Gwangju Biennale Celebrates Asia’s Consumer Culture

Curator Jessica Morgan presents the work of over 100 artists.

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Minouk Lim, Navigation ID (2014)
Dan Flavin, Monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K. who reminded my about death) (1966)
Photo: John McCord.
Urs Fischer, 38 E. 1st St. (2014). Photo: John McCord
Minouk Lim, Navigation ID (2014). Photo: John McCord
Minouk Lim, Navigation ID (2014). Photo: John McCord
Helicopter flying over the Gwanju Biennale. Photo: John McCord
Jane Alexander, "Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)" (2012)
Jane Alexander, Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope) (2012). Photo: John McCord
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, M.2062 (Fitzcarraldo)(2014). Photo: John McCord
Sterling Ruby, Stoves (2004). Photo: John McCord
Renata Lucas, Until it Becomes an Inconvenient Stranger (2014)

The 10th edition of the Gwangju Biennale got off to a rainy start on Wednesday, as rumors circulated that the dreary weather would affect the landing of the helicopter that circled the Biennale grounds. Fortunately, weather broke in favor of South Korean artist Minouk Lim’s choreographed performance Navigation ID (2014), and one of the more impressive works from Burning Down the House, the 2014 Gwangju Biennale organized by the Tate’s Jessica Morgan, appeared to launch without a hitch.

Morgan, the Daskalopoulos curator of international art at the Tate Modern, appropriates the title of her exhibition from the 1983 song by the Talking Heads. Reflecting not only what she views as the “double significance of the Biennale concept,” Morgan’s ambitious production, which features over 100 artists and collaborative groups, expands on the evocative title to draw attention to the potential of aesthetics, history, and commercial culture to transform.

Different from most international bienniale art events, the Gwangju Biennale was founded with a specific political goal in mind: to commemorate the 1980 Democratic uprising in a city where 200 citizens died at the hands of the military dictatorship. Morgan embraces this history, casting a wide net by enlisting artists from 38 countries to represent what she describes as the “spiral of violent or symbolic events of destruction or self-destruction–setting fire to the home one occupies—followed by the promise of the new and the hope for change.”

The five distinct spaces of the vast Gwangju Biennale grounds are treated as separate sections within the show, addressing themes of public space, Asia’s increasingly consumerist culture, the architectural “home” and its surrounding landscape, artistic interrogation of the status quo, and the position of contemporary art within global society.

A fitting launch for the three month long Biennale, Minouk Lim’s Navigation ID sharply defines curator Jessica Morgan’s iteration of Asia’s first, and arguably most important, art event. A penetrating and emotional production wherein surviving family members of those killed during the Korean Government’s massacre of civilians during the Korean War were greeted by the mothers of those who died in Gwangju’s May 18th, 1980, Democratic uprising, Navigation ID is a remarkable model for what Morgan describes as “the potential of artists to address public issues through individual and collective engagement.”

Minouk Lim, Navigation ID (2014). Photo: John McCord

Minouk Lim, Navigation ID (2014). Photo: John McCord

While a connection between Morgan’s vision and a few artworks seems overly dependent on a literal link to the show’s title (Sterling Ruby’s Stoves, 2004, a series of four colossal stainless steel and cast-iron stoves come to mind, which exhibited outside of the exhibition in the plaza burn wood and emit smoke but inside are non-functioning forms), many artworks stand out in her concise presentation. Jeremy Deller’s Untitled (2014) mural on the façade of the Biennale hall renders in trompe l’oeil detail an octopus escaping the destroyed, burning building. A reminder of Korean film maker Bong Joon-ho’s sea-monster-horror-film the Host, Deller’s Octopus serves as a metaphor for the tentacled reach of an increasingly global art world.

