10,000 Maniacs

Philip Tinari at the opening of the eighth Gwangju Biennale

Left: Gwangju Biennale curator Massimiliano Gioni. Right: Kunsthalle Zürich director Beatrix Ruf with artist David Weiss. (Except where noted, all photos: Philana Woo)

IN THE GROUND-FLOOR CAFÉ of Gwangju’s Biennale Hall one afternoon last week, a cipher lurked. Approaching the caffeine seekers, he waved the front page from a morning paper showing the opening of the dismal Art Gwangju fair the night before. “I am PHOTO in NEWSPAPER,” the man repeated to anyone willing or just compelled by basic etiquette to listen. David Weiss nodded politely at the crumpled sheet and turned back to explain to some admirers how it had actually been cheaper for five people to take a taxi than the train from Seoul after their connecting flight had been typhoon-canceled last night. “I AM PHOTO IN NEWSPAPER!” “That’s wonderful, dear,” replied Mera Rubell, who continued to outline the proposal for her family’s new museum in Washington, DC. “I AM PHOTO IN NEWSPAPER!!” the man incanted, to every press-trip member, every curatorial-training-program student, every local dignitary looking for a quick respite amid the long haul of four serious halls of art above. There were nine thousand unique objects up there, and only two more hours before the speeches were set to begin.

Sure, every art scene has a few like this (“This guy’s at every opening in Seoul,” former Nam June Paik Center chief curator Tobias Berger elucidated), but in a biennial so explicitly about what artistic director Massimiliano Gioni called “our desire to make images to hold on to what we are going to lose,” this one could have been another Tino Sehgal performance. You see, this was the biennial of people as captured in images and images as quasi-human, the biennial of “a lot of eyes and a lot of faces” (Gioni again), and particularly, the biennial of the Massive Multiphoto Assemblage—from the user-generated (Franco Vaccari’s 1972 Venice Biennale photo booth reinstantiated, with the cute geopolitical irony that the company that originally produced those machines is now Gwangju-owned) to the found (Chinese journalist turned collector Tong Bingxue’s grouping of yearly studio self-portraits commissioned by twentieth-century Beijing businessman Ye Jinglü), to the cunningly formalistic (Fischli and Weiss’s travel-memoir light-box tables, Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s string of a thousand subtle Polaroid rhymes), to the productively solipsistic (Dieter Roth’s video wall of himself, Tehching Hsieh’s year of time card punching, with every hourly snapshot), to the grimly cute (Ydessa Hendeles’s three-thousand-image Teddy Bear Project), to the untouchably tragic (the Tuol Sleng Prison execution portraits).

Left: Collector Maja Hoffmann with curator Bice Curiger. Right: Writer Roberta Lombardi, curator Francesco Bonami, and Gagosian's Valentina Castellani.

Sure, there were bones thrown to the October crowd—one room in which two of Sturtevant’s Warhol flowers faced off against conjoined walls of Walker Evans and Sherrie Levine appropriations thereof was a constant conversational touchstone (“Such a simple idea, but I’ve never seen it!” gushed one critic), and opinion was divided on how well the fourth-gallery re-creation of Mike Kelley’s 1993 show “The Uncanny” had come off—some called it lifeless irony, others found it enchanting. But props were due to Gioni, who had not shirked from his assignment, refusing to defer authorship on the customary pool of consulting curators and embracing the somehow adorable fascism of offering only one correct line through an otherwise overwhelming mass of work. In these days of äppärät-induced stupor—widespread 3G has now rendered the CDMA-induced Korean/Japanese phone-service void obsolete—maybe that’s the best we can hope for, to have the fleeting experience of a canon, even one defined by its “struggle to compete with contemporary image production in its own right.”

The worst thing I heard anyone say about the show was that it was “polite.”

If you’d seen Gioni shake hands with Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts director Luo Zhongli and wife—the man behind the loan of the Rent Collection Courtyard sculptures whose inclusion in Documenta 5 was perhaps Szeemann’s greatest unrealized project—you might not disagree.

