Cover The overview of Arsenale (Photo: Andrea Avezzù and La Biennale di Venezia)

We round up this year’s prestigious art festival’s Asian artists, who explore hot topics of the century: ranging from technology to cyborgs to climate change, and push the boundaries of art with their use of provocative materials, such as dead bats and urine

An impressive line-up of 80 nations will participate in the main exhibition of this year’s Venice Biennale, taking place from now until late November. Spanning gender and race, it features a majority of POC (persons of colour) artists, with several from or based in Asia, including Hong Kong.

Titled The Milk of Dreams, which took inspiration from surrealist artist and illustrator Leonara Carrington’s children book of the same name, the exhibition is put together by Cecilia Alemani, a New York City-based curator and the first Italian woman to hold the position as artistic director of this prestigious and historic art festival.

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This is the latest milestone in the 127 years of the festival, which has brought diversity and borderless celebration to the international art scene. The Venice Biennale was founded as the International Exhibition of Art of the City of Venice to promote “the most noble activities of the modern spirit without distinction of country”.

More than a century after its founding, the festival celebrates art beyond geographical boundaries. These are ten notable Asian names not to be missed.

1. Aki Sasamoto

Yokohama-born, New York-based visual artist Aki Sasamoto is a performance artist who questions the nuances of everyday life in her work. The topics she enjoys exploring through absurdist scenarios range from cravings, garbage, laundry, cleaning, to romance. She also likes adding deadpan humour to her work and uses stream of consciousness logic.

On view at the Giardino delle Vergini, Sasamoto’s new piece Sink or Float, completed this year, appears to levitate. She retrofitted thousands of small air-blowing holes to tables constructed from stainless-steel commercial sinks, which move in a chaotic and improvised manner. At one end of the space is a rotisserie oven and a commercial cooler that have been transformed into light boxes. Through recontextualising the everyday industrial and household objects, Sasamoto prompts viewers to retune their perception of the mundane.

2. Jes Fan

This Canada-born artist lives and works in Hong Kong and Brooklyn, US. Originally trained in glass making, Fan expanded his practice to working with different media, most notably provocative materials, including his mother’s urine, testosterone-laden soap and oestrogen-rich cosmetics, melanin, black mould and soybean-filled capsules. The idea came from challenging the markers of biology that typify identity and gender formation. He frequently injects hormonal substances into bulging hand-blown glass orbs, which change in shape and matter throughout the creative process.

His new sculpture for this exhibition mimics the body’s entanglement with technology in abstraction to address the interiority of life with an animistic approach. It is considered to be the pinnacle of the forms and themes that have characterised his previous work to date.

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3. Tishan Hsu

Born in Boston to Chinese parents, this New York-based contemporary artist came to prominence in the 1980s for his examination of technology’s impact on phenomenology (the study of structures of consciousness) and humanity. This has largely to do with his work of using the computer as a “word processor” at a Wall Street law firm before computers became widely available.

He once said, “I consider myself a cyborg. Google is my memory.” Incorporating unusual art materials such as silicone and Styrofoam, Hsu’s work spans drawing, painting, sculpture and computer-generated media. Since his mother’s death in 2013, he has turned his practice towards the relationship between technology, race, history and heritage.

His most recent works use innovative fabrication techniques, and materials and toys that share similarities with medical apparatuses. As he creates cyborg-like sculptures or images that remind viewers of bodily orifices and sexual organs, Hsu reflects on topics such as emotional surveillance technologies and the simultaneous connection and disconnection of the human body by machines.

4. Candice Lin

Born to Chinese parents who immigrated to Massachusetts, this Los Angeles-based interdisciplinary artist works with a diverse range of atypical art materials in her installations, sculptures, drawings, ceramics and video work: tea, fungi, cactus tinctures, dead bats and lizard taxidermy.

Her choice of materials is based on their association with anthropology and natural history, which she re-purposes to pose complex questions about the colonial histories embodied by these materials. For instance, Xternetsa builds off her 2016 piece The Mountain, which incorporates mulberry plants, ceramic fragments and living silkworms, as well as her 2021 work, Seeping, Rotting, Resting, Weeping, a temple-like structure made up of indigo textiles and ceramic cats, which is installed with a video animation guiding visitors through qi gong movements. These references different stages of historical transformation of civilisations: the ceramics are moulded from mud from Saint Malo, Louisiana, the first Asian settlement in the US; and traditional Chinese herbs have been electroplated in copper.

Lin’s new work evokes historical backstories of artisanship, labour, ritual, botany, global trade, and the dark history of Western colonisation.

