Installation view of the 2019 edition of the Asian Art Biennial The Strangers from Beyond the Mountain and the Sea (all images courtesy the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts)

TAICHUNG CITY, Taiwan — Often when traveling to other parts of Asia, and in the West, people are caught off-guard when I mention I am a third-generation Singaporean, given my Sri Lankan Tamil ancestry. In spite of increasing connectivity, most people in Asia and beyond are not aware of the heterogeneity that exists within the various countries in the region. They believe the sweeping narratives that demarcate a supposed collective Asian identity, even though the continent is evidently far more diverse and nuanced. The 2019 Asian Art Biennial, for all its curatorial ambition to shift our gaze beyond the generalized narratives by exploring spaces of anarchy in Asia, fails to comprehend the heterogenous and fragmented nature of being Asian, from ancient times through now.

The seventh edition of the Asian Art Biennial (AAB) titled, The Strangers from Beyond the Mountain and the Sea, focuses on an ambitious diagrammatic curatorial theme involving two highly contentious regions, “Zomia” and “Sulu Sea,” represented by the mountain and the sea in the title. Mounted at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in Taichung, Taiwan, it is co-curated by Taiwanese and Singaporean artists Hsu Chia-Wei and Ho Tzu-Nyen.

Installation view of the 2019 edition of the Asian Art Biennial The Strangers from Beyond the Mountain and the Sea

In The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, the author and anthropologist James C. Scott describes Zomia as “a term for highlander common to several related Tibeto-Burman languages spoken in the India-Bangladesh-Burma border area.” Scott views the region of Zomia with its high altitudes and rugged terrain as ungovernable by the surrounding low-lying states, creating a space through centuries for non-state peoples including ethnic minorities, forgotten war guerillas, and drug dealers. The Sulu Sea, a marginal sea between the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, with Borneo in the South and the Philippines in the North, is well known due to activities in the area by Philippine-based, Jihadist militants such as the Abu Sayyaf Group. The sea is also historically known as a route used for slave raiding and piracy.

Curatorial theme diagram for Asian Art Biennial

The idea of exploring spaces of anarchy in Asia is definitely intriguing for a continent collectively hellbent on rapid modernization and economic progress. The most ubiquitous images of Asia tend to be skyscrapers, bustling metropolises, hyper urban and cosmopolitan citizenry, despite the inherently conservative or spiritual nature of society. There are also very few efforts to showcase the shadow self of our disparate identities.

The range of these identities becomes especially apparent at the AAB. Scattered across various galleries in the behemoth space of the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, the Biennial presents paintings, installations, video works, and performances by 30 artists and collectives from 16 countries. However, only nine works are newly commissioned and there are only two Indian artists on show — Zuleikha Chaudhari and Shilpa Gupta — with no works from artists in Pakistan, Bangladesh, or Sri Lanka.

Deposits of the Island by Open Contemporary Art Center (OCAC) x Lifepatch in the 2019 edition of the Asian Art Biennial The Strangers from Beyond the Mountain and the Sea

In light of this failure the exhibition can only be described as underwhelming, especially given its lofty curatorial theme and its expansive platform as an Asian art biennial. The entire visitor experience boils down to wandering into various galleries with no clear coherence in the narrative that should connect them. An ineffective effort to create a semblance of narrative involves small rooms interspersed throughout the gallery spaces. These rooms contain wooden structures displaying footnotes to the exhibition, providing background on the works and the artists’ own thought process. These materials include coordinates from maps and historical facts on Asian regions known for their 19th-century maritime and political activities such as the Golden Triangle, and are accompanied by relevant images from archives of the British Library, the New York Public Library and more. There was supposed to be a sound accompaniment to these rooms, but I do not recall hearing anything.

Rooms with Researcher’s footnotes

The artworks exhibited in the museum indoor atrium surrounding the galleries were even less effective in conveying that this exhibition is a biennial exploring nuanced and vast themes across diverse and distinctive identities, let alone the notion of anarchy and anarchic spaces in Asia.

Taiwanese artists collective Open Contemporary Art Centre (OCAC) and Indonesian artists collective Lifepatch presented their site-specific installation “Deposits of the Island” (2019) exploring the historical layers of the Taiwanese mountain village Jinguashi which is famous for its gold and copper mines. As part of their immersive, colorful, and playful installation at the biennial, they created various items including umbrellas with different sounds you can hear when you use them; massage beds with colorful thread work in various cartoonish images such as a flower, or hands, or waves that are supposed to represent the emotional states of migrant workers in Taiwan; an installation made from an old miner’s house presenting transparent cylinders on shelves showcasing Indonesian traditional medicines such as roots, leaves, seeds. The layout of these objects is haphazard.  Moreover, the installation does not draw a strong link to the exploration of anarchy and relevant spaces in Asia — it is mostly yet another showcase of the global capitalist phenomena and its effects on Asia.

Deposits of the Island by Open Contemporary Art Center (OCAC) x Lifepatch 02

There is one work in the entire exhibition that provides the link between anarchy and Asian spaces both in an accessible and bold manner that does not aim for sweeping narratives. New York-based German and Monglian-Chinese artist Timur Si-Qin’s “East, South, West, North” (2018) features sculptures recreating rocks similar to those found in the digital images of mountainous landscape on lightboxes placed around the room. The rocks were created from crab, insect, shell, tree bark, and other found pieces the artist came across and 3D scanned in a bid to create a new ritual and space of worship involving a primal connection between human and animal. This is all part of “New Peace”, an ongoing project regarding creating secular spirituality in our times of seismic political change.

It would be refreshing to see more art in such a major platform that dared to boldly take on distinctive explorations of the various contemporary and ancient aspects of Asia, especially its more primal and anarchic forms, instead of getting lost in the socially acceptable narratives of being Asian and its mythical collective identity.

The 2019 Asian Art Biennial continues at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (No. 2 Section 1, Wuquan West Road, West District, Taichung City, Taiwan) through February 9. The exhibition was curated by Hsu Chia-Wei and Ho Tzu-Nyen.

Reena Devi Shanmuga Retnam is a Singaporean journalist and critic who writes about the Southeast Asian art world for international media such as ArtAsiaPacific (HK) and Artsy (NY). Previously, she was...