Features / Focus

Reading Contemporariness in Biennales(2)

posted 01 April 2019


Lee Minwhee & Choi Yun, 〈Viral Lingua〉, 2018. Single Channel Video, 2018 Busan Biennale Entry.

Busan, Drawing a Map of “the Divided Land”

The organizers of the Busan Biennale decided to reduce the size of last year’s event, limiting the number of entries to 125 and the participating countries from 65 to 34. This decision was made based on the newly set goal to make the event more substantial, with more clearly defined themes. The practical need to overcome the tight exhibition schedule also affected the decision. The venues for the exhibition were the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan and the former Busan Headquarters of the Bank of Korea. The first venue was opened in June 2018 exclusively for the biennale. The news of the opening of the museum made me wonder about the relationship between the director of the museum and the Busan Biennale. I also wondered how last year’s event would be different from the earlier ones held at the Busan Museum of Art, which had been leased for the biennale period, and what the interior of the newly opened institution would be like. As it turned out, when I visited this venue, the museum was to me just an ordinary building with no special features which would make it either a special facility for contemporary art or a biennale venue.

Throughout the world, it is not rare to see an art museum be used as a venue for a special art event such as a biennale. If an art museum has too unique of a layout, however, it may not be suitable for biennale exhibitions. (A prime example of this may be the Yokohama Museum of Art, which has been the main venue for the Yokohama Triennale. On this matter, I also cannot give high marks to the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan.) A biennale typically needs to display a large number of artworks, including large variable installations, sent from different parts of the world, and therefore, a museum with architecturally adventurous interior spaces may not be able to provide an ideal venue for biennale exhibitions. That is why biennale organizers tend to prefer a large open space, such as the interior of a warehouse or factory, as it can easily accommodate the various shapes and sizes of the exhibits. That is also why many visitors to last year’s Busan Biennale insisted that the exhibition presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan would have been more of a success if it had been displayed at the Kiswire Museum (currently F1963), which the Biennale used for its tenth event, held in 2016. In short, the 2018 Busan Biennale loses points due to the exhibition venue which had been chosen. Having said that, there was also a positive and meaningful result of this choice. The use of the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan on Eulsukdo Island for the biennale contributed to the cultural vitalization of the western part of Busan.

The exhibitions for last year’s Busan Biennale were held in two venues, with works that focused on perspectives about three time periods. The works exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan deal with the past under the theme “Study of the Typical Cold War Period,” and the present under the theme “Return to the Cold War Trend.” Meanwhile, the works displayed at the former Bank of Korea deal with the future under the theme “Projection and Prediction through the Lens of Science Fiction.” There might have been some works which lacked perception of the time perspectives of the past, present and future, but artistic directors Cristina Ricupero and Jörg Heiser reorganized these representatives of the numerous “divided lands” on Earth to fit them into the theme, 《Divided We Stand》. They wanted the division of the Korean Peninsula to be the focal point of last year’s exhibitions. Luckily, recent developments in international relations on the peninsula enhanced the relevance of their strategy. Works from eleven Korean artists, including Lim Minouk, Cheon Mina, Che Onejoon, Im Youngzoo,Kwon Hayoun, Joo Hwang, Lee Minwhee, Choi Yun and Kelvin Kyungkun Park, played a crucial role in highlighting the theme. The works by artists based in Berlin also contributed greatly to the significance of the theme, reflecting on the history of national division.

The quest for last year’s Busan Biennale to draw “a psychological topographic map of a divided land” was vividly appreciated by the viewers. This achievement may have been the result of the reduced scale of the event, which featured less than half the number presented at the Gwangju Biennale, thus enabling guests to easily access the entire exhibition. That the Korean people have long shared the same experience of the division of their nation may also have helped with making the concept more accessible. The images and themes of the Cold War era are so familiar to Koreans that they likely were able to readily accept the relevance of this quest in their daily lives.

