Claire Tancons’s exhibition-as-procession, “Spring,” Gwangju, 2008. (Work pictured: Marlon Griffith, Runaway/Reaction, 2008, mixed-media performance.) From the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.

Claire Tancons’s exhibition-as-procession, “Spring,” Gwangju, 2008. (Work pictured: Marlon Griffith, Runaway/Reaction, 2008, mixed-media performance.) From the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.

the 2008 Gwangju Biennale, Singapore Biennale 2008, and 3rd Yokohama Triennale

Various Locations

 Claire Tancons’s exhibition-as-procession, “Spring,” Gwangju, 2008. (Work pictured: Marlon Griffith, Runaway/Reaction, 2008, mixed-media performance.) From the 2008 Gwangju Biennale.

THIS PAST FALL, with the consecutive openings of six “Asian biennials,” the deliquescent 1990s and early-2000s trend toward establishing new large-scale exhibitions in increasingly far-flung locales bore fruit, such as it is. And as might have been anticipated, these shows were also attended by the repeatedly aired critiques that such efforts do little more than adapt a late-nineteenth-century model of display to newly ascendant societies; and, further, serve as highbrow smoke screens cynically deployed in the service of nationalist political regimes, neoliberal economic interests, or narrow municipal agendas. But to make either of these points in the present context is to pick up a debate that has, in fact, faded in the years since the first Gwangju Biennale of 1995. Back then, recall, questions about globalization, and about the place of “Asia” (always a problematic concept in and of itself) in this new order, plagued the intelligentsia. Just a short time earlier, economist Ezra Vogel had paternalistically anointed South Korea one of the “four little dragons” driving the region’s economic growth and political progress. Somewhere along the line, though, the “little dragons” (the others were Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore) became the “Asian tigers,” and the terms of the debate shifted away from what 2008 Gwangju Biennale artistic director Okwui Enwezor calls “the anxiety of the periphery.”

In the intervening years, biennials and triennials in the region proliferated rapidly, spurred on by ever-more-confident metropoles and their rivalries. Taipei got one in 1998, Shanghai in 2000, Yokohama in 2001, Guangzhou in 2002, Singapore in 2006. This year, these shows joined Sydney and Gwangju as points on what organizers called the “Art Compass”—an emerging-market redux of the 2007 European “Grand Tour.” But even before this latest grand gesture of art tourism, there was something shared and celebratory about this group of exhibitions. The 1998 Taipei Biennial, for example, launched with a weirdly poetic statement from its ubiquitous artistic director, Fumio Nanjo, perhaps the genre’s key practitioner: “Asia is aglow today. Asia destructs, constructs, and transforms.”

It was against this backdrop that Enwezor set to work on this year’s Gwangju Biennale, engaging as a kind of starting point the May 18, 1980, citizens’ uprising against South Korea’s military dictator Chun Doo-hwan. The biennial in fact was instituted to commemorate this event, which initiated a trend toward democratization and civil society. Enwezor is fascinated by the uprising: In it, he finds a story of civil unrest and democratic progress with nationalist and anticolonial implications that countervail what he sees as the “tendentious display of historical narcissism” characterizing the West’s ongoing nostalgia for the Paris Spring of 1968. He writes:

Paris tends to be focused almost exclusively in the past, while Gwangju is caught up in a ritual of annual passion over the meaning and symbolism of May 18. At the same time, representations of the two tend to associate with two distinct historical legacies: the modernist avant-garde on the one hand and the peasant and anti-colonial resistance on the other. Yet, whatever the distinct differences between Paris and Gwangju, or the modes in which they are commemorated, what is indisputable is how they each set in motion a fervent belief in the politics of spectacle.

And how better to respond to spectacle than through a deadpan homage to the semantics of the global corporatocracy? Enwezor titled his biennial, which closed in November, “Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions” and structured it as a series of distinct interventions united only by an unstated set of aesthetic considerations, subsumed within a simple temporal framework. The largest of three subsections of “Annual Report,” titled “On the Road,” comprised restagings of thirty-six exhibitions—ecumenically drawn from venues around the world, institutional and commercial alike—that had taken place during the period preceding the biennial’s opening. This core unit of “twice-born” exhibitions (the term, from the Sanskrit dvi-ja, is that of biennial cocurator Ranjit Hoskote) was punctuated by forty-eight “Insertions” of single artists and collectives, and spread beyond the main five-gallery Biennale Hall into the nearby Gwangju Museum of Art and the far-off Uijae Museum of Korean Art.

