Taiwan Pavilion, London Design Biennale, 2023

I never knew that metal screws could be such fun.

Taiwan’s entry for the 2023 Design Biennale, taking place at Somerset House until June 25, is, in effect, a self-portrait of the country. Taiwan being Taiwan, the installation is an adventurous, imaginative, intricate, handsome, high-tech piece of work, which has drawn admiring crowds to the island nation’s pavilion, and has deservedly won the Best Design Medal, awarded by an international jury on June 2, the first day of the event.

If you haven’t ever been to the Biennale, I’d advise you to go. It’s a celebration of design, industry, technology and culture, featuring entries from 40 different participants, mostly flying the flag for their countries. Think Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition, updated for the 21st century. Several installations are situated outside in the courtyard (I particularly enjoyed India’s multi-sensory Urban Living Room, and Turkey’s chiming Open Work); most are placed in ‘pavilions’ (actually, small inter-connected rooms). You walk from room to room, admiring the ingenuity of the design teams: some deserve more scrutiny than others.

I stayed in the Taiwan Pavilion for ages.

The room is dominated by the central installation, site-specifically designed to join its two Regency fireplaces, with a black assembly line-like structure. On this is affixed a long metal board, with 672 equally spaced holes, in four long lines, though which protrude aluminium tubes, with heads on springs. Driven by electromagnets, these screw-like ‘heads’ move, individually or in unison. There are some beautiful effects: sometimes there’s a wave; other times a seemingly random movement of individual parts emerges into a recognisable pattern. It’s mesmerising, and strangely calming.

This being a ‘shop’, there is a ‘shop clerk’ to explain what it all means to the public. As a critic, invited to the press view of the installation, I’m privileged to be talked through it by its curator, Ling-Li Tseng, an artist-designer who is famous in her country for a succession of playful-yet-meaningful kinetic installations, usually on a grander scale that this. She is the co-founder of the collaborative design team Serendipity Studio, and has overseen the project in conjunction with the installation team Loudly Lighting, and the government-funded Taiwan Design Research Institute, which is responsible for major design-led responses to complex projects, such as the reshaping of hospitals and metro stations to meet modern needs.

The key word, she tells me, is ‘visible’. On one level the installation represents Taiwan’s ensemble of small industries, scattered throughout the island but – due to its relatively small size – located near one another geographically, and thus enjoying a short supply chain. This she calls ‘Visible Chain’. On another level the piece symbolises ‘Visible Individuality’: the way in which these small enterprises are able to work closely together, while retaining their clearly defined identities. Finally, there’s ‘Visible Liberty’, representing Taiwan’s democratic constitution, and the freedoms enjoyed by the people under the umbrella of the state, such as legal same-sex marriage, and gender equality.

Parts Without Cover”, she tells me, “is actually a metaphor for Taiwan’s international identity. Many times, we are uncertain about our future, but Taiwanese people continue to live earnestly. We are like a group of loyal and functioning components, and the beauty lies in the way these small parts come together, forming the essence of Taiwan.”

See what I mean about a self-portrait of the country?

There are other components to the installation. Around the room there are little digital information boards, with computer-graphic images, and messages such as ‘Taiwan is abundant!’, ‘Taiwan is small but mighty!’, ‘Taiwan is small yet diverse!’, and ‘Taiwan is big!’ (the latter describing the country’s thriving bicycle industry supply chain, an efficient industrial cluster of individual component factories, all within a one-hour drive of one another).

I become most engaged with a side-show, a long box full of steel screws, bolts and washers, with powerful magnets embedded into its base at regular intervals, enabling you to build structures with the component parts. I try to build towers above a single magnet, which inevitably collapse when the magnetic force is too weak to reach their upper levels. “Taiwan is… adaptable”, I think, and find much more success building lower-height structures, spanning more than one magnet. “Taiwan is… collaborative”.

I find Ling-Li Tseng again, and ask her about the importance of a project like this, in such a time of international turmoil. Taiwan, I hardly need to tell you, has been much in the news recently, increasingly threatened by its massive neighbour. “Design is a universal language,” she says. “In times of increasing chaos and turmoil, art and design should speak louder. I believe that this aspect is becoming increasingly important. We need to use this shared language to connect like-minded individuals and resonate with shared values.”

I leave the Taiwanese Pavilion, and the Design Biennale much the wiser than when I arrived. Did you know that Taiwan is the only country in Asia to have legalised same-sex marriage? That the country has held 20 referendums since 2004? That Taiwan produces 60% of the world’s semiconductors? That four out of ten metal screws are made in Taiwan? You do now.

Metal screws? I never thought they could be so educational. Or so inspirational, either.

Photos courtesy of Taiwan Design Research Institute TDRI