Reaching for an Unforetold Ignition Point: Gwangju Biennale ‘Burning Down the House’
Reaching for an Unforetold Ignition Point:
Gwangju Biennale ‘Burning Down the House’
Korea’s largest domestic Biennale, and 5th worldwide, the Gwangju Biennale celebrates its twentieth anniversary this year. At the opening event, last 3rd September, heated debate surrounded the status quo and evolving form of the Biennale as a platform for the arts. Distinguished figures representing CIMAM, The Prada Foundation, Kassel Dokumenta, the Liverpool Biennial and Arab Museum of Modern Art joined the roundtable ‘Proliferation of International Exhibitions and Evolution of Contemporary Art’, at the forum ‘Expanding Experiences in Art’ (jointly held by Leeum Samsung Museum of Art and Gwangju Biennale) to discuss methods for the biennale to regain its experimental nature of the 80s and 90s. Through the questions raised on the floor, this report will focus on the Gwangju Biennale at twenty; through the exhibition ‘Burning Down the House’ curated by this year’s artistic director, Jessica Morgan.
reported by Ro Seongja | images provided by Gwangju Biennale
‘What kind of new language are we proposing through exhibitions? Can we go against ourselves, and commit a sort of ‘suicide’?’ This is the somewhat stimulating question posed by Germano Celant (director, Prada Foundation) at the onset of the Gwangju Biennale 3rd roundtable on the day of the events opening. ‘Burning Down the House’ suggested by artistic director Jessica Morgan, was chosen to evoke the notion of art for renewal and change, especially when represented in the platform of a biennale, which is by nature temporary and cyclical. The title originates from the 1980’s song by the Talking Heads, but the slash and burn motif evokes the feeling of ancient and primordial rituals. In contrast to the more traditional white cube, in which space is regulated, interest groups are clearly defined and place is set, the biennale as a platform undergoes a process of self-destruction and renewal every two years. This report will investigate if this year’s Gwangju Biennale held true to its word, and brought about a new wave of change. The exhibition will be analyzed according to the following three chapters that focus on the inherent nature of the biennale as a platform.
A Biennale Reborn
The biennale is by definition a biannual festival of the arts. Most biennales are structurally constricted with as little as 9 months from nomination of the director or head commissioner to the actual opening of the show. In contrast, Kassel documenta is an exception, running every five years. Thus, quite literally the Gwangju Biennale has functioned by ‘burning down the house’ and starting from scratch every two years. How has the biennale as a platform, then, evolved to make the most of this structural characteristic? Biennale’s today have been undergoing rigorous expansion in the number of genres they can capacitate in attempts to add a sense of experimentalism each year, from performances, media art, and sound art. Celant described this as ‘a mere enlarging of the power of the territory rather than the mind or logic of the territory.’ And that biennales are ‘always initiating something new, a number of names, artists, genres, rather than enlarging the potential of the old institution.’ Also, Bartomeu Mari (president, CIMAM) added that if the late nineties was a ‘dillemma between knowledge, art criticisms and art history, versus expansion of the art experience and situation’, today biennales were faced with efficiency and power of the quantitative against the immeasurable qualitative experience’.
At Gwangju, the artistic director hence introduced new works, specifically commissioned for the biennale, rather than simply expanding the scope of the biennale. While the biennale still introduced the relatively large number of 105 artists from 39 countries, a particular emphasis was placed on commissioning new works. Liu Xiaodong’s oil painting Time (2014) which captures scenes from near the JeollaNamdo Provincial Government building, or Choi Woonhyoung’s painting Aquarium (2013) were both commissioned with the purpose of representing the regional characteristics and culture of Gwangju and Korea. Some works were commissioned to adhere to the theme of the exhibition ‘Burning Down the House’, such as Ruby Sterling’s enormous fireplaces Stove (2013) that fills the Biennale square with smoke, or Joakim’s Burning Down the House Deconstructed (2014), a remake sound piece that jangles overhead upon entering the exhibition halls.
