Seoul, Korea

“Media_City Seoul 2000”

“No city changes as quickly . . . None has so short a memory or is so heartless to itself; it has an inhuman quality.” Fifty years ago that was New York (in the eyes of journalist John Gunther), which now seems cautious and intimate compared to a city like Seoul. Decades of relentless expansion, following the depredations of war and occupation, have made Seoul a landscape where the past doesn’t seem to count for much and hardly more does space for reflection; everywhere you go in this restless megalopolis, you see a city in the midst of being built. So it’s probably appropriate that Seoul’s newly inaugurated biennial (in everything but name) would have an essentially technophilic, futurist agenda: as general/artistic director Song Misook puts it in the catalogue, to “examine the points of contact and intersection among the arts, technology, and industry.”

Like some other recent megashows, “Media_City Seoul 2000” consisted of a number of distinct exhibitions, each with its own curators. Ryu Byoung-Hak, a Korean curator living in Stuttgart, organized “The Subway Project,” the portion of “Media_City” whose concept of “media” seemed closest to the way the word is used in advertising: whatever you can use to get your message across. Situated in subway stations around the city—places that, surprisingly enough to a New Yorker, are considerably calmer than the street—these works mostly adhered to familiar conventions: painting, furniture, lightboxes, and so on. They ranged from purely decorative (for instance, Kim Yousun’s quasi paintings made of mother-of-pearl and lacquer) to overtly didactic (like Lee Kyunghee’s History and Station, 2000, a grid of photographic portraits alternating notable figures in modern Korean history with ordinary subway riders—for the foreign visitor there came the melancholy realization that one is as ignorant of the historical figures as of the “everyday people”). But they had this in common: Though well calibrated for the spaces in which they have been placed, most seemed to lack sufficient weight to merit attention individually—Kim Sanggil’s lightbox photographs, as glossy and vivid as advertising photos but with a distinct psychological edge, being among the few exceptions.

Aboveground at the Seoul Metropolitan Museum, Barbara London of the Museum of Modern Art. New York, and British artist/curator Jeremy Millar organized “Media Art 2000: Escape,” a show that couldn’t quite make up its mind whether to be a compendium of video installations or an altogether broader presentation of mixed-media installation of all kinds. It might have been more coherent as the first, but ended up being the second, and was probably more enjoyable for it. The forty-six artists (or collaborative pairs) ranged from well-known figures like Cai Guo-Qiang, Steve McQueen, and Rosemarie Trockel to newcomers like Marco Brambilla (an Italian living in New York), the Slovenian Marko Peljhan, and Seoul native Park Chan-Kyong. The inclusion of just a few works in media other than video, film, or slide projection was puzzling. For instance, Lee Bul’s Amaryllis, 1999, is a brilliantly baroque sculpture, but its connection to “media” is purely thematic—based on stylistic appropriations from Japanimation and retro-futuristic warrior action figures. By that criterion almost any Pop-influenced work would be admissible as “media art.” Likewise, the sculpture-music intersection of B.U.A. (Burnt Umber Assembly): An Entanglement of Wholes, 1998, one of Charles Long’s collaborations with Stereolab, although valid in its own right, seemed out of place here. By contrast, Angela Bulloch’s tower of pulsating colored lightboxes, Sound/Pixel/Stack, 2000, gained something from a context in which the manipulation of light is very much at the forefront of one’s attention.

