Busan, South Korea

Mire Lee, Landscape with Many Holes: Skins of Yeongdo Sea, 2022, scaffolding, waste oil, fence fabric, 53' 1 3⁄4" × 70' 10 3⁄8" × 54' 4 7⁄8". From the Busan Biennale 2022.

Mire Lee, Landscape with Many Holes: Skins of Yeongdo Sea, 2022, scaffolding, waste oil, fence fabric, 53' 1 3⁄4" × 70' 10 3⁄8" × 54' 4 7⁄8". From the Busan Biennale 2022.

Busan Biennale

Various Venues

For this year’s edition of the Busan Biennale, artistic director Haeju Kim offered a deeply considered and elegantly curated exhibition that spoke both to local histories specific to the southern city and wider transnational concerns. Titled “물결 위 우리” (We, on the Rising Wave), the biennial brought together sixty-four artists and collectives across four venues: the Museum of Contemporary Art, Busan; Pier 1 of Busan Port; an abandoned factory on Yeongdo Island; and a house in Choryang-dong in the Dong district. The works were linked by subjects including labor, population movement, and the history of the city; the artists in the show were almost all women. It might at first glance seem obvious to devise a port city biennial around the idea of the sea—and indeed there were perhaps a few too many fishing nets on view—but Kim managed to consistently steer us away from the banal with an exhibition that quietly challenged national histories and patriarchal narratives.

The main venue, the Museum of Contemporary Art, hosted the largest number of works across its three floors. As you entered the ground floor, 손엮어풀얽힌갯바위 (Sea Plants, Bare Hands, Entangled Gaetbawi), 2022, a newly commissioned installation by Korean collective the Rice Brewing Sisters Club (Ryu Soyoon, Shin Aletheia Hyun-Jin, and Son Hyemin), drew from research on the haenyeo (female divers) operating in and around Busan. Presented as a suite of drawings, a video, and textual material around a raised circular platform with fluctuating elevations to simulate the way that one navigates the rocks in the shallows of the shore, the work examined the many registers of relation between coastal communities and seaweed species, setting the tone for the exhibition’s approach to social and ecological crises. Downstairs in the same venue, Sung Hwan Kim’s installation, part of his ongoing project A Record of Drifting Across the Sea, 2017–, addressed histories of Korean migration to North America via Hawaii. Kim weaves together the stories of Korean migrants who were brought in after Japanese workers had gone on strike in 1903 and the indigenous Hawaiian anti-imperial, anti-settler colonial resistance. The installation investigates the tension between photographic material and archives, playing with valences of truth telling and the performance of the self.

Many of the works here had a collaborative dimension—if not explicitly made collectively, they were often made in dialogue between artists and communities or developed in a relational manner, such as the works of Pia Rönicke, Bassem Saad, and Smappa!Group’s Chim↑Pom. In Pier 1, Haeju Kim wove together the history of the city of Busan and histories of resistance and labor. Hira Nabi’s beautiful film All That Perishes at the Edge of Land, 2019, set the tone for the space, offering an intimate portrait of Pakistan’s shipbreaking industry—a notoriously toxic enterprise. Proposing a more abstract approach to the port’s history, Kim Jooyoung’s poetic The Archeology of Pier 1: Wave Becomes Light. Becomes Wind. Becomes the Way. Becomes History, 2022, centers an experience of light that she encountered during a visit to the Pier. Kim suspended scrolls that catch the sunlight entering the warehouse around the ephemera that she discovered there. Finally, in Yeongdo, Mire Lee’s monumental sculpture Landscape with Many Holes: Skins of Yeongdo Sea, 2022, stood majestically in the former factory. Installed in collaboration with artist Ko Daeyeong, the work is made of the kind of acrylic mesh typically used for fences. It seems to resemble a shipwreck and torn flesh simultaneously, with the wind of a coming typhoon filling its porous cavities. The work’s state of indeterminacy speaks to Kim’s curatorial schema of proposing realities without naming them. As I left Busan that afternoon, a gathering typhoon threatened to hit the city. It signaled its coming with an eerie quiet that seemed to mirror the conceptualization of the biennial: a calm sea that hides a deep, swelling power.