Categorized | Reviews

10th Gwangju Biennial

Minouk Lim, Navigation ID, 2014
It is fairly common to find works of sound art in major international biennial exhibitions, but up until now, none of these vast extravaganzas have actually had a theme song. But the 10th Gwangju Biennial does have one, that being a savvy digital remix of the Talking Heads’ 1983 hit Burning Down the House by French DJ Joakim (Burning Down the House Deconstructed, 2014), audible at the both entrances to the exhibition as well as in a open air causeway that connects the exhibition’s two large buildings. It is a snappy and mesmerizing tune full of surprise variations that are hard to get out of your head—at once music-box sweet and robotically impersonal –so much so that it functions as a kind of soundtrack for the viewer’s navigation of the may highways and byways of the exhibition. It also directly reflects the title of the exhibition, that also being Burning Down the House (organized by Jessica Morgan of the Tate Modern in London), promising something akin to insurrection, but only delivering the artistic tea leaves of disquiet and ressentiment.  In these aspects, the exhibition seems obliquely related to Roger Burgel and Ruth Novak’s Documenta 11 from 2007, the key difference being that the earlier exhibition orchestrated its far-flung components in such a hyper-sophisticated way that it seemed to be speaking only to the three dozen or so members of the global curatorial elite. In comparison, Morgan’s Gwangju presentation comes off as being admirably plainspoken, albeit in the kind of multiple registers demanded by such a large and ambitious project. 
Liu Xiaodong, Time, 2014

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.

Vital statistics: Burning Down The House consists of over 400 works of art by 103 artists and artist’s groups hailing from 38 countries.  Thirty-five of these works were new commissions made specifically for the exhibition, which occupies well over 200,000 square feet of indoor exhibition space, plus much more adjacent outdoor space in Biennial square, just outside of the two large buildings that comprise the Biennial Hall. 
Eko Nugrobo

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.

Yves Kline, Untitled, (Pour Madame Everaert avec l’amitié d’Yves Klein), Fire on cardboard on panel, 1961

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.

The Gwangju Biennial has always been one the best venues for Euro-American viewers to get a glimpse of the accomplishments of Asian artists, and this iteration delivers on that promise.  It does so not so much by showing work from China as from Korea: 5 artists from China opposed to 20 from Korea, including 5 from Gwangju.  This would suggest from the in-crowd’s perspective that the China art bubble may now be deflating past the point of continued interest. It’s no secret that South Korea is the current center of Asian pop culture, because even Japanese teenagers are getting their style models from Seoul, where K-pop is the candy-coated rage and Korean cinema is making headways in the international film circuit. Time will tell if Korean art will follow suit. How it might be following that suit is indicated by some notable examples. 
Edward Kienholz & Nancy Reddin Kienholz, The Ozymandias Parade, Mixed media, 1985
Xooang Choi presents overhead sculptures configured as a floating circle or pair of wings made up of what appears to be human body parts. Yong Soo Kim follows this Surrealist-inspired suit with a set of ten photographs hung askew on a wall covered by a large photomural of clouds. The photographs were archival images that pointed to dark moments in recent Korean history, including the 1980 uprising/massacre, but also the way that the post-World War II American occupation of Korea was fraught with pain and mistrust.  One of the several collaborative groups included in Burning Down the House was that of Ei Arakawa and Guangju resident Inza Lim.  Their piece, titled Universes in Universe (2014), consists of a swing cyclone of found objects reaching to the top of the high ceiling of the gallery space.
Robert Heinecken, Waking Up in News America, Mixed media, 1986

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.

Burning Down the House both begs and provisionally answers an obvious question: has the proliferation of international biennials during the past two decades reached a point of diluted exhaustion? Or to put it another way, are all biennials starting to look the same, that is like biennials? Morgan’s exhibition answers these questions in the negative, and the reason lies in how it formulates itself as a dialectical conversion between the much maligned idea of art history and the insufficiently maligned idea of market serfdom that is the salient attribute of international art fairs, by which I mean all international art fairs. All of the better biennials

George Condo, God 1 Cold-plated bronze

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. 

Put another way, we might say that the best of the big international biennials reinvigorate our curiosity about the continuing possibilities of art, simply by warding off the fear that the whole enterprise may only be about money, which, even if it is true, should never be upheld as a virtue in-and-of itself. This is not to say that there isn’t a Chinese menu sub-text to the better biennials like Burning Down the House, but to say that it operates as part of a larger, more complicated and more forward-thinking set of other considerations. If any biennial is merely one of these Chinese menus, it runs the risk of being indentified as a mere market certification mechanism, working hand-in-glove with the sordid machinations of art fair price fixing rather than providing either an alternative to them, or, even better, an intellectually challenging perspective about them. Burning Down the House is successful because it provides those things, locating them back in the real and vexingly complicated world of lived cultural experiences. 
But with that recognition comes another cloud of doubt, again, about biennials in general as opposed to the current example offered up at Gwangju. That doubt pertains to the way that the international biennial circuit substitutes the commodification of curatorial careers for the crass commodification of art. It comes as no surprise that large, mega-exhibitions like Burning Down the House are formulated in part as cases for their organizers to be recruited to organize one of the next round of mega exhibitions in two or three years time, preferably moving up or otherwise staying upon the ladder of global art world prestige. For example, we can note that Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev (who was the artistic director of Documenta XIII in 2012 will be artistic director of the 2015 iteration of the Istanbul Biennial (September 4 to November 1). Likewise, the 2015 iteration of the Venice Biennial will be organized under the direction of Okwui Enwezor, who also organized
Urs Fischer 38 E. 1st St., Wallpaper, 2014
the Paris Triennial in 2012 and Documenta XI in 2002. Needless to say, this club of international biennial directors is a fairly small one, so it is to Morgan’s credit that she did so well when she was given membership in it. Up until a few weeks ago, imagining some grand cultural casino in the clouds, oddsmakers were already analyzing who might be named the director of the 2017 editions of Documenta and the Venice Biennial. At that time, I would have given Morgan a good chance to be given one of these plums, hoping against hope that the fruit stays ripe enough in two years to sustain our interest. But shazaam! The press release went out proclaiming that Adam Szymczyk, director of Kunsthalle, Basel will be organizing the 2017 Documenta XIV. I should have seen that one coming, but I also take note of the fact that the Venice Biennial has not had a female director since Bice Curiger organized the exhibition in 2011, so Morgan should be in the conversation for the short list. Nonetheless, I was unable to think of any curators currently working in America who have or had any real chance of finding their names on that list.
But here, it also needs to be remembered that American curators work under the auspices of a very different kind of organizational politics than do their European colleagues, in that they work for directors who work for trustees who are often collectors of the art that ends up in institutional collections. Certainly, this kind of thing also goes on in Europe and Asia, and it is clear that the American system is on the rise in those places, even as the system of curators as tenured, state supported operators is on the decline. But for now, the big exhibitions that are defining the way that the future might be different than the present are all taking place far from American soil, where simple minded starfucking reigns supreme simply because that has become the only thing that Americans understand. 
The 10th Gwangju Biennial: "Burning Down the House" ran from September 5 to November 9, 2014 in Gwangju, South Korea
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The Art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  To learn more about Mark Van Proyen, read Alex Mak's December 9, 2014 interview, published on Broke Ass Stuart's Goddamn Website.  
The author would like to express gratitude to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) Faculty Development Fund which funded the research leading up to this article. 

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