Left: One and J Gallery's Patrick Lee and Won Jae Park. Right: Gwangju Biennale CEO Yongwoo Lee and curator Maurizio Bortolotti.

The thing about a good biennial is that people actually talk about the art. I got to chatting with the Rubells after the newspaper guy had moved on to the next people in the espresso line, and went with them to see the peripheral venues—actually intentionally unperipheral, each just a two-minute walk from the main event, in the sort of cyclical protest-against-the-way-the-previous-organizers-did-things that defines biennial practice. We ran into some of the top brass in the Gioni administration, Wrong Gallery coreligionist Maurizio Cattelan and ragazza Cecilia Alemani appearing at the entrance to the Gwangju Museum of Art. Whispers of Dakis recurred (“He’s circling the city in a helicopter after his private tour of the biennial,” one publicist quipped). Those next up in the batting order (Bice Curiger, Venice; Jens Hoffmann, Istanbul; various members of the Documenta 13 team) poked around. Production-fee-supplying dealers preened. People sized up those they didn’t know by face based on the three-class badge system: ACCESS, PRESS, and TEMPORARY. The normal stuff.

This is the part where I should say something funny, ambiguously racist even, about how Gioni looked in his specially tailored Korean suit at the evening opening, which happens each time in the courtyard between the twin chambers of Biennale Hall, built in a style best described as Post-Dictatorial Sublime. Or at least make a reference to the Korean Idol floor show that followed the speeches, or the legions of scallion-pancake cooking matrons in uniform green tunics and visors, and the long line of regular locals who appeared to claim their rations on Styrofoam trays.

Left: Artist Maurizio Cattelan with curators Cecilia Alemani and Massimiliano Gioni. Right: Scallion pancake production in anticipation of the opening ceremony.

I stood at the back for a while with the curators-in-waiting, vicariously enjoying the last-day-of-camp vibe at the end of their three-week course. We looked on from behind a few hundred plastic chairs, the most important rows of which bore adhesive name labels, although many of the rest still showed traces of similar labels from other years, like another work that might have been in the show. Then I went down to the outdoor seafood restaurant at the entrance where Enwezor used to hold court during the previous Biennale. Gregor Muir headed a Hauser-and-Wirthian table of Zhang Enli, Paweł Althamer, and friends. Younger-than-Jesuit Jakub Ziólkowski, whose sixty-nine illustrations for Bataille’s Story of the Eye were a hit, brought up a video by Liu Wei the Middle (not the older painter, not the younger sculptor) in which he simply asks Chinese passersby what day it is, on June 4, and they mostly run. Then we hopped a cab toward May 18 Democracy Square and enjoyed a basement party with an open bar and many lasers. Four galleries—two Western (Gagosian, H+W), two Korean (Kukje, One and J)—were picking up the tab, in yet another pitch-perfect political gesture. There was drinking, and dancing, and ultimately a move by the hardy to a club where a boy band descended from the ceiling on a giant boom, and the ceiling opened periodically like an oversize Turell. A publicist pre-described the evening to another journalist as “you know, the whole artforum.com thing.” And indeed, there’s not much more to say about a party that, for these purposes at least, and in keeping with the spirit of the exhibition, exists only and enduringly in the images that punctuate this text. Because, in the end, we are photo on website.

Left: Artist Sara VanDerBeek, Rupprecht Geiger archive's Franziska Harder, artist Kerstin Brätsch, and Lisson Gallery's Patricia Pratas. (Photo: Tamsen Greene) Right: Artist Cindy Sherman and musician David Byrne.

Left: Curator Okwui Enwezor and Timezone8's Robert Bernell. Right: New Museum's Eungie Joo, artist Heungsoon Im, MoMA's Doryun Chong, and MoMA's Gwen Farrelly.

Left: Beijing Commune's Lü Jingjing and curator Carol Yinghua Lu. Right: Artist Andro Wekua and Gladstone Gallery's Rosalie Benitez.

Left: White Cube's Graham Steele and Susan Emmet with artist Sarah Morris. Right: Tang Contemporary's Ting Ting and Bejing Art Now's Huang Liaoyuan.