Categorized | Reviews

The 11th Gwangju Biennial

Sachiko Kazama, Nohuman Crossing, 2013, woodcut print (panel, Japanese paper, oil ink)
by Mark Van Proyen

Peggy Guggenheim was known for many things, including her mismatched earrings. She famously said, "I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art.” Eight decades later, it seems that many more mismatched bangles are now needed, including a computer-powered earring that blinks and another representing the social archive of lost causes. The place that they are being summoned to is the 11th Gwangju Biennial in south central Korea, the largest, longest running and best funded art biennial to take place during the winter-fall periods of even numbered years in Asia — odd ones being reserved for similar European extravaganzi such as the Venice Biennial. Organized by artistic director Maria Lind of Tensta Konsthall (Stockholm) fame, GB 11 parades under the perplexing thematic banner of The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?).

Any veteran observer of international art biennials can tell you that the parenthetical part of that meta-sequitor is answered by the phrase “continuing to keep alive the question what it is art is supposed to do,” implying the unfashionable inadequacy of a more specifically articulated response.  The Eighth Climate part is less easily answered. The exhibition catalog tells us that it is taken from a 12th century Iranian philosopher named Sohravardi, who postulated that an
Ann Lislegaard, Video still of Oracles, Owls… Some Animals Never Sleep, 2012
additional “imaginal” climate be added to the seven earthly climates identified by the ancient Greek geographers.  This last is the place where the escape from natural laws begins, and is the meta-natural habitat for new thoughts and new forms, simultaneously explaining anything and nothing, and is oddly similar to SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul’s comparable theme of Neriri Kiruru Harara, which references the sum of artistic languages conceived in the future tense. What remains as the salient take-way from GB 11 was a sprawling and unfocused amalgamation of work that runs the gamut between the so so and the not-so-hot, all subordinated to an ethos of proliferation for the sake of proliferation: more venues, more artists (over 100 artists and artists groups), more assistant curators engaged inpartnering,” and more “collateral presentations” which often took the form of interactive arts education projects executed by local arts organizations. It is the global curatorial version of the old MFA injunction to make things big and paint them red, a bizarre hybrid of Euro-socialist maternalism and the bureaucratic residues of Korea’s continued upholding of the Confucian order.

Like all of the other climates, the 8th has its own Manichean division between light and dark, inspiring my earlier conjuration of Peggy Guggenheim. It was she who had her upper Manhattan Art of This Century gallery painted black in the early 1940s, allowing her to hang work from the ceiling in a way that made each piece hover in darkness as if it were a heavenly body. Guggenheim’s night gallery theme is carried over in two galleries of GB 11, with the most interesting aspect of the exhibition presented on the second floor of the first building. The large gallery is submerged in total darkness, illuminated only by the light thrown off of the 20 or so hi-
Trevor Paglen, Autonomy Cube
def video monitors and/or projectors.  The ensemble effect is really quite stunning.  But the question that lingers is this: does this ensemble effect do much for the individual works contained therein? Certainly, some were more eye-catching than others, but it was impossible to fully look at any of them for any length of time without being distracted by works in close proximity. That much said, I was impressed with Ann Lislegaard’s eye-scorching video of bright green spiders engaged in “networking,” (get it?), and Flo Kasearu’s 4-minute video, Uprising (2015), which gives the viewer a floating overhead view of masked workers removing the metal roof from a building and folding the roofing sheets into giant paper-airplane forms. Anicka Yi presented a pair of internally illuminated box structures whose partially contents, made them look like nocturnal aquariums incubating mysterious entities.
Two years ago, Jessica Morgan’s 10th iteration of the Gwangju Biennial was forthright about the theme of state violence enacted against unarmed civilians, showing respect for the institution’s founding rationale as an ongoing memorial of the May 18, 1980 uprising, where South Korean government troops killed close to 200 student protestors during a four-day period in Gwangju. That theme is also present in GB 11, but only in muted and subdued form. In Dora Garcia’s reconstruction of the Nokdu Bookstore, For the Living and The Dead, (2016), the artist memorializes the bookstore that became a meeting place and idea factory for the students who
Lawrence Abu Hamdan, installation view of Earshot, Portikus, Frankfurt, 2016
led the 1980 uprising.   Sachiko Kazama is represented by a single, very large and very complicated woodblock print titled Nonhuman Crossing which pictures a riot taking place in a futuristic dystopia.  Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s Rubber Coated Steel (2016), is in installation featuring video monitors set up as if they were targets at a shooting range. The screens showed thermo graphic and spectrographic imagery of bullets fired by Israeli soldiers on Palestinian civilians, putting the lie to claims that said projectiles were only rubber ammunition, intended for crowd dispersal. Trevor Paglen presented several works, including the Autonomy Cube, which was a secure wi-fi space that connects the local network to a Tor site, facilitating high-end encryption for internet communication, so that the space can be free of data surveillance.