The comfortable scale of last year’s Busan Biennale had its merits, as guests could take their time to explore the theme and ideas of the works on exhibit for the event. It did not push visitors to ‘consume’ as many works as possible within an allotted time. For me, the situation could be defined with the term, “condensed spectrum.” At the same time, I had the impression that this biennale was a well-organized special exhibition of an art gallery. Is it wrong, one may ask, for a biennale to appear similar to a special gallery exhibition? Of course not. There are, in fact, biennales which actively use the works collected in their archives. However, I believe that, considering the cutting-edge elements inherent in a biennale, such an event can hardly perform the function it is expected to with the characteristics of a special exhibition, which tends to provide viewers with detailed explanations. For me, a biennale should be able to present works that raise questions, rather than answers, about contemporary art.

Of the works from Korean artists, I was particularly attracted to 〈Eat Choco Pie – Together〉, a work by Cheon Mina designed to invite active participation from the viewers. Participants in the work were expected to pick, open and eat one or more of the fifty thousand Choco Pie snack cakes installed on the floor in a circular shape. Their participation ended when they put the plastic wrapper into a transparent acrylic rubbish bin after eating the snack. Choco Pies became very popular among the workers at Gaeseong Industrial Complex. By using this popular Korean snack, the artist expressed the Korean people’s desire to overcome the pain caused by the division of their country and achieve national reunification. I thought the artist’s idea was too simplistic, but the work turned out to be a huge success in attracting viewers’ participation.


Cheon Mina, 〈Eat Choco Pie – Together〉, 2018. Participatory Installation, 2018 Busan Biennale Entry.

Works by foreign artists included 〈Scenic Spot Open Temporarily〉, an installation by Zhang Peili featuring a wall made by piling up newspapers to express people’s desire for communication, and 〈Inferno〉 by Yael Bartana, which vividly depicts the concept of division in history, religion and nations via a majestic and solemn fictional scenario based around a motif conceived from the Temple of Solomon in São Paulo. The exhibition also presented a 55-minute-long video work titled 〈From The East〉 created by Chantal Akerman, in which the street noises featured in the video were mixed with the sounds of people talking and other noises emanating from the exhibition room, driving the onlookers to confusion, as if they were experiencing two different spaces at once. In the installation work, 〈Altar Mourning German Unity〉, Henrike Naumann expressed, with a divided carpet and a cabinet in the shape of a grave, the sense of loss the people of East Germany felt after their expectations for unification were betrayed. Finally, 〈TRANSmutation〉 by Nomeda & Gediminas Urbonas was a large installation of tubes expressing the mentality of double agents secretly collecting information during the Cold War period.

The exhibition held at the former Busan Headquarters of the Bank of Korea contained works full of imaginative ideas, reminding viewers of science fiction. Of them, I was particularly charmed by 〈Delete Beach〉, a video installation created by Phil Collins. The work guides viewers through a dark passage behind curtains until they reach a space in which a weird atmosphere is created using lighting and unpleasant smells. The installation, featuring discarded oil barrels, tires and deserted beach facilities covered with black oil, was combined with video clips criticizing the relationship between fossil fuel and capitalism. Another work, 〈Borrowed Tongue〉, the result of a collaboration between Lee Minwhee and Choi Yun, utilizes a music video format to explore the traces of ideological conflict left behind by the Cold War.

Thrilling Sensation Created by Site-specific Works

As I review last year’s biennale exhibitions, a statement made by someone I’ll refer to as “L,” whose nickname is “Biennale Expert,” comes to my mind: “An art exhibition can be compared with watching a movie. You may see the whole movie, but that does not mean every scene is committed to memory. Some of the scenes, however, will keep recurring in your mind for a particularly long period. The same goes for an exhibition. Not all of the exhibits in an exhibition will touch your heart. But if there are any works, even just a few, which provide “poetic reverberation” for only a few seconds, then the entire exhibition is a success.” I couldn’t agree more with this. It holds all the more truth when it comes to a large art event, such as a biennale.

