Diary

House Proud

Left: Gwangju Biennale chief curator Jessica Morgan (second from right) with the curatorial team Emiliano Valdéz, Fatos Ustek, Enna Bae, and Teresa Kittler. (Photo: Cecilia Bengolea.) Right: Gwangju Biennale president Yong-woo Lee with Venice Biennale artistic director Okwui Enwezor. (Except where noted, all photos: Kate Sutton)

“WATCH OUT. You might get what you’re after.”

In 2010, David Byrne may have visited the Gwangju Biennale (as Cindy Sherman’s plus one), but in 2014, he reigned over it, albeit in absentia, after chief curator Jessica Morgan used the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” as the theme for the biennial’s tenth edition, a paean to the creative potential of destructive acts.

Gwangju needs little reminding of the cleansing power of renewal. The city is busy bracing for the thirty-fifth anniversary of the May 18, 1980 uprising, a seminal moment when students took to the streets to demand democracy and met with bullets instead. Founded to commemorate this national trauma, the Gwangju Biennale has over time earned a reputation as a curator’s Eden, replete with state funding and an eager, adventurous audience. “One of the Top Five Biennales in the World!” Gwangju mayor Yoon Jang-hyun trumpeted at the opening ceremony. “He got that from a fluff piece,” my neighbor whispered.

But even on a triumphant occasion, the biennial finds itself once more mired in politics. Last week’s festivities were haunted by President Park Geun-Hye, who used the 2012 biennial opening as a campaign stop but opted to skip this edition. With the ascension of President Park—the daughter of Park Chung-Hee, the authoritarian ruler whose ruthless eighteen-year reign laid the foundations of Gwangju’s uprising—and her conservative Saenuri party, the biennial was faced with a 40 percent budget cut. Yes, South Korea is in a recession, so it would be speculative to draw a direct correlation, but it’s worth mentioning that roughly 92 percent of Gwangju’s population voted against Park, reinforcing the East/West divides her father helped instigate.

Left: Artists Mark Krayenhoff van de Leur and AA Bronson. Right: Jessica Morgan on TV. (Photo: Stuart Comer)

In mid-August, the biennial hit another bump when charismatic Gwangju Biennale Foundation president Yong-woo Lee (“Dr. Lee” to his many admirers) resigned over a censorship row involving an image that portrayed Park as a scarecrow controlled by her father, locked in a heated confrontation with grieving relatives of children who died in the April sinking of the MV Sewol ferry. While Lee’s supposed demise made a splash in international news, those who knew him cheered his cool assessment of the situation; a head had to roll, so he offered his own. “His term would end next year anyway,” curator Okwui Enwezor assured me.

If the biennial’s state support appears to be wavering, local devotion remains fervent. Morgan, recently appointed director of the Dia Art Foundation, joked about sending “Burning Down the House” to the charts, but it was “J. Mo” whose face was everywhere. “People come up to you on the street,” the curator marveled, blushing. The mood was buoyed by the thrilling title track, which had been reenvisioned by French electronic musician Joakim and blasted simultaneously from pressure points around the exhibition. “Koreans didn’t have the same experience with the song,” Morgan conceded.

Whatever the qualms, Morgan and her team of assistant curators delivered an exhibition that was dynamic and daring. Calls to insurrection were pounded out in the hoofbeats of The Uprising, Jonathas de Andrade’s film featuring a horse-cart race through Recife, Brazil, or by the drum-circle revolutionaries in Anand Patwardhan’s chilling We Are Not Your Monkeys. But the potential for renewal was not limited to the political. Throughout the gallery, the body—both individual and social—appears broken (Young Soo Kim, Lee Bul, David Wojnarowicz, James Richards), hybridized (Tetsuya Ishida, Birgit Jürgenssen, Robert Heinecken), or transformed (Nil Yalter’s documentation of her partner undergoing a sex change or Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster’s holographic turn as Fitzcarraldo). Viewers swooned before Lionel Wendt’s dreamy nudes, while Carlos Motta expanded his ongoing collection of interviews questioning heteronormative agendae—We Who Feel Differently—to include South Korean perspectives. As an annex to the main exhibition, AA Bronson’s “Spiral Pavilion” supplemented an exhibition of queer zines with work by TM Davy, K8 Hardy, and Yeonjune Jung, all under the banner “House of Shame.”