To help forge the link to the Constructivist claims made on behalf of the exhibition, there were some neo-modernist works interspersed throughout the galleries. Rana Begum showed several paintings featuring folded sheet metal supports upon which were applied bright color on both front and rear sides. The colors facing the wall could be seen reflecting back to the viewer, which conveyed a ghostly halo effect.  Monir Shahroudy-Farmanfarmaian also works with reflective surfaces, hers being actual mirror fragments that are affixed to a dimensional support structure in precise and complex geometric configurations that seem inspired by Islamic tiling.  Li Jinghu presents a configuration of neon tubes mounted overheard that is titled White Cloud (2009-2016). The catalog made a point of saying that the artist’s work was about engaging conditions of labor in Asia, but I could not see this purpose embodied in the object. But it did look a little like a white cloud.
Li Jinghu, White Clouds, 2010

 I usually make a point of going to press previews for exhibitions of this type, but travel mishaps had me arriving late. So instead, I went to the public opening, which is something that I almost never do. I have never seen anything like this in the North American or European art worlds, and from what I have been told, this was the subdued version of the public opening from two years ago. The multi-lingual introduction of dignitaries and celebrities went on for a full hour, and there were a lot of them, almost all men and all wearing the same exact blue-gray suits of exquisite Hong Kong cut. This was followed with a snazzy multi-media presentation with lots of computer generated imagery displayed on a billboard-sized jumbotron, which in turn was used as a backdrop for a percussion-themed musical performance, which then segued into a blaring theme-from-Jurassic Park-style recorded serenade.  Then came dancers doing Alvin Ailley-esque pirouettes and somersaults. When it was over, the dignitaries filed into the exhibition rooms, only to be followed by everyone else after a fairly long wait.  Naturally, no one at the opening bothered to look at any of the art.

I made some chitchat with one of the younger artists who will remain nameless for obvious reasons. She confessed to feeling a little left behind by the previous week, and was not thrilled by the way that her work was presented. My own paternal advice was forthcoming: “You have to understand that curators of these big shows see themselves as the architects of the cathedral, and all of you are just the makers of the gargoyles. They write and direct the movie, you have
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Group 9 (Convertible Series), 2010, mirror, reverse glass painting on plaster and wood
your moment on camera. The sheer size of the audience has its benefit as far as your career position is concerned, as does having your work referenced in the catalog. Those things create what is called “an importance effect, and that effect can be leveraged to your long-term benefit. But in the majority of cases, the actual experience of artworks is trivialized in these kinds of shows, so you have to take the good with the bad. It is a different kind of trivialization than the kind one sees at art fairs, but still a trivialization.” What I didn’t say then was that GB 11 turned the volume up on said trivialization, owing mostly to the cluttered installation of too many works in the three non-dark galleries. There was very little attention paid to how works by different artists could speak to each other through proximate hanging, and the stretch that needed to be made to connect the selected works to the various sub-themes that were alleged to animate the exhibition was little than a burdensome tax extorted from the viewer’s honest curiosity.

Also, a lot of the work in GB 11 was painfully derivative, looking like minor variations on well-worn (out?) themes, all more or less harking back to 1920s Constructivism, with all of its naïve idealism about the role of art using the tools of industry to building a better world. Only here, the idealism was not even naïve, mostly because the hot house environments that have fostered it have induced a rather bad case of clone fatigue, with all of the symptoms of anemia that appertain. Insofar as technology is concerned, there was far too little skeptical recognition of the ways that new technology always releases opposing possibilities toward emancipation and domination, and even the old Constructivist esthetics failed to fully appreciate that point, much to their eventual peril.  Trevor Paglen’s work aside, it is almost needless to add that GB 11’s
Anicka Yi, Fontenelle, 2015, mixed media
resurrection of Constructivist esthetics failed to address it, and is only an exercise in big-budget nostalgia, forwarding a notion of Constructivism that is kept alive by the most artificial of means—that being a government sanctioned magnet for globe trotting cultural tourists. Suspicion grows over the possibility that the decision to not pull the plug  on Constructivism has to do with sustaining the sinecure of its institutional caregivers, who still live in hope for a moment of revolution that will not arrive until after the point where global climate devastation makes it irrelevant. Even the design of the exhibition catalog mocks this lineage, as it comes off like a pad of colored construction paper that might be used by schoolchildren to build their own better worlds. And despite all of these draw backs, GB 11 still failed to attain that holy grail status of being so bad that it was good.

