PRINT September 2008

International News

Tim Griffin talks with curator Okwui Enwezor about the 7th Gwangju Biennale

WHEN IT DEBUTED in 1995, the Gwangju Biennale was the first large-scale exhibition of contemporary art to take place in Asia—a development all the more striking today, when nearly nine such exhibitions are taking place throughout the region in the next few months alone. For its seventh incarnation, the biennial (in another first) is being directed by a foreign curator, Okwui Enwezor, who is working with a team including Patrick D. Flores, Ranjit Hoskote, Abdellah Karroum, Hyunjin Kim, Jang Un Kim, Sung-Hyen Park, and Claire Tancons. Artforum editor Tim Griffin spoke with Enwezor about the show, which features the title “Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions.”

TIM GRIFFIN: Before I ask about the art in your Gwangju Biennale, a broader observation: You don’t present a theme in this show. That is rather unexpected in the context of your curatorial work, no?

OKWUI ENWEZOR: Well, honestly, I was very reluctant to come up with a theme, because, considering the time constraints within which the average biennial is developed . . . there are only so many themes you can do. So many biennials today seem very arbitrary, or seem almost to be cynical appropriations of ideas already floating around. It was Douglas Huebler who said something to the effect that the world is already full of objects, and he doesn’t want to add to them. One risks just as much by creating one more theme, thus adding to the inflationary rhetoric of thematization in contemporary art.

That said, my larger concern in not developing a theme as such was also that there is a general crisis among large-scale theme shows, which often lack strong historical references—except as a way to rope in all kinds of art. Often this simplifies things. In contrast, by not making a grand statement at the outset, I wanted the chance to knit together a series of concerns that would only become evident as one goes through the show.

TG: I can’t help but think of your writing last year in the magazine, when discussing the Grand Tour, that there had been a serious decline in curatorial experimentation in large-scale shows. I’d certainly agree that their function would seem tenuous as they proliferate across the globe to the point of undifferentiated ubiquity. And yet it is a medium to which you, as a curator with international interests, remain committed.

OE: You know, the contemporary role of the large-scale show is something I am still thinking about. But right now I feel it is most important to say that whatever their problems, we shouldn’t dismiss these shows as mere spectacle—or, to use Peter Schjeldahl’s derisive term, festivalism. Biennials function best as surveys of ideas, particularly in places with institutional deficits and an absence of the long-term structures that museums require. When done properly, large-scale shows create the conditions for introducing new possibilities in artistic practice, and for rethinking prevailing conditions of production at the same time as creating a rich ground for curatorial experimentation. Of the species of large-scale exhibitions, biennials in particular remain unique laboratories from which we constantly learn.

At the same time, there are always underlying cultural, social, and political issues—even anxieties—one should acknowledge when talking about these shows being spectacle as such. Documenta, for instance, was created as a way to reintroduce Germany to the ecology of modern art. It was a countermeasure to the “Degenerate Art” show, saying, in effect, “This is going to be a place open to experimentation and the avant-garde, a place from which we can go forward.” The Johannesburg Biennial played a similar role in the wake of apartheid in South Africa. In other words, there is an ideological component to many of these exhibitions that is used to argue for the necessity of contemporary art, even if people’s memories of it recede over time. As curators and viewers, we therefore need to look at these institutions with an eye to the kind of political capital that a show’s creators have wanted to extract from it. We need to ask how these various shows have been used toward different mythologies of social reinvention. By asking that question, we can create possible uses for spectacle. We can make interventions in culture.

TG: So perhaps this is a more coded thematic. How does that sense of possibility play into your conception of Gwangju as a site and as an exhibition?

OE: Well, in terms of the site, Gwangju is closely tied with the uprising that began there on May 18, 1980. This was the first significant public rebellion against South Korea’s military dictatorship, and it really set the stage for the country’s democratization—you might call it the “Gwangju Spring.” In 1995, Korea’s democratic government acknowledged this history by commissioning a large center in the city to house a biennial. And, as you might have expected, one of the major themes of the first exhibition was May 1980. Today, however, it is also significant that the biennial represented a real recognition of the periphery—Gwangju is rather provincial—by the center, and, intriguingly, this makes the city something of a microcosm of all of Korea. Likewise, the country wants a different kind of footing within the global community. The anxiety of the periphery is operating on this larger scale.

TG: And so how does one tease out this underlying situation?

OE: The broader point of “Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions” is to explore the notion of the exhibition as a medium—meaning the role the exhibition plays in the mediation of the works of art to a general audience, and the specificity of such exhibitions as a cultural practice. Tying these two things together puts us at the intersection of artistic practice and the network or distribution systems that contemporary art, in the global context, relies on in order to move beyond the metropolis.

Part of the project also involves conversations in plenary sessions organized around the idea of civil society, out of which an institution like the Gwangju Biennale emerges. Exhibitions are often discussed with general references made to theories of the public sphere, but when we look at situations like Gwangju—or at situations where society is in transition—there is an added layer that actually requires us to think of how exhibition systems are tied to the very development of structures of civil society. And so this interests me with regard to Gwangju and South Korea: What do we mean by civil society, and how does that govern new modes of production and subjectivity? How are these new modes attached to national formations? These explorations will inevitably reflect on 1980, but they will also speak to today, since Korean civil society is incredibly robust. It remains a protest culture. I mean, in the United States, everyone protests against the war, and Bush doesn’t listen. In Seoul, by contrast, eighty thousand people march against American beef, and the prime minister’s cabinet offers to resign. These expressions of civic participation are incredibly important and powerful in Korea.

TG: But, as you say, civil society is not the subject of the show per se.