Filling the bulk of Gallery 3, Urs Fischer’s 38 E. 1st St. (2014), a sprawling one-to-one architectural recreation of his New York apartment, provides a literal replica of his “house,” with every square inch of the structure’s walls covered by a photo-realistic re-creation of the contents of Fischer’s abode. The structure’s eight distinct galleries (the rooms of Fischer’s apartment) are used to display works by eight other artists (Pierre Huyghe, Prem Sahib, Apostolos Georgiou, George Condo, Carol Christian Poell, Stewart Uoo, Heman Chong, and Tomoko Yoneda), almost all of whom were regrettably swallowed up by the immense, visually distracting work (not to mention the many artworks from Fischer’s own collection that were on view via the wallpaper). The exception is Huyghe’s performative contribution in the form of an announcer, who stands at the entrance of the room-within-a-room, politely inquiring each visitor’s name and then jarringly shouting it across the vast space. Unfortunately for the other artists, Fischer’s work primarily communicated two things—that he has a really nice New York apartment, and that his collection of art (mostly by other Gavin Brown artists) is impressive.

Urs Fischer, 38 E. 1st St. (2014). Photo: John McCord

Urs Fischer, 38 E. 1st St. (2014). Photo: John McCord

Well-chosen historical works are fortunately in great abundance here, and not just those by the usual suspects. Dan Flavin’s red fluorescent Monument 4 for those who have been killed in ambush (to P.K who reminded me about death) (1966), set at an angle in the corner of gallery 3, evokes war in the shape of a fighter jet. Made in the context of the Vietnam War, Monument 4 is a particularly pointed inclusion, as the artist served as an air force pilot in Korea one year after the Korean War concluded.

A member of the Korean conceptualist ST (Space and Time) movement, Neungkyung Sung’s Location (1976) documents a performance in which the artist placed the magazine SPACE at different parts of his body, underscoring the importance of the movement, which was at the time overlooked in favor of a more popular style of monochromatic painting. One of the true highlights of Burning Down the House is a display of 45 photographs in Gallery 4 by the pioneering Sri Lankan photographer Lionel Wendt (born 1900, died 1944). Wendt’s early experiments with form, gender, sexuality, and the photographic process were integral to the evolution of modernist photography in Asia, and in the context of Morgan’s exhibition they are a beautiful reminder that art can overcome state-sponsored status quo.

Fortunately, Burning Down the House is smart to acknowledge that its own house is also the one to be burnt down, with contributions from Jeremy Deller, Renata Lucas, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster directly interrogating the space in which they exist. Built during the post-war surge of the 1970s-80s, hundreds of utilitarian tower-block apartments fill the industrial Gwangju cityscape. Renate Lucas’s Until it Becomes an Inconvenient Stranger (2014) stages an eerily subtle intervention within the stark design of the Biennale exhibition hall by simply installing a section of windows into the wall. Positioned directly across from one of the towers, Lucas’s windows are a formal scrutiny of the place of cutting-edge contemporary art amidst the backdrop of a working class industrial South Korean city.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s M.2062 (Fitzcarraldo) (2014) is placed near the gift shop at the exit of the Biennale hall, functionally bidding farewell to the Biennale viewer. Walking through a darkened, cavernous space filled with ambient jungle noise, a ghostly holographic projection of Gonzalez-Foerster, impersonating Klaus Kinsky’s title role as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, emerges from the rear of the winding corridor brashly lamenting “I’m Fitzcarraldo… I’m Caruso… I’m Verdi…” while grasping the stem of a martini glass. After fading out, Gonzalez-Foerster’s image slowly reappears, this time holding a Victrola and playing Caruso’s solemn rendition of Bizet’s Mi Par d’udir Ancora. Linking the hubris of Herzog’s character to that of the art world, Gonzalez-Foerster satirizes the ambitions of the arts patron and the utopian vision of the Biennale format, probing the Biennale and its objective to support the cultural enrichment of the city of Gwangju.

Burning Down the House opened September 5th and runs until November 9th, 2014, and is co-hosted by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and the Metropolitan City of Gwangju.

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