Despite this, some collections lacked in establishing an effective forum of ideas. The works of exhibition hall 1 were themed under ‘fire’, including the acrid remains of an abandoned house (Eduardo Basualdo The Island (2009)), charcoal drawings (Mircea Suciu Dust to Dust (2014)), and videos capturing a chain of flames to pieces of paper (Liu Chuang Untitled (Festival) (2011)). While these works each were significant as independent works, placed within the confines of the five themes of fire, politics, institutions, sexuality and space, the sheer number of works disingenuated efforts to open up new dialogues created from communication between the works.
Newly commissioned, Liu Xiaodong’s Time, depicts scenes from the Jeollanamdo Provincial Office, where the Gwangju Democratic Uprising broke out in 1980.
Liu Xiaodong, Time, Oil on canvas, 2014
Experience Over Theory, Senses Over Vision
Celant also remarked that while museums allow ‘no fire, water, animals, no smell or touch, nothing to do with the senses, and have reduced repressed experience of looking and thinking, the biennale becomes a territory to experiment different senses, or different spirits.’ This year’s biennale also presented a number of works that played with the senses, most representative by the works of Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Carsten Holler, and Olafur Eliasson. Carsten Höller’s Sliding Doors (2003) is a spatial experience in which visitors pass through seven sliding mirrored doors, experiencing unlimited reflections of themselves in the mirror. Likewise, Olafur Eliasson’s winter without summer, summer without winter (1994) is another spatial installation that evokes scenes of the arctic and Iceland, where, the once darkened room, slowly transforms with hews of blue.
Exhibition hall 5 was solely dedicated to Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s new work Fitzcarraldo, as part of her M.2062 series. After passing through a maze-like pathway echoing with birds and music, one comes face to face with the hologram mirage of Fitzcarraldo from Werner Herzog’s epic 1982 film. Peering into a virtual world that does not exist, one is drawn into the experience itself with the corresponding visual, sound and spatial effects. As such, the works of these renowned artists present greater enjoyment by allowing the audience to experience space while walking around. Yet, the fact that two of the three above works, are each 10 and 20 years old, makes one question whether the works hold true to the notion of regaining the vitality of the event by ‘burning down the house’.
On the other hand, Exhibition Hall 3 exhibited works that used space as a theme. Within seven specially installed rooms are the photorealism wallpaper works of Urs Fischer. 38 E. 1st St. (2014) combines pop art and performative elements to express a completely two dimensional surface in three-dimensional objects categorized by the kitchen, living room and playroom. Renata Lucas also mocked the windows of the Korean apartment windows with until it becomes an inconvenient stranger (2014). The seemingly peaceful works of Tomoko Yoneda KIMUSA (2009) are a series of twenty photographs depicting windows, door frames, and walls. However, in reality, the scenes were witness to the torture chambers, of the former Seoul Military Hospital. These works all reflect how representations of space are inherently social constructs, and simultaneously cultural remnants. Koo Jeong-a’s Its Soul (2014) is a discreetly vibrating wall, installed at the entrance of the Biennale exhibition hall, symbolizing the exhibition hall, and the biennale itself as a moving organic being. These works used space to interpret the ‘house’ with motives likened to Gwangju, or the Biennale.
Regional Festival Meets International Society
Gwangju Biennale, upon its instatement in 1994, inherited the legacy of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising and its accompanying spirit of democracy. By nature, it is much more participatory and political, and ‘contemporary’ than the more traditional Venice Biennale that celebrates its 120th anniversary next year, or the Kassel documenta or Liverpool Biennial that were created in hopes to rejuvenate tired out cities from industrialization. Yet, today, Gwangju Biennale finds itself in a position of being trapped within the image of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Okuwi Enwezor commented on this aspect that it is dangerous to ‘fetishize the Korean experience to the degree that no one from the outside can make any intervention to it’. In an attempt to resolve this, the artistic director brought in the strategy of various contemporary interpretations of history that represent Korean society today. Sharon Hayes’s We cannot leave this world to others (2014) was created with site research carried out in South Korea and New York, especially focusing on the student daejabo movement of January this year. Sung Hwan Kim’s Summer Days in Keijo - written in 1937 (2007) is also a work in which the Korean author travels a version of Seoul in the Japanese Colonial Times through the eyes of a Swedish traveller. The Biennale square was dedicated to the most notorious work of the event, Navigation ID – From X to A (2014) by Lim Minouk. Since 2009, the artist has been displaying video and performance works, in which bereft families of civilian massacre victims place their remains to rest. At the event, the performance was alternated so that the mothers of the victims of the Gwangju Massacre accompanied the bereft as a work of consolation.