The success of the exhibition came to rest on a curatorial bricolage (a favorite Enwezor term) of flow and juxtaposition. Thankfully, he is a master of this modality. In one narrow corridor, for example, two Insertions—Area Park’s early-’90s black-and-white photographs of South Korea’s pro-democracy protesters and of the demilitarized zone, and Daniel Faust’s ironic, William Eggleston-ish meditations on the working class and built environment in Alaska—hung across from each other, both groups of photos evincing, in very different ways, a Robert Frank–like sense of the artist as observer of his own nation. Upstairs, a pared-down version of Taryn Simon’s American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, a series of images of little-seen centers of power (such as the art collection at CIA headquarters and the contraband room at John F. Kennedy Airport) shown in March 2007 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, took its place next to Hans Haacke’s January outing at Paula Cooper, also in New York. (Haacke’s iconic Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 was displayed on the wall separating the two artists, in what appeared to be a formal nod to the evolution of American-style institutional critique as well as a poignant acknowledgment that American-style democracy and capitalism remain deeply flawed.) Praneet Soi’s painted miniatures of war-on-terror atrocities inhabited a downstairs gallery at the Uijae Museum, whose permanent collection (included in “On the Road”) houses work by Uijae Huh Baikryun (1891–1977): One of Korea’s last acknowledged masters of another traditionalist pictorial tradition, the ink-and-wash mode known as literati painting, Uijae was an early advocate of the South Korean farmers’ movement, which can be seen as a precursor to May 18, and strongly resonates with the political address of Soi’s miniatures. Yes, there were also veterans of other recent biennials—Steve McQueen’s Gravesend and Thomas Demand’s Yellowcake, both on view in Venice in 2007, to name two—and no shortage of rotely repackaged New York and London gallery shows (Gerard Byrne from Lisson, Isaac Julien from Metro Pictures, etc.). But in the end, Enwezor’s curatorial position of anti-thematization paradoxically allowed linkages and variances to articulate themselves with the subtlety usually sought, and less often achieved, in thematic shows.

A group of distinctly curated “position papers” elaborated parallel, perhaps ancillary points consistent with the biennial’s overall agenda. Patrick Flores’s “Turns in Tropics: Artist-Curator” offered a comparative meditation on four examples of this hybrid figure and on their influence on the Malaysian, Philippine, Indonesian, and Thai scenes of the ’70s and ’80s. The show-within-a-show functioned both as historical object lesson—Apinan Poshyananda, now an elder-statesman intellectual, was making video spoofs with a VHS camera in Bangkok in 1987?—and scholarly thesis, advancing a claim consistent with Enwezor’s highlighting of the bricolage of the periphery. In keeping with the logic of juxtaposition, an “Insertion” of darkness, mazes, and mirrors by Ken Lum, himself an artist-curator, filled out this gallery at the Gwangju Museum of Art. Claire Tancons’s “position paper,” “Spring,” a dramatic, Caribbean-inspired procession around the traffic island at the epicenter of the May 18 protests, was among the biennial’s highlights, and struck me as the perfect instantiation of what Enwezor claimed to seek in “the link [the biennial] makes to the uprising by using the spectacle of street protests as a symbol for establishing an open structure of cultural interaction.” One could simply never conceive of such a procession—a whimsical riff on an earlier student protest, this one featuring contributions by various artists and culminating in the burning of MAP Office’s bamboo-and-rice-paper floats—happening in Beijing or Shanghai. And yet the state here was fully on board. The next morning, Enwezor’s thumbnail visage smiled out at me from the front page of the government-run Korea Times.

GWANGJU’S NATIONALIST and regionalist agenda, and Enwezor and company’s meditation on that agenda, seem almost baroque in their complexity compared with Singapore’s unabashedly transparent conflation of art and real estate (a marriage officiated by authoritarian technocracy and bankrolled by speculative capital). If ever there was a curator who knew how to work this liminal zone, it is Fumio Nanjo. Now the director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Nanjo—who maintains a consultancy offering “a wide range of services in [the] art field”—is the Prometheus of the Asian biennial: Taipei, 1998; Yokohama, 2001; Singapore, 2006. Singapore, which loves nothing so much as stability, decided to retain him for a second go as artistic director. In return, they got things like a spreadsheet providing the exacting viewer with each artist’s year of birth, residence, and preferred “genre.” This year the biennial’s theme was simply “Wonder,” following on 2006’s “Belief.” In the two-page essay at the front of a giveaway guidebook that is the exhibition’s only publication, Nanjo writes, “To experience wonder is to open one’s mind.” He goes on to cite the dictionary definition of “wonder,” and concludes with the statement: “Art is now becoming a part of people’s lives.” The audio guide is brought to you by Bloomberg, and the all-venue pass includes a discounted ride on the Singapore Flyer Ferris wheel. You get the picture.

Upon arriving in Singapore, I met a group of Malaysian curators and artists at an outdoor bar in the Tanglin Camp complex, a former military base that had been the main site of the 2006 biennial. It was now home to a Ben & Jerry’s, wine bars and fusion restaurants, and furniture stores, none of which had been there two years before. Perhaps this illumination of the stakes of the previous edition colored my trek among SB2008’s venues the following day. By the harbor, on the Central Promontory Site (“with 360 hectares of prime land for development,” per the guidebook), a Shigeru Ban pavilion made from shipping containers housed a few unrelated marquee works: Hans Op de Beeck, the Kabakovs, Anthony McCall. The core site was the recently vacated city hall, which was newly encaged by chain-link barriers in anticipation of the Singapore Grand Prix a week later. The staid Brit-colonial civic building is not a horrible exhibition venue. Video installations occupied courtrooms, while downstairs, a boutique invite-only art fair called Showcase Singapore scattered twenty-some galleries into a maze of former clerks’ offices. But the works given the most prominent locations were astoundingly bad: In the central atrium, a layered acrylic abstraction by Singaporean painter Jane Lee; in the former barristers’ cafeteria, a grouping of fiberglass maggots by Pham Ngoc Duong and fetus-shaped gourds in formaldehyde by Han Jong-Gun; in another main hall, Wit Pimkanchanapong’s Singapore, a Google Earth floor map of the city, on which viewers could mark their favorite places with Post-its. It all felt like a high-rent exercise in vaguely premised, gesturally biennial-esque art.

