Features / Report

World Biennial Forum and Asia-Pacific Biennials: Situation and Prospects, Part 2

posted 03 Dec 2012

This past fall saw Korea tum into a veritable wrestling ring of modern art. One major modem art biennial after another took to the mats: the Gwangju Biennale (Sept 7-llov. 11), the Busan Biennale (Sept. 22-May. 24), the Seoul International Media Art Biennale (Sept. 11-Nov. 4), the Daegu Photo Biennale (Sept 20-Oct 28), and Project Daejeon (Sept 19-May. 18). No question about it—Korea’s biennials were hot stuff, drawing the notice of art professionals the world over. Capping them all off was the first ever World Biennial Forum, held from Oct 27 to 31. An event for officials and actors in every part of the biennial process (planning, organizing, managing, and supporting), “Shifting Gravity” set its focus on Asia, a region that has recently drawn major attention for its political, economic, and cultural dynamism. TheArtro took advantage of this opportunity look at the different aspects of this event—the first of its kind in the 117 years biennials have been taking place. It also looks at the biennials that are happening now in the Asia-Pacific Region, offering its own predictions on what’s to come next.

The World Biennial Forum and the Asian Biennial Forum

The first World Biennial Forum opened on October 27 at the Kim Daejung Convention Center in Gwangju, Korea. Most of the people gathering to present at the five-day event were planners, organizers, and administrators for Asian biennials. Co-organized by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and the Biennial Foundation 2), it was a fairly large-scale undertaking, and it did leave some achievements in its wake. But now that it is over, some questions remain about its aims and its nature. This is especially true if the forum is viewed as a first-ever congress of world biennials, or an occasion for formalizing the global network that links them.

Around two weeks before the forum (which was ostensibly coordinated with the Biennial Forum, even though the Gwangju Biennale really took the lead), the Busan Biennale Foundation staged the second Asian Biennial Forum, an event that kicked off on October 13. Specifically, it was a forum for biennials in seaside cities like Busan, with officials coming from there, Shanghai, Singapore, and Yokohoma (site of a triennial) to examine recent trends in Asian biennials and look for ideas for future collaboration. Major topics of discussion included establishing a close network between organizers, promoting the different organizations through private sector collaborations, operational systems, and contributions to the community.

Above) exhibition view of KIAF 2015 First World Biennial Forum, Photo courtesy of Gwangju Biennale Foundation

I did mention before about small-scale results, but any attempt to find meaningful differences between Asian biennials is likely to lead to disappointment. The more we speak of their differences, the more the actual issue turns out to be similarity. As the Asian biennials neglected the local missions that legitimized their own establishment, they began copying one another at an alarming rate. Peter Sloterdjik said that “more communication breeds more conflict,” and by this logic, too much peace reigning at a biennale-organized forum, too much harmony and agreement on the need for cooperation, are actually grounds for questioning their intent to communicate, or the seemingly positive outcomes they produce. How many amazing differences are there to discover when they’ve all pretty much become identical? What chance is there for the scope of true communication to grow?

But these differences don’t warrant that much emphasis. Indeed, they are rapidly becoming watered down anyway; some have more or less vanished altogether. While the problems are not exclusive to Asian biennials, they have become much more visible and explicit because the Asian countries, by and large, entered the game so late. One major part of this is the fact that the events in Gwangju, Busan, Yokohoma, and Kobe are all seen as part of a broader urban revitalization effort ? in other words, their mission is to produce economic gains by attracting tourists and promoting the market. Take the Kobe Biennale. Originally a policy measure to help the city up after it suffered devastating damage from an earthquake, its goal is not simply to promote culture and art, but also to make Kobe richer, to support the host city. Similarly, the Yokohama Triennale started out as a urban planning measure designed to exploit the city’s “artistic potential.” This is more or less what is happening in Gwangju and Busan as well.

The business mind-set, the calculation of everything in terms of dollars and cents, is a fearsome thing. It has the potential to obliterate the very raison d’etre of the biennale ? that is, to promote culture and the arts. This accounts for the attention and attitude toward art we actually see at these biennials: uncertain, incoherent, half-hearted. Art history is becoming progressively filled with concepts like “briefcase,” “limousine,” “press conference,” “balance of trade,” or “quota.” Things have reached the point where biennials are obliged to somehow contribute to economic value external to art. They slide further away from their artistic or cultural horizons, becoming legitimized by the “romantic religion of the state” or ending up as attempts to rationalize brazen economic self-interest. 3)

Korea’s biennials have run into another dilemma confronted by Asian biennials as a whole. For all their trial and error, neither the Gwangju Biennale nor the Busan Biennale has been able to find the unique course that is right for itself. The general director of exhibitions for the 2004 Busan Biennale described being ordered by the steering committee at the time of his appointment to include 40 countries and over 100 artists. At such moments, it becomes clear that the biennale was never an active mechanism to present a vision and a path toward liberation, but a reactive mechanism aimed at concealing, or at least packaging, its incompetence. The physical environment for the exhibitions has visibly improved, but biennials are still bound to the desires of others ? courting name curators, drafting steroidal inventories of global artists, devising pretty but unconvincing slogans. How much sense does it make to appoint someone with zero experience or understanding of Korea as a general director ? unless, of course, said person was also general director for the Documenta festival in Kassel, Germany? Doesn’t such a decision mean that we’re substituting impressive CVs for something that mustn’t simply be traded away? What can a German without any knowledge or understanding of Korea do in an unfamiliar setting like Busan, anyway? He can plan “impromptu performances” and set up a Learning Council of 80-odd citizens and 41 artists ? and that's about it. There's no questioning his expertise, not when his stirring speeches have him using mind-blowing keywords like "dememorializing monuments." The Gwangju Biennale, for its part, failed to allay concerns that it might inhibit, or totally shut down, the activity taking place in thinking and discourse. Those concerns have become ever more serious over those ten years of searing numbers-based growth.

1) Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Korean trans. by Kim Ga-cheol). The Blessed People, 2011, p. 129.
2) Headquartered in the Netherlands.
3) Slavoj Zizek, Violence (Korean translation by Lee Hyeon-woo). Nanjangi, 2011, p. 149.

Changing Biennials: Hot Open Media

We still haven't given enough thought to the future of art that the biennials' close-knit, now formalized network will bring. Whether in Asia or elsewhere in the world, it doesn't take a prophet's imagination to envision what will happen when a biennial organization has become the only trusted quasi-international organization. The answer will be one of two things: either supporting the artistic ecosystem where local thinking and discourse are still alive and kicking (if somewhat uncertain in future), or snatching it away. It is already profoundly ailing, this ecosystem, and signs of the future to come are not at all hard to spot. Is it unaware of the other possibilities that exist besides a bureaucratic system for successfully managing and controlling a vast global network? Couldn't we come up with at least a few names of big international organizations that are qualitatively different from these dinosaurs that dress up their results in florid rhetoric, exaggerate their legitimacy, and have their philosophy and funding bolstered by alliances with even bigger political organizations?

This does serious damage to a biennial's function as a hot open medium sharing the highs and low of its contemporary context. Biennials can appear, and they can disappear ? there is no beginning without an end. To look to scale and organization as a way of dodging the threat of closure is to admit a failure to embrace the sharp contours of the contemporary. As Zizek wonders, can we posit that fundamental permanence is the hallmark of evil? All these things ? 4)the stronger networks, the membership systems, the congresses, information exchanges, efforts to promote collaboration ? foreclose the possibility of extinction. They announce the arrival of a mutant biennial that contributes to the permanent enshrinement of the prevailing order. We are forced now to seriously ponder violating the biennial's promise as an art museum that exposes itself even to the risk of annihilation or discontinuation. An urgent decision is needed: must we celebrate the birth of a bureaucratic biennial that is insulated from the turbulence of its times, that emerges not out of change but out of fear of change?

4) Ibid., p. 105.

Away from Bureaucratized Art

We have a terrible habit of simply trusting in the sincere and stirring rhetoric we find printed in declarations, but we need to understand that these things gain traction far more easily. Whatever kind of future we are imagining, and whatever small-scale successes we congratulate ourselves for along the way, the situation is becoming increasingly untenable as time goes by. Buoyed by their confidence, the biennial organizers may, in the interest of quality control, seek to play a kind of “big brother” role to the smaller, independent local events that are true parts of the global ecosystem. Once biennials have become members, they may focus their attention on issuing international curator certifications that function within a limited sphere. They may want to send out directing curators empowered to provide counsel and guides for the more “efficient” staging and operation biennials in other countries. Such a prospect should not be seen as the product of an overactive imagination. Similar ideas are already being floated, and with the greatest of conviction. At the second Asian Biennale Forum in Busan this past October, one of the possibilities mentioned for collaboration in the near future was the “training of curators for the development of modern art and biennial events,” with the different biennials supporting and collaborating with each other to achieve this. 5)

But a goodly amount of “symbolic divestiture” has to happen before those newly minted curators go to work. The job of the headquarters is to answer the big questions like “Why do biennials exist?” And the more resistance or defiance there is to that, the less possible it becomes. The biennials of the world will take shelter under the umbrella of a dominant global network, enjoying the delocalized prerogative to make no effort of any kind to highlight what makes their country distinct. Meanwhile, the questions of what topics to focus on, what artists to enlist, increasingly slips out of their hands and into those of the headquarters. In reality, officials at local biennials have almost completely forgotten how to introduce their own philosophy, their own convictions, on anything but the smallest and most immediate of things.

With just a bit more imagination, we can glimpse, however faintly, the conclusion here: a heretofore nonexistent path away from bureaucratized art. Curators will diligently look in the libraries, search the Web, attend conferences, draft presentable lists of artists, and compile exhibition books. But they will also shake their heads to see that for all the attention (not to mention the often staggering budgets), the local artistic base isn’t making the slightest bit of headway ? that it is, in fact, in a process of collapse. They will wonder why all the joy and excitement is being sapped out of their exquisitely packaged global forums. Some professionals will go even farther, drawing up categories of (even local) problems for the international organization to provide answers to, and washing their own hands of the concerns. A similar thing was described by the historian Raul Hilberg in his account of Holocaust officials in The Destruction of the European Jews (Korean translation by Kaema Kowon Publishing, 2008). They just made the rules, drew the blueprints, made the phone calls, attended the meetings. They killed countless people just by sitting at desks.

Does Asia now need a bigger, more expansive arts mechanism than the already quite large one it has with its biennials? Does it demand some more monumental form of communication, some new step forward in cooperation, that they are not providing? Or does Asian have to go through a time like today ? hegemonically building itself up so that it can aspire to a new, post-hegemonic culture unlike that of the modern West?

5) Official 2012 Busan Biennale blog, http://blog.naver.com/bs_biennale/20169039446

Shim Sangyong / Ph.D., Art History/Professor, Dongduk Women’s University


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