Some works focused on providing opportunities for dialogue by linking the political situations or debates with the theme of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising. Sally Tallant (director, Liverpool Biennial) talked of the importance of ‘genuinely finding ways to reconcile the challenges of the local’ and ‘extending these to global conversations.’ We are not your Monkeys (1993) by Anand Patwardhan, speaks for the Dalits and the Adivasis as the lowest caste’s in India, and Jane Alexander’s Symposium (2014) criticizes the political situation of South Africa, representing politically marginalized classes. Also, the Turkish artist Gulsun Karamustafa’s Prison Painting 11 (1972), and the Filipino artist Brenda Fajardo’s Crossroads (2003) combined with the 1980’s works of the artist group Dung-ji’s Mother as a Laborer series (1989), all depict how women have survived political and social conflict throughout the 70’s and 80s. If the last Gwangju Biennale focused on bringing in the participation of the public, and set the entire city as a stage, this year, the Biennale was thoroughly restricted to the exhibition grounds, and displayed a relatively high number of paintings. This can be seen as a somewhat conservative consensus between the local culture that wishes to escape the image of its past, and the international society, that still wishes to impart a certain impression of Gwangju.
Igniting the Fire, the Future of Gwangju
As the forum drew to a close, Kim Sunjung (artistic director, Asian Culture Information Agency, Asian Culture Complex) commented ‘Asia has only brought in ideas and fashions from abroad, and we have yet to make anything of our own.’ To this, Mari shot back ‘Gwangju at twenty has already become a history. From the archives, documents and aural histories, you have the embryo of what can become great collections.’
This year, Gwangju was under the scrutiny of the international media, after a portrait satirizing president Park by Hong Song-dam was removed, followed by the subsequent resignation of Lee Yongwoo (president, Gwangju Biennale Foundation). Debates about political intervention by art were also brought up. The notion was that the biennale must still be valid as a platform that evades the institutional and bureaucratic notions of the white cube, to deconstruct the given order, and to serve as a marketplace of ideas. Okuwi Enwezor said ‘Art is necessarily political in its nature, by trying to become part of society. For it to become more favorable, the temple must be burned down, to give way to newer and diverse perspectives’. It is at the tender age of twenty that we search for the biennale’s unforetold ignition point, in which the Gwangju Biennale can finally light up new ideas for artists, the public and the international community.
Works depicting Asian feminisim were displayed in lieu with similar Korean paintings by the 80’s Painter group Doongji.
Gulsun Karamustafa, Prison Painting 11, Mixed media on paper, 1972
Brenda Fajardo discusses issues about women, as well as political relations between the Phillippines and the US.
Brenda Fajardo, Crossroads, Acrylic on canvas, 2003
The Past, Present and Future of Gwangju and Venice Biennales
Gwangju Biennale’s first ever foreign director, Okuwi Enwezor, visited Korea late August. Set to be Head Comissioner of the Venice Biennale in 2015, SPACE talked at length with him on the future of the Biennale as a platform. interviewed by Ro Seongja
Ro Seongja (Ro): You mentioned Biennales are no longer as experimental as in the 1980’s or 1990s. What is your diagnosis and prescription?
Okwui Enwezor (Enwezor): This is due to a number of biennales attempting more historical and heavily curated exhibitions. The model of the Biennale has started borrowing conventions from classical museum presentations, questioning the original role of the model.
Three recurring motives are easily identifiable in Korea: North Korea, colonialism, and dictatorship. As serious and as important these questions are, these are not necessarily strategies, but proof of the need for stronger work on the question of historical memory in South Korea today. Hence, today, there really is no one feasible trajectory among artists. I hope to curate the Venice Biennale as a constellation of ideas, upon which different attitudes and positions can speak to each other. So that trends from South Korea, China, or Argentina and Brazil, can gather as a ‘supermarket of strategies’.