However, to the credit of Nanjo and his team, which also included Matthew Ngui and Joselina Cruz, the curatorial tentacles of this biennial extended far beyond the standard international fare. Nanjo’s position as a man about Asia has allowed him to build a network that draws in works like the short films of Kyrgyz artist Aktan Abdykalykov. And there were some successful works, particularly in the South Beach Development, a cluster of ’30s Deco army barracks just blocks from downtown. Heman Chong served up a room of wall paintings made from office-supply stickers, and Dinh Q. Lê presented The Farmers and the Helicopters, 2006, a sculptural and video meditation on Vietnamese peasants who try to build their own Huey. Working with Myanmar artists Chaw Ei Thein and Aung Ko, Richard Streitmatter-Tran constructed a pagoda in the Burmese Buddhist vernacular, made entirely of sugar. This was perhaps the most compelling interpretation of Nanjo’s easy theme: sculptural space at once referencing traditional architecture, white-cube Minimalism, and visceral sensation. By the third day of SB2008, the pagoda was covered in flies.

IT IS TEMPTING to read the Yokohama Triennale as an unarticulated hybrid of Gwangju-style cultural localism and Singapore-style speculative boosterism. Yokohama shares some of Gwangju’s self-consciousness about its perceived peripherality, even though (or perhaps because) it is Japan’s historic port of entry and lies just thirty minutes from downtown Tokyo by subway. And like the Singapore Biennale, this triennial has been a vehicle for converting sites like the nineteenth-century Red Brick Warehouse, on the waterfront, into pleasant places to eat, drink, and shop. There is even a Ferris wheel. The municipal authorities are sophisticated enough, or at least technocratic enough, to hand the artistic reins over to (Western or Western-validated) specialists. And so the all-star curatorial team paired three of the busiest curators in Europe (Daniel Birnbaum, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Beatrix Ruf) with Akiko Miyake of the Center for Contemporary Art Kitakyushu and Hu Fang of Vitamin Creative Space, the latter a savvy gallery in Guangzhou that has a proven genius for parlaying widespread skepticism about the rote commercialism of most Chinese art into curatorial authority and financial gain.

These five were handed a theme, “Time Crevasse,” by artistic director Tsutomu Mizusawa. “Art shakes up our everyday perceptions. . . . It can horrify us, give us courage, console us, or provide us with what we need to face life,” Mizusawa noted in a brief text reminiscent of Nanjo’s that was the only elaboration of the exhibition concept anywhere in sight. But scant narration does not necessarily equate with aesthetic failure, and the crevasse proved capable of engulfing A-listers and up-and-comers alike. The show centered on the Shinko Pier exhibition space, with an agile system of plywood walls designed by Ryue Nishizawa duly deconstructing the white cube. The selection of seventy-two artists would feel familiar to anyone who knows the curators—a perfect equilibrium of the long-canonized (Marina Abramovic, Yoko Ono, Matthew Barney, Douglas Gordon, Paul McCarthy, Joan Jonas, Rirkrit Tiravanija), the recently canonized (Mark Leckey, Tino Sehgal, Paul Chan, Jonathan Meese, Miranda July, Cao Fei, Terence Koh, Jérôme Bel), and the hopefully soon-to-be-canonized (Mario García Torres, Shilpa Gupta, Pak Sheung Chuen, Pedro Reyes). This being Japan, there is a significant conceptual and performance-based history with which to engage, and a second-floor film archive in the Red Brick Warehouse presented a stunning selection of works from the Fluxus moment and its aftermath, with pieces like Atsuko Tanaka’s Round on Sand, 1968, and the collective Hi Red Center’s Shelter Plan, 1967. This was echoed in a substantial program of new performances realized in the few days surrounding the opening—works by Jonas, Meese, and Aki Sasamoto among them.

And yet in the end, Yokohama appeared an almost archetypal instantiation of the international exhibition format, impeccably designed and unrelentingly cool, with no particular political or curatorial agenda anywhere in sight. Perhaps Obrist was saving the agendas for his Frieze-week Manifesto Marathon happening later that month. Or perhaps this utter subsumption of local into transnational, of site into space, marks the twilight of the “Asian biennial,” which may prove, to twist another Obrist biennial title, a genre that never should have been named.

Philip Tinari is a contributing editor of Artforum.