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5. Zheng Bo

Zheng Bo, who grew up in Beijing, is now based in Lantau Island, Hong Kong. His art investigates the past and imagines the future from the perspectives of marginalised communities. In particular, he devotes himself to the study of plants, having learnt from biology and botany experts, and is known for incorporating them into his performance, video art, community workshops and drawings, and creating “eco-queer” films that promote interspecies care. His work has been exhibited at major museums in the world, including the Hong Kong Museum of Art, Singapore Art Museum, and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.

In his ongoing video and performance series Pteridophilia, which began in 2016, Zheng imagines the erotic possibilities between ferns and queer men. This concept is further developed, together with five Nordic male dancers in a Swedish forest, into Le Sacre du printemps (Tandvärkstallen), a film and dance piece unveiled in 2021.

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6. Thao Nguyen Phan

This multimedia artist, originally trained as a painter, lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She has forged a reputation for poetic, multi-layered artworks which delve into the ecological and historical issues facing her homeland. Her work at the same time resonates with universal themes in the conflicts between tradition and rituals, and environmental change.

Recently, her projects focus on the Mekong River, touching on subjects such as overfishing, dam construction and looted heritage in the aftermath of colonialism. For example, First Rain, Brise Soleil, an ongoing film project which started in 2021, addresses US imperialism in the region and the 1977-1991 war between Vietnam and Cambodia, and the changes and incidents that take place as a result.

7. Pinaree Sanpitak

Thai conceptual and contemporary artist Pinaree Sanpitak addresses womanhood, motherhood and self. She is most known for using the shape of breast, eggs and subtly curved profiles to evoke symbols of feminism and femininity. This powerful imagery was first inspired by her experience of breastfeeding her own child in the mid 1990s.

In her new series shown in the exhibition, she reduces the breast motif into the form of a mound and a vessel, and includes textured paintings created with acrylic, feathers, gold and silver leaves and silk. Sanpitak weaves together personal experience and the shape of sacred domed structures found in many East and South Asian nations, such as Buddhist offering bowls or stupa shrines. Offering Vessels, in creation since the 2000s, addresses the body’s wide-ranging potential across the sacred and profane.

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8. Wu Tsang

New York and Berlin-based filmmaker, artist and performer Wu Tsang incorporates activism, art, music, dance, literature and stage production in her work, which dives deep into hidden histories, marginalised narratives and the act of performing. Tsang describes her visual language as showcasing “in-betweenness”, or states of inseparability and flux that cannot be reduced to a binary understanding or fixed notions of identity and experience.

Tsang created new work Of Whales, completed this year for the exhibition, which is an installation based on her feature-length film adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and psychedelic ocean environments generated from XR (“extended reality”) technologies. It recontextualises Melville’s tale in the mid-19th century, which was the time of the emergence of modern capitalism and mass civil unrest. Imagined from the whale’s and “motley” sailors’ perspectives and using the ocean as a metaphor for the unknown, the film gestures to the implicit and complicated nature of diverse viewpoints.

9. Geumhyung Jeong

South Korean choreographer and performance artist Geumhyung Jeong creates performances and films with machines constructed by herself, and negotiates the relationship between the human body and the objects surrounding it. Commenting on techno-capitalism and human society’s migration towards the digital age, Jeong’s work makes obvious the uncanny relationships between people and machines. She intricately designs the somewhat uncomfortable space between the human body and the toy-like engineered beings, which evokes a sense of amateurism and childhood.

The “toys” on show are DIY robots, which have a sturdy look but reveal a fragile, unstable quality when they move. These are displayed alongside videos documenting Jeong’s own interactions with her machines. Jeong attempts to provoke a sense of care from viewers for the robots, and test viewers’ boundaries on human empathy or their sense of connection with non-human entities.

10. Mire Lee

South Korean artist Mire Lee lives and works between Seoul and Amsterdam. Her kinetic sculptures are usually composed of low-tech motors, steel rods, and PVC hoses filled with grease, silicone or oil. These animatronic apparatuses resemble both internal organs and machines, through which she provoke thoughts on what it means to be alive. Lee considers the creative process a part of her art. She says, “I touch and feel the material up-close, put my hands inside any gap, use my teeth to give hold, I bend, stretch and crawl around the scale of the work.”

Her new work for the exhibition is a sculptural structure that can be interpreted as a body part or a house. The piece is installed with a pump and smaller ceramic sculptures which are dotted with holes that ooze liquid clay, which dries, layers and cracks over time. The form and working of the whole structure beg the question of where these bodily function exist, thereby blurring the line between objects and human beings.

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