennial2020YouAndIDonTLiveOnTheSamePlanet/