PRINT September 1997

Focus Preview

the Kwangju and Johannesburg Biennales

GIVEN THE CURRENT popularity of “globalism,” it’s no surprise that the Johannesburg and Kwangju Biennales are uncannily similar. Both were inaugurated in 1995 and both attempt to map the emergence of hybrid cultures and identities as national boundaries crumble or are redrawn. The Johannesburg exhibition, “Trade Routes: History and Geography,” sets out to explore cultural exchange and is divided into six sections, while Kwangju’s “Unmapping the Earth,” a reference to the five elements of Eastern alchemy, is split into five shows. Each Biennale is holding conferences and producing both a publication of the papers and exhibition catalogues that feature some of the celebrities of contemporary cultural criticism and literature. Johannesburg’s conference, organized by Olu Oguibe (and scheduled to be held between October 13 and 15) includes Homi K. Bhabha, Andreas Huyssen, and Nadine Gordimer, while Julia Kristeva is among the contributors to the catalogue. Gayatri Spivak, Lawrence Grossberg, and Trinh T. Minh-ha are participants in Kwangju’s symposium (to be held form October 29 to 31) and Bhabha, Paul Virilio, and Slavoj Žižek have written essays for the catalogue. But there are differences, too. The Johannesburg Biennale is hosting a program of independent films from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe curated by Mahen Bonetti, the founding director of the African Film Festival held biannually in Brooklyn and New York. In addition to “Unmapping the Earth,” the Korean Biennale is presenting five “special” exhibitions including the “Kwangju Aperto” as well as seven “satellite” and “sponsored” group and one—person shows, among them “Arts and Crafts of North Korea.”

A percentage of the work included in these Biennales might be found at any number of international group shows. And this has more than a little to do with the guest curators selected. Swiss-born Harald Szeemann—who has made a career of mounting large exhibitions of predominately European artists, such as this year’s Lyon Biennale—is one of the five Kwangju Biennale curators, but could as easily have served as one of the organizers of the South African show. He has selected predominantly, and predictably, well-known male artists such as Joseph Beuys and Bill Viola. Korean Yu Yeon Kim, one of the six Johannesburg Biennale curators, has worked primarily with Asian artists, and would have fit in easily at Kwangju. (That her appointment would have put at least one woman on the Korean Biennale’s curatorial team says something about the limits of “globalism’s” reach.)

Yet, if the Johannesburg and Kwangju Biennales share numerous characteristics with many an international group show, their very existence symbolizes much more: the beginning of the end to years of human suffering and political strife. If one cannot visit South Africa without thinking of the long battle against Apartheid, Korea conjures an equally long struggle for basic civil rights. In 1980, hundreds of students and protesters were massacred at Kwangju, but the city has since become instrumental in the democratization movement that brought Korea its first civilian government in 1992.

Indeed, these biennials manage to transcend the generic, international group show by presenting new work that speaks to the diversity of global—as well as the particularity of regional—communities. The Johannesburg Biennale is intended to go beyond melting-pot multiculturalism to investigate the dissonances that disturb the smooth surface of the new globalism, with exhibitions on women, South Africans, and urban identities. Though Kwangju’s “Unmapping the Earth” is more abstract and less grounded in specific issues than Johannesburg’s “Trade Routes,” its regionally focused, auxiliary exhibitions—such as “Nomadic Passages: Folk Beliefs and Korean Contemporary Art”—zero in on particular, often traditional, areas. The obvious and ironic flaw in the Kwangju Biennale’s structure is that women are extremely underrepresented in “Unmapping the Earth’s” exhibition, catalogue, and curatorial team.

Artistic director of the Johannesburg Biennale Okwui Enwezor, a Nigerian-born poet, critic, and curator, as well as publisher and founding editor of Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, collaborated with Octavio Zaya, editor of the contemporary arts publication Atlantica, to create “Alternating Currents,” one of the six exhibitions into which “Trade Routes” is divided. “Alternating Currents” investigates postcolonial cultures through the work of artists such as Diana Thater, Jochim Koester, and Olu Oguibe by examining technology’s role in reshaping Western and non-Western traditions. “Graft,” organized by South African writer and curator Colin Richards, is specific to Richards’ place of birth, taking a long, hard look at the overlap between the new and the old South Africa in the work of artists such as Angela Ferreira, Antoinette Murdoch, and San Dile Zulu. Kellie Jones, currently adjunct curator at the Walker and the 1989 US commissioner for the São Paulo Bienale, has produced “Life’s Little Necessities,” an exhibition of installations by women artists—among them Valeska Soares, Mona Simpson, and Silvia Gruner—that suggest metaphoric “migrations” and shifts in meaning. “Important Exportant,” organized by Cuban-born curator Gerardo Mosquera, features the work of artists such as Cildo Meireles, Ana Mendieta, and Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose scope of influence can be said to be “trans-cultural.” Hou Hanru, a Paris-based Chinese critic and curator, selected such artists as Keith Piper, Rivka Rinn, and Huang Yong Ping for “Hong Kong etc.,” an exhibition and Internet site that looks at the city where east meets west, socialism confronts capitalism, and nationalism challenges colonialism. “Transversions,” put together by Yeon Kim (who in addition to her curatorial efforts cofounded the nonprofit Internet arts organization Plexus), comprises work by Hale Tenger, Diller and Scofidio, and Shahzia Sikander in an attempt to evoke the “transient crossings”—physical, virtual, and cultural—of contemporary life.

In contrast to his Johannesburg counterpart, the Kwangju Biennale’s artistic director Lee Young-chul did not directly organize any of the shows. Lee, chief curator of the Kwangju City Art Museum, conceived the exhibition’s theoretical framework and then appointed five curatorial commissioners to realize his vision. To reflect the thematics of the “SPEED/Water” section of “Unmapping the Earth,” Szeemann selected works by artists such as Stan Douglas, Niele Toroni, and Bill Viola that deal with time, flux, water, and motion. The “SPACE/Fire” section of the show, curated by Kyong Park, the founding director of Manhattan’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, investigates twenty-four cities using documents, models, videos, graphics, and installations by artists such as Ha Sung-heup and Kim Hae-sun, who deal with Kwangju, and Camilo José Vergara, who looks at Detroit. Richard Koshalek, who has worked as a museum director and curator in the United States since the ’70s, oversaw the “HYBRID/Wood” section, which examines the role of ethnicity in the work of artists such as Artcamp, the Gala Committee, and Marie Sester. In the “POWER/Metal” section, biennale veteran Sung Wan-kyong, who served as commissioner for the 1981 Paris Biennale, the 1993 Fukui International Video Biennale, and the first Kwangju Biennale, brings together painting, sculpture, video, and film by artists such as Luis Camnitzer, Chris Marker, and Xu-Bing to explore such universal themes as religion, politics, and sex. Finally, Bernard Marcadé, curator of the 1995 Pompidou exhibition, “Féminin-Masculin. Le Sexe de l’Art,” produced the “BECOMING/Earth” section, which explores issues of creation and transformation in the work of artists Louise Bourgeois, Gilbert & George, and Huang Yong Ping.

Despite their resemblance to each other and to many international shows, the Johannesburg and Kwangju biennales are distinctive, and promise to be worthy cultural excursions, doubtless among the most important of this year’s exhibitions.

Mary Anne Staniszewski’s most recent publication is Believing is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art (Penguin USA, 1995); The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art is forthcoming from MIT Press.

The Johannesburg Biennale runs from is October to 18 January 1998; the Kwangju Biennale from 1 September through 27 November.