Hyo Sook Sung’s “Learning Council” workshop, Hanjin Heavy Industries labor union office, Busan, South Korea, September 5, 2012.

Hyo Sook Sung’s “Learning Council” workshop, Hanjin Heavy Industries labor union office, Busan, South Korea, September 5, 2012.

the 2012 Busan Biennale

Hyo Sook Sung’s “Learning Council” workshop, Hanjin Heavy Industries labor union office, Busan, South Korea, September 5, 2012.

WHAT KIND OF EXHIBITION might reestablish art’s capacity to engage in, even generate, a genuine public sphere? This is asking a lot, of course: Assembling artworks that thematize various forms of injustice does not necessarily meet the challenge (and exhibitions that do often simply preach to the converted), nor does the arch form of “participation,” wherein experiences are preplanned for compliant viewers, and which characterizes the worst of relational aesthetics. In fact, one of the biennial format’s most nefarious effects (whether intended or not) is to simulate social benefits—such as political engagement and public debate—while foreclosing them in favor of representing the interests of financial and cultural elites. Museums and biennials typically conform to two interrelated models: They function as engines of development and gentrification for established world capitals and “emerging” cities alike, and they sell cultural commodities such as exhibitions and publications to international audiences. These are not necessarily bad things, but to make an exhibition that establishes a realm for open dialogue, beyond existing institutions of government and commerce—a true civil society—means creating a setting where differences are encountered and debated, even through conflict.

The last title I’d imagine for an exhibition attempting to enlarge civil society—engaging with and delineating the limits of global communication in the art world—is that of the 2012 Busan Biennale: “Garden of Learning.” Why garden? The reference to learning is more obviously explained: Early on in his planning, artistic director Roger M. Buergel established a “Learning Council” drawn partly from residents of Busan. Roughly fifty members participated in every stage of the exhibition, beginning with discussions asking, “What is Korean?” and moving on to conversations about what is particular to Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city and one of the world’s largest ports. The distinctive quality of the methodology developed by Buergel is that learning moves bilaterally: He and his collaborators (who included curator Ruth Noack) learned about Korea, while the other council members learned from them about art. When artists visited, they met with the council members, whose local knowledge and connections often enabled their projects; after the opening of the exhibition, a few of the most dedicated council members acted as docents. This wasn’t fake participation, and so not everyone was equal: Buergel began with themes in mind and brought artists to the table—aesthetically, the vision is his, but his choices were tested against the responses of the council. And the council established a context for his tailoring of the exhibition to Busan, where he necessarily spent a lot of time (unlike, I imagine, artistic directors of some biennials). “Garden of Learning” belongs to Busan and to the Learning Council. While exhibition visitors, like myself, can experience the results of their discussions indirectly, the project’s most lasting effects are not directed to the amorphous diaspora of the art world: The enduring legacy of “Garden of Learning” will probably be local.

As I thought more about this process, the metaphor of the garden suddenly seemed right. A garden requires constant care or it will die or grow wild; certain things are native to it and others not. In short, it must be cultivated. That is precisely what Buergel did with art in Busan. He cultivated a small public out of which an exhibition grew. Will his patient husbandry have lasting effects? Is this method exportable? Is a public so small worth worrying about and investing in? These are the gauntlets this exhibition throws down to our understanding of the global art world, awash with biennials full of “global artists.” But first and foremost, the exhibition is an ethical statement, rooted in a particular place, about what it means for cultures—national and aesthetic—to meet. And it seems to conclude that without a more concerted effort to root themselves in civil society, big international shows risk becoming occasions of hollow bombast. But more significantly, it suggests that the scale of our responses to globalization should be adjusted: They need to be more targeted, more socially engaged, even more intimate. This could mean greater emphasis on what might be called art’s diplomatic portfolio in the allocation of public and private arts funding. And maybe this would result in a different definition of politics for art.