Biennials in general and GB 11 in particular have fostered a surfeit of what can be called “mannerist conceptual art,” earmarked by routine juxtapositions of text and video that perpetually rehash the kind of ground-breaking work done in the late 1960s with only minor variations that seem to be writ larger because of more advanced projection technology. Aside from considering the possibility that video installation may be to the current decade what large,
Rana Begum, No.380 L Fold, 2013, No.415 L Fold, 2013
Gursky-esque photographs were to the last (both brought about by expanded technical capabilities, and both doomed to fall out of fashion as quickly as they fell in), there is far too little interrogation of the deeper implications of counterpoising the viewing spaces of “the gallery of embodiment” and those of “the disembodied screen,” inevitably setting the stage for the latter to subsume the former. Of course, this squares with the laziest versions of technological determinism, and for all of its putative “radicalism,” it really only participates in the circus of neo-liberal expansion that it pretends to critique by being pimped out as bait for the cultural tourism industry.  

More broadly, we need to think about the original internationalist ambitions of such exhibitions, especially now that nation states have already withered to the point where they are little more than distribution and enforcement mechanisms working on behalf of global credit markets. In this respect, GB 11 does what almost all other exhibitions of its ilk do, that being a subtle forwarding of an idea of transnationalism as a timely update to the internationalism of old.  The mass migrations of refugees and the continuing rise in population of stateless persons makes this shift necessary and inevitable, but the reflection of these circumstances in contemporary art production is cursory at best, usually manifested in an esthetic of visual hints.                 

One of the things that the art world expects from exhibitions of this type is the postulation of a historically persuasive alternative to the mechanisms of market validation. On the face of things, this alternative positioning accounts for the predomination of installation art, particularly video installation—tacitly saying that if you were interested in painting you should go to an art fair, the places where money talks and heady curatorial theories about “advanced art” walk: fair enough, but true only as an over-simplification. What has emerged from the realm of art fairs is a facile erasure of history that postulates auction prices as a triumphal narrative of a-historicity (remember MOMA’s Forever Now?), while in the realm of the biennial, historicism is simultaneously banished and resurrected. The part that is banished is the old idea of history as chronicle of triumphs and devastations that simultaneously rationalize and instrumentalize
Dora Garcia’s reconstruction of the Nokdu Bookstore, For the Living and The Dead, (2016)
colonialist mendacity, while resurrected historicism registers and elaborates upon the emergence of a complex multi-polar world built on complicated multi-historical narratives encompassing larger and often times contradictory patterns of cause-and-effect.  I am not going to go so far as to use any variation on the terms “post-history “ or “post-colonialism,“ because we are still far away from their actualization, and in fact, looking at the sorry state of the world as it lapses into a morass of lizard-brained tribalism, it may be getting even further from fulfilling that particular dream.  Wishing that it were so may not suffice in various foundation-supported think tanks and doctorial seminars, but now more than at any time during the past five decades, you can wish in one hand and crap in the other and see which one fills up first, and no amount of socio-theoretical citation mongering can alter the grim trajectory that stems from this fact.  

Emerging circumstances may now require yet another re-thinking of the international biennial model that has enjoyed so much success in recent years, because the circumstances that have given rise to that success are shifting. One of these circumstances is that the robust accomplishments of the Asian tiger economies are starting to slow down, which might impact the perceived affordability of officially sponsored cultural projects. Another of these circumstances is that there are now a great many artists who make works that are intended to function almost exclusively in biennial contexts, with the intended audience being biennial curators who like to have their foundation-supported illusion of sophisticated importance
Ingela Ihrman Installation, 6-meter hogweed,reeds, wheat flour glue, cardboard, foam hoses, textiles, spray paint, and nylon cord 
flattered by way of supporting work that could not come into being without their support. While I applaud the intent of GB 11 to deviate from the normal program of showing pre-certified art in favor of a long roster of relatively unfamiliar names, and while I was heartened to take note of the fact that “courtesy of the Kadist Foundation” was not to be found on any of the title tags in the exhibition (which is more than can be said for the francophilic Taipei Biennial), the sad and inescapable fact is that GB 11 is unfocused and for the largest share nugatory, containing far too small a fraction of work worthy of more than a cursory glance, and using sheer scale and the whipping of dead theoretical horses to excuse the fact. At least it made the Busan Biennial, the Taipei Biennial and Mediacity Seoul look good by comparison.  
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The 11th Gwangju Biennial:  “The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?)” through November 6, 2016. 

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.

Research for this article was made possible by a grant from the San Francisco Art Institute Faculty Development Fund.

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