WHILE CHINA CELEBRATES its first official showing at this year's Venice Biennale - with the opening of its pavilion at the Giardino delle Vergini at the Arsenale - Hong Kong and Taiwan remain on the periphery of this significant and prestigious international art event.
Nonetheless, artists participating in the so-called collateral events regard their exhibitions (which run from Sunday) as a great opportunity to showcase their works to the world - and, in the case of Taiwanese artists, to challenge the perception of Asian art.
Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) exhibition curator for Venice, Jason Wang Chia-chi, chose the theme The Spectre of Freedom to reflect the troubled state of the world.
Visitors to the TFAM site in the Italian Pavilion can also chart the island's decade-long involvement at Venice in an exhibition entitled Contemporary Art from Taiwan at the Venice Biennial 1995-2003, which runs until August 14.
But it will be Taiwan's resident artist Chen Chieh-jen who's expected to draw the most attention. In his video installation The Factory, a follow-up to his 1999 showing at Venice, Chen comments on the often devastating effects of globalisation by tracing the lives of unemployed garment factory workers whose jobs moved to the mainland in the wake of Deng Xiaoping's reform.
Picking up the theme of globalisation's adverse effects, a group of four graduate students from Taipei's National University of the Arts say they hope to challenge the western-dominated international art market. They're offering a US$20,000 cash prize to any artist officially attending Venice who best embodies resistance to the cultural homogenisation machine.
According to the group, 'the Taiwan Award seeks to reverse the subject-object relationship, adopting the role of observer and a specifically Taiwanese viewpoint to assess the Venice Biennale'.
The students collected the prize money from non-profit organisations and private donors. A jury panel, including Taiwanese film director Tsai Ming-liang, will help determine who wins the prize.
Wang says the TFAM theme of The Spectre of Freedom is best embodied by the likes of Tsui Kuang-yu, Kao Chung-li, Eva Lin Hsin-i and Kuo I-chen.
In one of Tsui's videos, viewers see the artist charging head-first and at full speed into subway cars, barn animals and even a fibre-glass Ronald McDonald.
Another features Tsui vomiting uncontrollably while walking around Taipei. In perhaps the most comical, he receives forceful blows from objects thrown at the back of his head. Tsui has to guess what each projectile is - they include a hammer, a chair, a bucket and a television set.
Wang says the piece is a critique of a media-obsessed society in which individuals are nothing more than walking automatons controlled by outside forces. 'This idea of being tamed by the media society - it becomes more or less like the movie The Truman Show,' he says. 'You don't know why you want an LV or a Gucci bag, but you still buy it. I think the throwing up serves as a kind of metaphor for acting involuntarily.'
Those who find it more difficult to sift through Tsui's strange imagery to find such symbolism will at least have a good laugh.
The other three artists address the notion of illusory freedom. Kao's work comprises 8mm film projector-based installations that show animated short films of various Sisyphean struggles.
In her interactive, internet-based installation De-strike, Lin seemingly begs the question: Has the structure of the art market become so systemised that it calls for artists to strike?
Kuo's work Invade the Prigioni is an adaptation of his video installation that debuted at last year's Taipei Biennial. It shows a plane's silhouette projected onto the vault of the Palazzo Delle Prigioni. The shadowy figure of the plane conjures memories of the September 11 attacks or, perhaps, an aerial bombardment. It elicits feelings of danger and reinforces the notion that, in this age, and for Taiwan, in particular, freedom may be all too fleeting.
Works by Hong Kong artists, by comparison, lack such vibe, depth and edge. At best, they can be seen only as works of pure aesthetics. The theme of Hong Kong's exhibition, to be staged in an abandoned house along the Grand Canal from Sunday until November 6, is an 'investigation of a journey to the west by micro + polo' - a double pun on an ancient Chinese mythological tale and Marco Polo's visit to China in the 13th century. Curator Sabrina Fung Mee-ying says she has brought together two artists of contrasting styles in the hope of achieving a dramatic effect. This marks the third year of Hong Kong artists' participation in the biennale.
Kurt Chan Yuk-keung, a Chinese University professor known for his installations, has used muted wood to create his version of an inverted Venice, in which its water becomes the focus of attention.
The upside-down cityscape has a web of long wooden structures radiating from a circular shape - like roads coming out from the city square. The structure is about 2.5 metres high.
'Venice is built on water - which is like an installation itself,' Chan says. 'In my imagination, Venice can be very romantic, but is somewhat commercialised in reality. The underwater world might be the most poetic part of it.'
The surface of the structure is covered with silver leaf, signifying the Grand Canal. Brown paper bags hang on the other side. 'They're like shopping bags,' he says. 'By having them upside-down, all the commercial elements go into the void.'
Stanley Wong Ping-pui says he wants to introduce the teahouse to the west - something Marco Polo failed to do. Whereas Chan's work is quiet and peaceful, visitors will hear people chatting when they enter Wong's teahouse, which is made with his signature durable synthetic fabric in red, white and blue.
He says he's interested in the teahouses of the 1960s, when public sentiment was positive and people had ample time to talk.
'We seldom sit face to face in this computer age,' Wong says. 'But in a teahouse, you get the chance to really sit down and talk. This is a space where people - no matter whether they're from Hong Kong, China or Italy - can think about the problem of miscommunication.'