I may be giving the impression that the art in “Garden of Learning” was secondary to its methodology. But the exhibition succeeded because the discussions it fostered in Busan—the micro–civil society it cultivated—made it possible to establish principles of selection for Korean, European, and American artists that resulted in the deft presentation of Korean artistic traditions while amplifying this history through a selection of foreign artists whose work explores analogous issues in parallel worlds. In other words, the exhibition’s perspective is global but emerges from a local dynamic. While too nuanced and complex to be reduced to a single example, this outlook was perhaps best captured in the exhibition’s rhythmic counterpoint between traditions of abstraction (associated with avant-gardes that took root during South Korea’s era of rapid modernization under the developmentalist but authoritarian policies of Park Chung-hee, who ruled between 1962 and 1979) and a more modest and politically engaged type of artwork known as minjung (associated with the pro-democracy movement during the 1980s). To put it schematically, the nonobjective canvases of a figure such as Yong Ik Kim, once associated with the South Korean “monochrome” (tansaekhwa) movement of the ’70s, might be opposed to the modest “magic realist” canvases of Won-hee Nho, which represent engaging but melancholy images of desire and frustration under conditions of rapid social change.

As in Documenta 12, Buergel staged miniretrospectives of selected artists—including Kim and Nho—who are fundamental to the structure of the “Garden of Learning.” While the face-off between Kim’s late modernism and Nho’s figurative mode of social engagement may seem almost a caricature—the confrontation of domestically repressive, foreign-directed developmentalism with indigenous demands for democratization couched in an internationally unfashionable style—the story is more nuanced. A number of Kim’s canvases feature fields of dots reminiscent of Damien Hirst, but their surfaces are frequently saturated with his own poetic and critical texts in tiny script, functioning as a discursive ground for optical events. And Kim is now committed to what he calls eco-anarchism: He allows his seemingly pristine paintings to age and patinate, effectively reversing their presumed association with the official values of the Park era. Similarly, Nho’s works are at once dreamy and sophisticated; they call to mind recent trends in painting exemplified by the likes of Francis Alÿs.

This complex base rhythm, rooted in Korean art, resonates through Buergel’s selection of Western artists who echo similar concerns. The American artist Jo Baer, for instance, is represented both by her own early monochromes and by her more recent erotic and sometimes scatological figurations, giving the lie to the dichotomy ostensibly posed in the pairing of Kim and Nho. And the German artist Jürgen Stollhans, who, as the catalogue puts it, spent months in Busan as “a tireless ethnographer of Korea,” installed a large series of small drawings in eccentric positions around the exhibition, their locally derived motifs providing an outsider’s version of Nho’s representation of minor yet charged moments from everyday life. This is a very particular—and a very effective—way of meshing a national art-historical dynamic in a set of international associations. Like trapeze artists, the participants in “Garden of Learning” link hands, but their trajectories are distinct.

The provisional nature of these narratives was visually amplified by Buergel’s installation, which transposed the “garden” into a construction site (a pointed metaphor for a city undergoing rapid development). The main facades of the museum were veiled by scaffolding and by an industrial fabric cover, which was arranged in geometric patterns of different colors. Many of the marble surfaces in the interior were toned down with a similar gauzy material, and most temporary exhibition walls were constructed of scaffolding as well. Playing off this “real allegory” of urban growth, American artist Mary Ellen Carroll’s project for the exhibition, No. 18 (The outside never reveals what is happening inside), 2012, serves as a brilliant summa of the biennial’s seemingly paradoxical ambition to take art’s encounter with economic development as an opportunity for cultivating a civil society. In No. 18, Carroll had the biennial enter into a special kind of South Korean real estate contract—jeonse—which exists outside normal loan structures (one pays up front for the right to occupy a space for a certain period, and at the end of that period, the money is returned). Within a modest housing block, she retrofitted a space dedicated to hosting informal and formal discussions (which were sustained throughout the exhibition) on topics including “Busan,” “Life and Style,” “World,” and “Business,” broadcast to the museum galleries—indeed, cameras installed in the space transmitted a continuous HD video feed whether an event took place or not. Her work inserted a micro–civil society within a specifically Korean structure, constructed according to international norms of technology and aesthetics: precisely the kind of complex imbrication of the local and the global that the “Garden of Learning” posed as an alternative to business as usual in the art world.

David Joselit is Carnegie professor of the history of art at Yale University. His most recent book is After Art (Princeton, 2012).