It is in this context that we need to pay attention to the GB Commission for the Gwangju Biennale. Last year, the GB Commission exercised its influence to affect a more powerful impact upon the audience. The venue was the main building of the former Armed Forces Gwangju Hospital. It is a historic site where many Gwangju citizens received treatment for the injuries they suffered due to the violence and torture inflicted on them while being interrogated after they were taken into custody under the Martial Law Command for their involvement in the May 18th Democratization Movement held in 1980. The hospital building had been deserted for about ten years, until it was temporarily opened to be used as a venue for last year’s Gwangju Biennale. The dead building was brought back to life through art, although briefly. The building’s interior, full of dust, broken windows and torn wallpaper, created a powerful setting for the presentation of modern art.

Mike Nelson turned Gukgwang Church, located near the Armed Forces Gwangju Hospital, into a site-specific space with the installation, 〈Mirror reverb〉. The artist has been dedicated to large installations designed to transform a physical space into a psychological, inner space, as he previously demonstrated at the Venice Biennale in 2011, where he participated for the British Pavilion. In his work presented for the GB Commission, Nelson used about sixty pieces of mirrors he had collected from the deserted hospital building, hanging them up against the background, which remained in its original condition, with red brick walls, a white cross on top and broken windows. The mirrors bore some old messages about haircuts, vaccinations and the loyalty oath, clues which reflected the times when these mirrors had been used. These mirrors are records of history, and in the process of projecting the images of ourselves, bring back memories of those times. The metaphor of mirrors was beautifully amalgamated with the now-ruined religious sanctuary to open an eerie space for speculation.

〈Eternal Now〉, a work installed in the psychiatric ward of the old hospital building by the French-Algerian artist Kader Attia, also charmed me. The work consisted of ten wooden beams erected or laid on the floors of tiny rooms. The beams had originally been used to support the rafters of a traditional Korean Hanok building, of which some were repaired with iron staples. The worn beams installed there created quite the sorry sight to see. Some were leaning against a wall as if struggling to stand up, while others were flopped down on the floor, as if totally exhausted. One particular beam was standing upright to support the concrete ceiling, as if to show that it was supporting the entire universe. I thought it resembled a totem pole, struggling to overcome pain and despair. The desperate gesture it expressed seemed to deliver a certain message to the audience. One might compare 〈Eternal Now〉 with the stories told by the patients who had been hospitalized here, the spirits of the Gwangju citizens who were victimized mercilessly on that fateful day, or the trauma the survivors have to suffer for the deceased. These wooden beams seemed to reflect the terrible existence of human beings, continually reminding viewers of the scars of olden times and today’s cure.

〈Constellations〉, a work by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, an independent Thai film director and artist, left a more powerful impression on me than other works. As is well known, Weerasethakul has been dedicated to the establishment of his own structure of storytelling by freely crossing the boundaries between reality and fantasy, and fact and fiction. This work, 〈Constellations〉, is designed to make the viewer feel as if he or she is participating in the production of a horror film as a character in the film. The work started to be presented at 5:30 in the evening, when darkness began to fall over the venue which was set in the middle of the ruins, preventing viewers from identifying the work and its background. In fact, one key aspect of his work was that the viewers went through a process of gradually identifying it. Weerasethakul introduced the closed-eye-vision of the light and colors to this work, an homage to Stan Brakhage, one of the most influential experimental filmmakers in the US. Here, he invokes the traces of time imminent in a space via the techniques of using light to make a chair, a dead object, appear to approach the viewer like a newly awakened living organism, opening a new space using shadows projected upon the dim light shed through the gap between windows with floral curtains hung behind them, and cause the unexpected, sudden movement of billiard balls in spaces such as a hospital room or barbershop. In the main lecture hall, he made installations featuring the landscapes of local attractions, including Mudeungsan Mountain, projected on a screen in an effort to reveal the historical pain of Gwangju. I was happy to go on my journey to a new world through Weerasethakul’s work, which is marked by the outstanding sensibility with which he turned the exhibition venue itself into a work of art, and the close interactive nature that exists between the work and its viewer. I believe that anyone would be fine if time travel were not to include being able to go to that day in Gwangju.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 〈Constellations〉, 2018. Site-specific Installation, 2018 Gwangju Biennale Entry.