Ro: Biennales inherently contrast to museums in their duration and relationship to place. How can placeness and site specificity contribute to bringing back experimental works, especially in Venice in 2015?
Enwezor: First, I wish to focus on new works. Also, I wish to historically represent the biennale, not as a retrospective but as a historical presentation of the work that can resonate with the public, with different entry points of public discourse. Refering back to episodes in the 120 year old history of the Venice Biennale, I want to reflect on the nature, place and size, of the biennale. In terms of site and place, the circumscribal nature of the Biennale and Giardini presents a way to investigate the dual concept of the garden as a utopian paradise and enclosed nature.
Ro: What were your thoughts on Rem Koolhaas’ Venice Architecture Biennale this year? What can architecture learn from art in terms of exhibiting their work?
Enwezor: Architecture is a very weird thing to exhibit. Architecture exhibits fragments and models, that really require different readings of the actual architecture. The struggle of all exhibitions is to make it ‘affective’. In art, the audience can create a direct relational experience in the act of engaging with a work of art.
For me, Koolhaas’s ‘Elements of Architecture’ made the experience of architecture affective by taking it apart. By wanting to reach out and touch the exhibits, an affective, haptic or somatic relationship is formed. In contrast, the pavilions return to miniatures of architecture with models. Hence, creating tension between the affective and the simulated was a strong exhibition strategy. Finally, in the Arsenale, Koolhaas used the language of the contemporary art exhibition to enable him to recover such an affective relationship to the experience. At intersections, films and dance rehearsals provide a crucial time element to open up the public experience of architecture. An exhibition is by its nature, a duration, with a linear narrative structure. This can variate between zig zagging, or becoming diachronic or synchronic.
Jane Alexander compiled her installations in one place to create a massive satirical installation, drawing on the politics of South Africa.
Jane Alexander, Symposium, Mixed media, 2014
Ro: You were Gwangju’s first foreign curator back in 2008. At the time you mentioned the danger of Gwangju becoming ‘parochial, commodifying and fetishizing the experience (of the Democratic uprising) as singular’.
Enwezor: In 2008 I was concerned with Gwangju being misrepresented as a temple of democracy and revolutionary spirit. Over-dependence on one theme can stifle debate, as it creates its own bubble, forbidding outside criticism. For me it was more important to open up to see how minjung connects with all those movements across the world of people’s struggle for self realization, self determination for democratization and for opening society. Gwangju for me is exemplary and important; a lived reality and experience, that has obviously formed the identity of the people of Gwangju.
Ro: This year, the theme ‘Burning Down the House’ is a declaratory statement. Is this valid at this point in time in the broader context of biennales in general, and specifically to Gwangju?
Enwezor: Rather than taking this title literally, I believe it suggests how art has always somehow been a catalyst for renewal and rethinking of conventional ideas. It also reflects the question that art always tries to disturb the peace, so that we rethink our own motivations when confronted with ideas, images or thoughts. So what is the role of the artist in society? I must confess, that the notion of artist as a rebel is perhaps an overly generalized concept that we believe too much in. I want artists to be much more reflective and philosophical, rather than being notorious rebels for thickening things up. Art is often misunderstood as transgressing areas that art should not go into, that art should do art, politics should do politics. By trying to reclaim a place in public, art is necessarily political. And in order to do that, it also has to risk burning down the temple, in order to open it up to a wider variety of perspectives, views and positions . Although this sounds overly generalized, one has just to see the exhibition to see what one has to make of it.
Okwui Enwezor is a curator, art critic, editor and writer; since 2011 he has been the Director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich. He was Artistic Director of the 2nd Johannesburg Biennale in South Africa (1996-1998), of documenta 11 in Kassel, Germany (1998-2002), the Bienal Internacional de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla in Spain (2005-2007), the 7th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (2008). He founded NKA: Journal of Contemporary African Art and is the author of Archive Fever: Uses of the Document in Contemporary Art (2008).