Frequent Flyer


Left: Artist Stéphane Dafflon. Right: Samuel Keller and Jens Hoffmann. (All photos: Nicolas Trembley)

This year, the opening of the fall season was marked by a slew of Asian biennials. Singapore, Shanghai, and Gwangju all opened within five days of one another, bringing to this side of the globe swarms of jet-lagged art professionals, journalists, and VIPs who would soon be suffering the heartburn caused by too-spicy kim chi. To ward off indigestion, I decided I would confine my tour to Korea.

I’m always amazed by how many familiar faces one encounters on these trips. Checking in at Roissy, I ran into artist Stéphane Dafflon, who was just getting back from Geneva (and skipping the biennials), and then Armin Linke, in transit from Milan. On board the plane, I sat near Claude Allemand-Cosneau, the director of the FNAC, who sneaked me some Ambien. This insured that on arrival in Gwangju, I fell asleep immediately in my room at the Prado hotel—which, sad to say, is nowhere near as impressive as the Spanish museum—and was fully rested for the next day’s press preview.

That morning, artistic director Kim Hong-hee explained how “Fever Variations” (nothing to do with SARS), the sixth Gwangju biennial, is made up of two large sections, roughly summed up as 1) what happens in Asia; 2) what happens in the rest of the world. Divided into subsections that function according to dual themes—echoing Korea’s political position, split into North and South—the well-designed exhibit was curated by Wu Hung (Chicago), Binghui Huangfu (Sydney), Shaheen Merali (Berlin), and Jacquelynn Baas (Michigan), the last responsible for a show of Fluxus archive material. The presentation of Chinese propaganda photographs, doctored before the advent of Photoshop and presented by Zhang Dali alongside the originals snaps from which they came, was a big hit. The second section shows art made elsewhere, mainly in Europe and the Balkans. Designed by Cristina Ricupero (Paris) and Beck Jee-sook (Seoul), this part is far less zen-kitsch, so to speak, and much more political, as illustrated by the subsection titled “Exhibiting US Imperialism and War,” conceived by Chris Gilbert and Cira Pascual Marquina in collaboration with activist groups focusing on Latin America.

Left: Artist Bruno Serralongue and Gwangju Biennale curator Cristina Ricupero. Right: Gwangju Biennale director Kim Hong-hee.

Once they’d looked around, the talk between people on their way to/from Singapore and/or Shanghai centered on establishing comparisons involving complex equations of art, food, crowds, weather, and the like. A simple summary: Shanghai is better than Singapore but worse than Gwangju. Somehow, these discussions passed the time, and we were faced with a choice of two dinners: one for the press, the other for the artists. I chose the press dinner, naturally. At the end of the evening, tradition required that everyone meet up at a karaoke bar booked by Samuel Keller, who was in a jubilant mood. Even a rendition of Nirvana’s “You Know You’re Right” by curator Jens Hoffmann, critic Marc Spiegler, and artists Sean Snyder and Erik van Lieshout couldn’t sour things.

Cristina Ricupero, less confident about her singing voice (“I haven’t slept for a week”), suggested delicately that we end the night in an absolutely extraordinary club where the performances of singers/contortionists/strippers clad in ’80s-style glitter held up well in comparison with those we saw at the biennial. We were all speechless with admiration, especially Elmgreen & Dragset and Runa Islam (who, to her surprise, was booked into a love hotel).

The next day, during the official opening, there were as many police officers as guests at the awards ceremony held in the local ampitheater (yes, Gwangju also has its awards). Given out by Mori Art Museum director David Elliott and his jury—Ute Meta Bauer, Charles Esche, Ra-Young Hong, and Kim Hong-hee—the thirty-thousand-dollar biennial award was split between Chinese artist Song Dong, for an incredible installation that displays all the inconsequential knickknacks his mother saved during the past few decades, and Michael Joo, for his not-so-convincing video installation in which surveillance cameras are trained on a Buddha. “Well, there had to be a Korean winner,” said someone in the know. Two additional five-thousand-dollar awards were given out, to Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas (from Lithuania) for their protest-lab archive and to Lim Min-ouk (Korea) for her women-only club. I wonder how the jury—50 percent male—was able to judge the piece. (I heard that girls had the opportunity to make photocopies of their buttocks in there, and apparently they weren’t shy about
it . . .)

Left: Ute Meta Bauer, head of the Visual Arts Program in the architecture department at MIT. Right: Gwangju Biennale Ex Aequo Prize winner Song Dong.

I didn’t really have the patience or the time to sit through the inevitable open forum on the “role of international biennials and significance in particular of Asian biennials” (featuring Hou Hanru, Yuko Hasegawa, Fumio Nanjo, Sung Wan-Kyung, and more). From the little I heard of it, everyone ended up concluding—perhaps because most of the panelists were Asian-biennial directors?—that these biennials are a new breed, much better than the older ones, and they should continue to be held. (Great! A reason to come back.)

On my last night in the city, I just had time to make it to the traditional Korean dinner held in honor of the artists and attended by Bruno Serralongue, Thomas Allen Harris, Superflex, Michael Beutler, and Gimhongsok, among many others. I sat on the ground, enjoyed the tasty barbecue, and momentarily forgot not only about the party taking place nearby, in the rain, but about going to Busan—yet another biennial!—as well.

Left: Busan Biennale curator Manu Park. Right: Artist Michael Beutler.

Left: Artist Runa Islam. Right: Artist Ingar Dragset.

Left: Filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris with artist Yong Soon Min. Right: Artist Gimhongsok.

Left: Korea Foundation Prize winners Nomeda and Gediminas Urbonas. Right: Artist Jennifer Tee.

Left: Gwangju Bank Prize winner Lim Min-ouk. Right: Gwangju Biennale curator Beeck Jee-sook.

Left: Gwangju Biennale curator Jacquelynn Baas. Right: Gwangju Biennale Ex Aequo Prize winner Michael Joo.

Left: Hermès Seoul contemporary space curator Sung Won-kim. Right: Jury president and Mori Museum director David Elliott.

Left: Artists Paola Yacoub and Michel Lassere. Right: Superflex's Jakob Fenger.

Left: Artist Armin Linke. Right: Artist Michael Elmgreen.

Left: Artist Meschac Gaba. Right: Gwangju Biennale curator Binghui Huangfu.

Left: Gwangju Biennale curator Wu Hung. Right: Moscow Biennale curator Iara Boubnova.

Left: FNAC director Claude Allemand-Cosneau. Right: Artist Jens Haaning.