Site-specific installations were presented in the Faultlines section, as well. The exhibition under this section was held at the meeting room of the old Jeonnam Provincial Administration Building, which the Citizens’ Army “stationed” itself in during the 1980 Gwangju Uprising. It was deeply moving for me to be able to step into a historical site that I might have only been able to see in a movie or TV drama otherwise. The photography project launched by Yum Joongho and Back Seungwoo to deal with the Armed Forces Gwangju Hospital and the 505 Security Unit was a work which sought to revive history which had been long forgotten in an attractive manner.

For me personally, GB Commission was the best of all the works introduced through last year’s Gwangju Biennale. You rarely have the opportunity to see an exhibition of this level anywhere in the world. I’d like to insist that the GB Commission offered Kim Seon-jeong, Artistic Director of the Gwangju Biennale, a great opportunity to exhibit her outstanding sensibility and knowledge of contemporary art. The Gwangju Biennalemight have fallen short of expectations last year in the area of themed exhibitions, but I believe that this shortfall was redeemed by the site-specific works of the GB Commission section.

The Busan Biennale was neat and tidy in the treatment of its content, but not productive enough in terms of the organization of the exhibitions, possibly due to the short preparation period. Preparing the same ingredients does not necessarily mean that the same dishes will be served, because dishes can vary widely according to the cook’s knowledge, skills and recipes. And even if the dishes are the same, the diner’s satisfaction can be widely different due to factors other than the food itself, such as setting and atmosphere, also playing a significant role. I believe that last year’s Busan Biennale was not successful in highlighting the value of the artwork presented through it, largely because of the exhibition conditions provided by the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan. To be specific, the conditions were particularly unfavorable for site-specific installations. Details such as visitor tour routes and art arrangement were not helpful for realizing the contextualization, decontextualization and re-contextualization between the various works.

Is “global art history” possible?

At the outset, I wrote about the “global crisis” of today’s society. Here, I’d like to conclude that this crisis is going to continue to be a crisis, because globalization will continue on regardless. Academic discourse produced after the 2000s tends to place greater focus on “global art history.” For me, the movement seems to reflect an effort to liberate art history from the conventional Western-centered chronological history which has been in place since the colonial period, as well as from the fetters of the traditional concepts of “art.” In addition, “global art history” has the characteristic of non-territorialization interlocked with anthropology and neurological science, resulting in an overlapping with the “anthropology of images” which has been on the rise since the 2000s.

Whatever the case, the term, “global art history,” refers to the tendency of making records about images, objects, art movements and artists’ practices, which have not been regarded as connected with art, from a decentered perspective, thus creating another, global level to art history. There is a term, “world art history,” which preceded global art history, only to have been used ambiguously. As Donald Kuspit once pointed out, the term “world art” reflects the concept of modern art based on a Western-centric, monistic view of the world, and therefore should be clearly differentiated from “global art history” based on the movement of decentering the world.

Biennales should serve as a venue to lead the movements for “global art history,” and the aesthetic and artistic disputes over these events need to continue. Today, biennales continue to grow, seeking to overcome the narrow frame in which art operates and become a ‘medium for cultural mixture.’ For this reason, the Korean biennales need to be more dynamic. Considering, however, that the idea of “global art history” was formed from art market or exhibition dynamics, and increased its influence under the development of global capitalism, there are still unsolved problems in the historiography which have not been critically examined. Therefore, biennales should continue to be able to spark controversy.

Reference: Bijutsu Techo(ed.), 100 Keywords of Contemporary Art in 2010’s, Dec. 2017.

Read this article: Reading Contemporariness in Biennales(1)


This content was first published in the December, 2018 release of Art In Culture and has been re-published on TheARTRO.kr after a negotiation was reached between Korea Arts Management Service and Art In Culture.

Kim Boggi

Main Director, [Art In Culture]

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