Left: Artist Basel Abbas with Sharjah Biennial curator Eungie Joo. Right: A scene from Minouk Lim’s opening day performance, Navigation ID.

For all intents and purposes, the beating heart of the biennial was Minouk Lim’s Navigation ID. The expansive, multipart commission used Gwangju’s nationally enshrined grief as a way to draw attention to less-publicized massacres. The state has containers full of unmarked corpses, alleged Communists slaughtered in the late 1940s and early ’50s in what is known as the National Guidance League incident; relatives of the victim continue to be stigmatized. For the opening performance, the artist connected these ostracized families with the May 18 Mothers parents of those who died in the Gwangju uprising, in a complex ritual that had Mothers escorting blindfolded mourners as they carried tubs of human remains across the square and into one of two shipping containers, installed on the plaza for the duration of the exhibition.

“This is a bit like watching Maury,” writer Kevin McGarry observed. “In the sense that here are people undergoing a horrifying, emotional experience, and then there are all these onlookers and cameras everywhere.”

“But isn’t that the point?” curator Stuart Comer countered. “Isn’t it precisely about bringing visibility to these things?”

As the week unfolded, all manner of revelry took place around these containers, whose windows provided a grim view of the contents; what was most alarming, however, was how invisible the skeletons remained, even under the strobe lights of the opening ceremony.

Left: Artist Ei Arakawa. Right: Biennale associate curator Emiliano Valdéz with artist Domique Gonzalez-Foerster.

The biennial countered these gut-punching points with moments of release. For her latest Library of Spirits, Banu Cennetoğlu hosted a tasting of homemade soju brews. “Where’s Urs’s house?” one friend wondered after a couple shots, to disbelief from the crowd. The replica of Urs Fischer’s New York apartment—rendered via wallpaper fixed to a full-scale model—swallowed the better part of an exhibition hall. “Not in the show!” she clarified. “I meant in New York. Where does one find that kind of real estate?” Fischer’s “house” was home to a number of other pieces, including a Pierre Huyghe performance, in which each visitor had his or her name barked out at the entrance, à la Applebee’s on date night.

Outside the structure, choreographers Cecila Bengolea and François Chaignaud were tucking dancers into inflated, vacuum-sealed bags in a performance that would win them the biennial’s prize for emerging artists. Bengolea would have another chance to wow us that night at Bear, a gay-friendly karaoke bar “just walking distance from your hotel,”—i.e., not close to anyone’s hotel.

“There’s a whole page of ‘Love’ here,” Comer noted as we flipped through the selections. The observation applied to more than the song catalogue. Ei Arakawa led the charge with an enthusiastic onslaught of multilingual pop ballads before trading in the mike for a tambourine to accompany Motta and Sharon Hayes’s touching duet to “Time After Time.” But the uncontestable highlight of the evening was Bengolea’s fierce rendition of Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights.” Not only could the dancer hit the high notes with aplomb, she threw in some splits for good measure.

Early the next morning, I crept up to breakfast in pajamas, only to have the elevator doors open on a buffet of institutional bigwigs: Sir Nicholas Serota, Bartomeu Marí, Maja Hoffmann, Documenta’s Annette Kulenkampff, Palais de Tokyo’s Jean de Loisy, Sheikha Hoor Al-Qasimi, and Füsun Eczacibasi, just to name a few. They had gathered as part of a two-day forum held in collaboration with the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art in Seoul. I doubled down on machine coffee and hit the first panel, chaired by Germano Celant, an advocate of burning down houses. “Right now, the only change we can imagine is the number of visitors. This is a model for McDonald’s or Starbucks, not a biennial. To enlarge is not to change.” Celant then railed against the practice of importing international curators, as only one safely ensconced as the world’s most well-paid curator could. “We have to wonder, why do all these Asian biennials have international curators?” He asked, making a good point, before squandering it: “I mean, why does everyone want to pay to fly Okwui all over the globe?” He then proceeded to speak so patronizingly to Seoul-based curator Sunjung Kim that it wasn’t Enwezor’s ticket the audience was left questioning.

