52 Artists Tackle Environmental Degradation, Techno-Cultural Change, and Potential Dystopias at the Taipei Biennial 2014

Sam Gaskin
Oct 30, 2014 6:13PM

After 10,000 years of the temperate, stable Holocene, some scientists theorize that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Global warming, mass extinctions, and soil, water and air pollution are examples of how human activity has become the predominant driver of changes to our biosphere.

In his introduction to the Taipei Biennial 2014, head curator Nicolas Bourriaud, the director of the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, says this new era creates a paradox: “the more powerful and real the collective impact of the species is, the less contemporary individuals feel capable of influencing their surrounding reality.” This applies not only to environmental change, but also to technology, which permits new possibilities but leaves people as “spectators or victims of the structures they created,” as he writes. Surveillance is becoming ubiquitous, gratification instantaneous, and economic transactions automated. We’re no longer sure where we’re heading, but nevertheless we’re along for the ride.

The biennial, entitled “The Great Acceleration,” spans all three floors of the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Fifty-two artists from around the world mine a rich vein of subject matter: environmental degradation, techno-cultural change, and our rush—real or perceived—toward a range of potential dystopias and disasters.

Several artists evidence our growing remove from nature by taking commodities and their byproducts as materials. American artist Sterling Ruby creates abstract paintings using nail polish on acrylic, while Korea’s Haegue Yang makes humanoid sculptures using clothing racks, light bulbs, plants, and wigs, giving commodities the rich cultural lives of human tribes. British artist Roger Hiorns powerfully demonstrates the tenuousness of our technological achievements by reducing a passenger plane engine to a puddle of dust.

Marlie Mul, who hails from The Netherlands, makes puddles too, although his works not only incorporate commodities—plasticware, cigarettes, etc.—but find the byproducts of human civilization fit for artistic representation. His resin “Puddles” (2014), installed on the museum floor, resemble gooey roadside bitumen. Similarly, Belgian artist Peter Buggenhout uses trash, detritus, and dust—materials he describes as “abject”—to create assemblages that resemble found heaps of junk in his “The Blind Leading The Blind” series (2014).

Some of the exhibition’s most thought-provoking works take the present as just a blip in geological time. British artist Nathaniel MellorsNeanderthal Container (2014) is a video that cross-cuts between the body of a cave man falling from a plane dropped over the San Joaquin Valley and speeches by his split personalities. A chav self is all caveman id, an academic self is all super ego, and a mutant self—a mess of molten features—speaks from a position of radical evolutionary or devolutionary distance. The whole history of mankind seems to play out in the time it takes for the body to hit terminal velocity and crash into the dirt.

Americans Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe create a strange, near future world accessed through the offices of a fictitious corporation named Sansan International, which are modeled on the Taipei Biennial’s offices. This portal, entitled, Floating Chain (Fake Wall), takes you to the “The Octopus Spa,” a seedy, robotized future akin to the Martian colony in Total Recall. The room’s massage chairs are surrounded by empty terrariums, semi-pornographic beach towels bought on Venice Beach, and a fountain whose water issues from the eye of a vampire mask. 

Hacking his way even further into the depths of human decline is Gilles Barbier, born in Vanuatu (an island in the South Pacific), whose mixed media sculptures Still Man and Still Woman (2013) show people being overcome by jungle vegetation. These are a sort of nihilistic, environmentalist fantasy, as anarchically optimistic as the term “late capitalism,” where nature finally subjugates mankind. A more lyrical, hopeful work is Japanese artist Shimabuku’s My Teacher Tortoise—a live tortoise whose actions (and inaction) affirm the possibilities of stopping and going back, instead of continuing headlong.

It’s ironic that a show so concerned with dystopia and disaster is taking place in a country as nice as Taiwan, a liberal democracy where people are unfailingly helpful and the environment is relatively well cared for. And yet Taiwan lies in the environmental, economic, and political shadow of mainland China, its population of 23 million dwarfed by China’s 1.6 billion. This precarious situation echoes the powerlessness of contemporary individuals in the face of accelerating man-made systems. Taiwanese artist Chu ChunTeng’s sculptures—the remixed skeletons of different animals—suggest one way of coping is to make like Aesop’s Bat (2014) and present oneself as a mammal in some situations and a bird in others, depending on which identity best serves. Taiwan can be more or less “Chinese” in different situations, depending on the relative costs and benefits.

Yet such hedges are temporary. In the longer term, we can be aware of impending threats and do everything in our power as individuals to avert them, but with diminishing democratic and economic influence, we could still be headed inexorably towards disaster. Being a peaceful island nation is no guarantee of safety. He may not have placed his bet on the right horseman of the apocalypse, but novelist and artist Douglas Coupland summed up the reach of global disaster well enough when he wrote that “New Zealand Gets Nuked, Too.” Maybe Taipei is not such a strange place for “The Great Acceleration” to take place after all.

Sam Gaskin

The Taipei Biennial 2014 is on view at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum, Sept. 13, 2014 - Jan. 4, 2015.


Roger Hiorns, Untitled, 2008; Atomised jet engine, aircraft dust piece; dimensions variable (estimated weight 1.7 Tons). Courtesy of Corvi-Mora Gallery and Taipei Biennial.

Peter Buggenhout 

(Left) The Blind Leading The Blind #35, 2010; Iron, cardboard, polyurethane, wood, polyester, plastic, plexi, papier maché, covered with domestic dust; 86.6 x 90.5 x 125.9 inches. Courtesy Taipei Biennial.

(Right) The Blind Leading The Blind #64, 2014; Iron, polysterene, wood, polyester, plastic, polyurethane, cardboard, covered with domestic dust; 133.8 x 145.6 x 307 inches. Courtesy Taipei Biennial. 

Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe, Octopus Spa, inside “The Floating Chain Fake Wall,” 2014; Mixed media; dimensions variable. Photo: Sam Gaskin.

Nathaniel Mellors, Neanderthal Container (Animatronic Prelapse), 2014; Animatronic sculpture with sound; dimensions variable. Photo courtesy Taipei Biennial. 

Haegue Yang, Medicine Man, installation view, 2014. Photo courtesy of Taipei Biennial.

Chun-Teng Chu, Aesop’s Bat No.4, 2014; Pholidota, rabbit, chicken animal bone, crystal, marble, gofun, PVC; 23.6 x 11 x 15.7 inches. Photo courtesy Taipei Biennial.