OE: No, it is more diverse than that. As I said, the exhibition project converges around a series of conversations, of which the subject of civil society is one. My general aim is to use that as a way to orchestrate a kind of collective authorship within the show. There are three constellations of events and exhibitions within it—for example, there are smaller shows, called “Position Papers,” organized by other curators. Claire Tancons’s exhibition, “Spring,” for instance, looks at the tradition of street processions as a new curatorial model. For her, the mobile logic of the procession, as an active interplay of event and audience, is meant to bypass the static nature of conventional exhibition display in a gallery. She is working with five artists, a documentary filmmaker, and a sound producer and DJ to create a ten-hour-long procession through the city, using the device of the carnival to consider political space. Underpinning this piece is her interest in the 1881 Canboulay riots in Trinidad, where carnival was the setting for a political uprising, opening up space for people who were deeply oppressed. More generally, she is reflecting upon May 18 and its energies.

Another exciting “Position” is curated by Patrick D. Flores, looking at Conceptualism in Southeast Asia from the late 1960s to the early ’80s—featuring individuals, like Raymundo Albano from the Philippines and Apinan Poshyananda from Thailand, who are known more as curators than as artists. Flores takes up the relationships among their practices in these two disciplines: Because there was no critical discourse, they had to produce it themselves.

TG: Actually, this idea of creating discourse—or better, of creating context and, by extension, unsettling notions of center and periphery—seems worth considering in light of another relatively unconventional aspect of your biennial. You are importing preexisting exhibitions.

OE: It’s true. In a section called “On the Road,” we bring together thirty-six exhibitions that have happened elsewhere before—Paris, Havana, Caracas, Tokyo, Beijing, New York, Philadelphia, New Delhi, Mumbai, Seoul, Chicago, Brussels. These range from exhibitions in museums and university galleries to those in commercial galleries and alternative spaces, as well as in cinema. Some of them will be extracts from larger surveys, like the recent Gordon Matta-Clark retrospective that took place at the Whitney Museum in New York, while others include gallery shows like Glenn Ligon from Los Angeles, Atul Dodiya from Mumbai, Chen Qiulin from Beijing, and Jina Park from Seoul. We’re showing Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), though not as it recently appeared at P.S. 1 in New York; we show it as a film in the cinema, running a portion every day until it is finished. It is not an installation; it’s a film. These are diverse shows with diverse itineraries, offering a way of considering the present visibility of contemporary art across distinct genres of exhibition making. My metaphor for these touring exhibitions is one of complex traveling worlds. I wanted to imagine Asia as part of the new destination of the evolving system of global art and cultural markets.

TG: And so the biennial becomes a literal exchange of information. Is this one aspect of a biennial’s potential intervention in culture?

OE: In part this goes back to Huebler and the crisis in large-scale exhibitions—the possibility that the problem is not with biennials per se, but rather with the context they create for themselves. Looking at that overall economy right now, I thought, Why don’t we bring some of those exhibitions over here and extend their duration, asking whether they are capable of being translated?

TG: I don’t think you’re alone in seeing Huebler’s appeal in this regard. Still, are there risks in creating something with only a loose theme at the very moment that you’re saying that there’s a crisis in biennial culture? One could argue that biennials first became subject to the criticism of festivalism only when their themes became specious.

OE: I think it is a fair criticism, and that’s partly why I chose the model of the exhibition as a medium—to address the self-consciousness inherent to the problem of thematization. But biennials also reflect serious discursive systems, which put local contexts of production in touch with other spheres of practice. I strongly believe that biennials are immensely transformative for specific locales. Johannesburg is a strong case in point: The biennial, despite becoming defunct after two editions, changed the South African scene fundamentally. I cannot stress this enough.

So, again, I’m very resistant when that criticism is offered in a particular way—as a kind of dismissal of the biennial ecology and what it means to specific local contexts. To say all biennials are the same in this way is not accurate. Biennials, for better or worse—since many people do not have the opportunity to travel—represent meeting places for a global conversation. They provide a platform for people in Gwangju and surrounding cities, for example, who want as much to be part of the conversation as do those in London, São Paulo, or New York. You know, Gwangju City has a museum, but it doesn’t get a million people a year. It doesn’t even get perhaps one hundred thousand people a year. During the biennial, however, it will get a million people over the course of seventy days between September and November. They are bused in from schools everywhere. It is a national event. It is hard to dismiss that energy and effort.

TG: Which sounds quite literally like an opportunity to affect the culture. But allow me to invert the terms: This fall a number of biennials in Asia are happening roughly simultaneously. Do you think that terms for the Western art world will be changed in the wake of that?

OE: It’s actually a great question. Because there is no better illustration of the idea that we might be on the cusp of an Asian century than what we are seeing now. It is very striking to me that last summer we saw the Grand Tour in Europe, which was a kind of nostalgic rehearsal, going in a simple path from Venice to Basel to Kassel to Münster. But here we have what is being called Art Compass, which instead of progressing in one linear fashion, traverses time zones, regions, and continents, and points in many different directions, leading to Gwangju, Pusan, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Singapore, Christchurch, Sydney, Taipei, and Yokohama. There is this greater geographic span, with cultural and political fault lines still there: Even if you want to go from China to Hong Kong, you have to get a visa. Add to all that the multiple museums currently in development in Asia, as well as the Beijing Olympics, and you begin to get the sense of the immense, unprecedented scale and capitalization. And yet one imagines that the effect of Art Compass by itself might be phenomenal, since the number of visitors to these exhibitions is so great, and because the novelty of contemporary art in these places is still very, very palpable.