Left: Tate curator Lee Sook-kyung with artist Kimsooja. Right: Artists Camille Henrot and Sharon Hayes.

That night, Gwangju really did appear to be burning, with a public opening replete with fireworks, break-dancers, and even an aerial dancer. The real crowd-pleaser, however, was actor and model Jung Woo-sung, the biennial’s official cultural ambassador. Any mention of his name elicited squeals from the (not entirely) teenage horde jostling around us, using their “selfie poles” (yes, a thing) to try to get a better shot of the actor. “It’s incredible,” my PR handler moaned to Annette Schönholzer. “Can you imagine if institutions in the States used celebrities like that?” I held my tongue.

Another opening night tradition in Gwangju is Freedom Nightclub, the extravagant club known for outlandish acts, like “snow” showers or the UFO that shuttles singers to the stage. (“Chuck E. Cheese for adults,” I heard someone say.) The entertainment was provided by a series of boy bands and a coterie of DJs, which one astute observer identified as just the same performers rotating wigs. For a moment, Joakim stormed the stage, bumping K-Pop for “Bootylicious” and “O.P.P.” The delighted biennial crew broke out all their moves simultaneously, while the throng of regulars slumped at their tables, staring despondently at their respective devices. When the first beats of “Bizarre Love Triangle” hit the speakers, we dancers cheered, but it was clearly too much for the local DJ. He forcibly slowed the track, a sign that our dance party had come to an end. The K-Pop crowd roared back to the floor. The people had spoken.

Upstairs, I was treating myself to a swig of warm, flat beer with Camille Henrot, Fischer, and Morgan, when Jewish Museum deputy director Jens Hoffmann strolled in. “I just got off a plane from São Paolo,” he said. “What did I miss?”

Left: M+ curator Doryun Chong with dealer Rachel Lehmann. Right: Artist Banu Cennetoğlu with Biennale associate curator Fatos Ustek and SAHA Association's Merve Çağlar.

Left: Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud's Sylphides before Dan Flavin's Monument 4. Right: LBGT activist Choi Hyun-sook speaking as part of Carlos Motta’s We Who Feel Differently.

Left: Dealers Edouard Malingue and Lorraine Kiang Malingue. Right: Dealer Tina Kim.

Left: Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota with curator Abdellah Karroum. Right: Collector Richard Chang and dealer Neil Wenman.

Left: Artstack’s James Lindon with artist Sterling Ruby. Right: MoMA PS1 curator Jenny Schlenzka with MoMA chief curator of performance and media Stuart Comer.

Left: Curators Cosmin Costinas and Inti Guerrero. Right: Artist Stewart Uoo.

Left: Palais de Tokyo’s Jean de Loisy. Right: Delfina Foundation curator Aaron Cezar with Samdani Art Foundation's Rajeeb Samdani..

Left: Cosmin Costinas with Yu-Chieh Li. Right: Artist Joakim.

Left: Dealer Silvia Sgualdini with curator Alia Swastika. Right: Artist Liu Xiaodong.

Left: Artist Mrinalini Mukherjee. Right: Curator Germano Celant with Sir Nicholas Serota.

Left: Curators Eugene Tan and Ute Meta Bauer (left). Right: Artists Charles Atlas and Carlos Motta.

Left: Dealers Graham Steele and Hannah Gruy. Right: Biennale associate curator Fatos Ustek.

Left: Curators Juste Kostikovaite, Silvia Francescini, and Valeria Mancinelli. Juste Kostikovaite Silvia Francescini Valeria Mancinelli. Right: Artist Güneş Terkol.

Left: Curator Joseph Gergel. Right: National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art’s Hyung-Min Chung.

Left: Curator Hicham Khalidi. Right: Curators Kondo Kenichi, Till Fellrath, and Sam Bardaouil.

Left: Artist Lubaina Himid with curator Ruth Noack. Right: Dealer Matthias Arndt.

Left: Curator Sunjung Kim. Right: The official afterpary at Freedom.

Left: Artist and Media City Biennale curator Park Chan-kyong. Right: Tate curator Lee Sook-kyung with Seoul Museum of Art’s Kim Hong-hee.

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