Founded in 1995, the Gwangju Biennial is Asia’s oldest, largest and most prestigious international art biennial. It is also one of the five or six largest and most widely esteemed exhibitions of contemporary art in the world. It was founded commemorate the Gwangju massacre of 1980, when 241 peaceful demonstrators were gunned down by government troops. Gwangju itself is Korea’s fifth largest city, and it is located near a large airbase shared by the US and Korea. Every 15 minutes or so, a military jet flies over the town to provide another kind of soundtrack for the exhibition. Burning Down the House indeed.
There are many interwoven sub-themes that can be identified in Burning Down the House, and for the most part, Morgan and her collaborating associate curators have done a good job of choreographing them in a way that balances a dozen or so sub-themes with variations that offer both surprise and uncanny recapitulation. One theme that seems to stand out is state violence perpetrated against citizens. The most chilling example was a work by Minouk Lim, consisting of a pair of shipping containers that were placed in Biennial Square (the outdoor space adjacent to the biennial halls). Each housed the physical remains of several of the victims of the 1980 massacre, visible in semi-darkness through small windows cut in the containers. Liu Xiaodong presents a large painting formed of 20 panels, each depicting a young student in Biennial Square, pointing to the obvious fact that they are all too young to have any personal experience of the massacre. One of the real finds was a suite of large drawings on discarded cardboard by Andrea Bowers, with depictions harking back to the golden 19th century age of agit-prop illustration, updated so as to address contemporary issues. In a more oblique mode, we can also take note of the woven wall hangings by Eko Nugrobo, which caricature political leaders as hellish demons. And in reference to hellish demons, we should note the large mural/banner attached to the outer wall facing out onto the square, which looks like a gargantuan octopus breaking through the wall. Credit Jeremy Deller for that one, and note that the work was one of those specifically commissioned for the exhibition.
As is the case with recent iterations of Documenta and the Venice Biennial, historical works are included with contemporary works to suggest an active and imaginative rethinking of lineages. For example, there is a small fire painting by Yves Klein from 1961 that looks quite recent in the light of the recent vogue for “provisional painting.” The late Robert Heinecken is also represented by a major work from the early 1980s that, rather surprisingly, was not included in his recent retrospective at the NYMOMA. It is titled Waking Up in News America, consisting of a dark room with mannequin and furniture that is entirely covered with photos of television screens showing news announcers, all of whom are white and most of whom are blond. Another showstopper was a 1985 work by Ed and Nancy Kienholz titled The Ozymandias Parade. It is a huge, maddeningly complex tableaux that is simultaneously hilarious and chilling, a hyper-baroque dance macabre of greed and political corruption that mocks its own triumphalism.
On a darkened top floor of one of the exhibition halls, we had a chance to see a kind of exhibition within an exhibition (biennial en abyme!), which may be the message in a bottle version of the whole experience. It was by Urs Fischer and was a self-contained, brightly-lit multi-roomed “house” featuring all of its interior surfaces covered by high resolution 1 to 1 scale digital prints of a real domestic dwelling, including books and home furnishings, presumably Fischer’s New York flat. It’s titled 38 E. 1st Street, and it was dubbed the “Acid House,” owing to a prominently placed sign proclaiming it as such inside the space. I have to admit that it was pretty trippy as well as being vaguely disturbing — a domestically themed retort to James Rosenquist’s famous wrap-around painting titled F-111 from 1965. Located within this large labyrinth were a smattering of real objects and several commissioned artworks, including a pair of golden heads by George Condo.
accomplish this kind of conversion, usually by simultaneously reframing and recovering a new post-colonial and poly-thematic historicity from the dustbin of a deconstructed art history that once was. This is a point that American curators need to learn and learn fast, because when they enter the international biennial fray, they all too often revert to a simple, Chinese menu approach to curation (featuring set numbers of artists chosen from columns a, b or c of those various sectors of simultaneously operating art production that clamor for attention in any given moment). In so doing, they show themselves to be more interested in influence peddling than in big-picture thinking about the far horizons of art, hiding their deficiency behind a putative deference to the ethnography of identity politics and interest group placation.