Curated by Taiwan's Hsu Chia-wei (許家維) and Singapore's Ho Tzu-nyen (何子彥), the 2019 Asian Art Biennial will be staged by the Taichung-based National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts this October under the theme "The Strangers from beyond the Mountain and the Sea."
The titular "Stranger" is inspired by the ancient Japanese word marebito, which the late Japanese folklorist Orikuchi Shinobu (1887-1953) described as supernatural beings who come bearing gifts from afar. These visitations usually occur during special occasions, and an encounter with such an otherworldly entity is always uncanny. However, if one responds to the incident appropriately — with rituals and festivals, for example, the marebito would bestow gifts of knowledge and wisdom.
The curators have chosen the term "Stranger" as an extension of the marebito, to refer to the many "others" beyond spirits and gods, such as shamans, foreign merchants, immigrants, minorities, colonists, smugglers, partisans, spies, traitors… The Stranger is a medium, an access point to another world. Through encounters with strangers, one may be forced to confront the outlines of one's self, examine the boundaries of society, or even witness the limit of one's species. This is the Stranger's gift. And some gifts are not easy to receive.
"Mountain" on the other hand, corresponds to Zomia, which is described by American anthropologist James C. Scott (1936-) as a broad, elevated region stretching from the highlands of central Vietnam to northeastern India at 300 meters or more above sea level. Zomia's high altitudes and rugged terrain form a natural barrier, making it a sanctuary for a variety of fugitives such as partisan fighters of forgotten wars, drug traffickers, ethnic minorities, and those escaping the reach of nation states.
Finally, the titular "Sea" is none other than the Sulu Sea, a marginal stretch between the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea that borders Borneo to the south and the complex Philippine archipelago to the north. In addition to rich maritime trade, the Sulu Sea has also long been rife with slave raiding and piracy, and today has become a stage for regional terrorist organizations, according to the curation statement.
The biennial will also utilize concepts such as water circulation, plate tectonics, clouds, and minerals, as the viewing of human histories against such expansive horizons will help open these narratives up the roles of non-human elements and non-human scales of time.
Moreover, while concepts of nothingness or emptiness form the foundations of some of Asia's greatest thought systems, their malleable nature has also made them vulnerable to political (mis)appropriation. Today, at a time of great geopolitical shifts, incessant technological revolutions, and an ecological crisis on a planetary scale, humanity is entering a void where existing ethical and political coordinates no longer serve as sufficient guides.
The aforementioned elements will set a stage ready to be inhabited and activated by the works, thoughts, and presences of participating artists, thinkers, and collaborators. Unfolding in four interconnected chapters, the exhibition will bring together art that embody the complex entanglement of human histories with stories of mountains and seas, of clouds and minerals.
Exhibition-goers will also be introduced to a cast of human subjects who were propelled by immense — and often non-human — forces to positions beyond the pale of national identities. Visions of human and material transformations will be proposed as well as part of a larger movement to rethink and advance the unfinished task of Asian decolonization, and to reframe "the void" as a space of emergent possibilities.
The 2019 Asian Art Biennial will take place from Oct. 5, 2019 through Feb. 9, 2020 in the central Taiwanese metropolis of Taichung. Please log onto www1.asianartbiennial.org for more information on the 32 participating artists and curators from 15 nations.