The installation’s greatest strength was its mixture of classics by the likes of Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, and Laurie Anderson as well as second-generation figures like Gary Hill and Bill Viola (who showed The Greeting, 1995, one of the few works in which he really earns his exorbitant reputation) with fine recent projects by first-generation video artists like Joan Jonas and Valie Export and by a broad swath of relatively new practitioners, most of whom seem quite well versed in the works of their elders. And not only video elders: Matthew Crawley’s single-channel tape Turning on a video camera, opening it up, and poking around in there until it breaks, 1999, is a witty riposte to Robert Morris’s reflexive Box With the Sound of Its Own Making, 1961. On the other hand, “poking around in there until it breaks” would be an equally apt description of what Stan Douglas can to do your head. His projection Nu•tka•, 1998, is composed of two images shot from the same vantage point on an extraordinary landscape in British Columbia. The view from one camera, panning clockwise, appears on the tape’s even raster lines; on its odd ones appears the view captured by the other camera, which pans counterclockwise, so that the two-images-in-one keeps pulling apart and synchronizing as you watch. Likewise, the voices on the sound track, similarly treated, keep interfering with one another and then coming into accord. This is really what it feels like to be of two minds about one place, and it isn’t comfortable. Kim Young-Jin’s two-channel video projection Liquid, 1995, is an image being made in real time: Filming ever-moving droplets of water created by a jerry-built apparatus in a shallow tank, Kim put to decorative ends a medium in which the decorative is not the default but more a sort of eccentric accomplishment. Overall, despite the curators’ indecision, the video and related practices in “Media Art 2000,” appeared not as “new media” (with all the raw energy that supposedly comes with that territory) but rather as a mature art form capable of examining its own conventions, history, and relation to daily life.

“City Vision/Clip City,” curated by Hans-Ulrich Obrist, made use of many of the seventy or so giant electronic billboards spread throughout the city to take video outside the enclosed space of the gallery and insert it into the hubbub of daily life. What makes this venture apt is that it exploits one of the great drawbacks of life in Seoul: The crowded city suffers from some of the slowest traffic you’ll ever have the misfortune to experience. So the silent video clips that were introduced into the usual round of ads had a captive audience of commuters waiting to inch forward toward the next intersection. Most of the works—by Thomas Demand, Alexander Kluge, Nam June Paik (the sole participant in both “Media Art 2000” and “City Vision”), and twenty-two other artists, architects, filmmakers, and collaborative teams—seemed concerned to go against the grain of the advertising that surrounded them by reinserting a sense of subjective experience (sometimes witty, sometimes melancholy) into the public realm. In Pipilotti Rist’s Open My Glade, 2000 (which debuted in New York’s Times Square last year), for instance, the artist appears to be trapped inside the screen. One work, filmmaker Song Ilgon’s Flush, 2000, seems to have given the city more subjective experience than it could stomach. Inspired by a recent report in the Korean press, Song’s spot was a rapidly montaged portrait of a young girl giving herself an abortion in a public restroom. But its opening shots, with the camera looking down from above on the girl’s face, are ambiguous: Her intense, open-mouthed expression at first seemed like that of a porn star simulating an orgasm. By the time you’re clued in to the girl’s suffering, you’d already become the voyeur, which provoked a feeling of complicity in the girl’s predicament. I suspect it was this, more than the subject itself or even the relatively oblique presentation of the bloody details, that elicited public complaint; Song’s work was removed born its rotation on the billboards almost as soon as it was shown. (It continued to be screened within the confines of the museum, along with the other “City Vision” clips.)

There’s nothing mysterious about the desire within the highly developed Korean art scene for closer connections to an international dialogue. After all, the large numbers of Korean artists who have studied and worked in France. the United States, or, increasingly, Germany know Western art firsthand, not just from books and magazines. And of course the country’s prosperity provides an economic basis for such a linkage as well. Yet one could question the apparent segregation in “Media_City”: The local artists and the locally connected curator stayed underground, while curators airlifted into town showed mostly Western artists in the museum and on the electronic billboards. But at least those Asian artists who were included in the “international” segments clearly appeared as the equals of their generally better known Western counterparts. A real glimpse of the digital future conjured by a phrase like “media city” was provided by two separate segments of the event: “Media Entertainment,” a showcase of commercial technology, and “Digital Alice,” which featured putatively educational programs for children. For the most part, the contents of these segments were outside the realm of anything that counts, so far, as art—which is where the digital realm still seems to lead much of the time. The media focus helps “brand” this new biennial at a time when it’s become hard to keep track of so many, but the them; could also have swamped the show in gimmickry. Fortunately, sensitive curating of the individual segments proved more powerful than their overall tendency to work at cross-purposes.

Barry Schwabsky is a frequent contributor to Artforum.