Out of Tokyo

222: A turning point for international art shows
Ozaki Tetsuya
Date: December 21, 2010

Following the events at Setouchi and Aichi, I made quick state visits to three international art shows in Korea. The one idea that came to my mind after checking out these exhibitions was “turning point". Even though things were perhaps a little different in Gwangju, at least for Seoul and Busan I have to say that the shows were heading in a totally new direction compared to their respective previous installments.


Cho Duck Hyun: Herstory Museum Project (detail) | REALTOKYO
Cho Duck Hyun: Herstory Museum Project (detail)

Let me begin with Media City Seoul (9/7-11/17), which featured – believe it or not – almost no works from the category of so-called interactive art. Cho Duck Hyun’s impressive installation “Herstory Museum", shown in the foyer of the Ehwa Girls' High School, was one of the few exceptions that proved the rue, but even here the mechanism was as simple as voices of women in a male-dominated society becoming audible as soon as the visitor sits down on a chair in the exhibition space. More or less all other exhibits – except for contributions by Shilpa Gupta, Xijing Men and Izumi Taro – were either photographs or videos.


Director Kim Sunjung explains, "We realized that the limitations of the term 'media art', which confines art to being a 'medium' – in other words, to a mere 'material' – forced us to seek a more universal definition of the term 'media'." Kim eventually abolished the event officially named “Seoul International Media Art Biennale", and upgraded “Media City Seoul" – as it used to be commonly called – to a festival that “focuses on the different facets of media and the changes they bring about in our lives rather than on media art itself." (Both quotes from the exhibition catalogue.) In other words, this time (and in the future?), the exhibition focuses on the relationships between "media", “art" and “life", rather than on “media art". According to Kim, this concept marks a return to the very first event held in 2000.


Suh Do-Ho: Who Am We?: Uni-Face (detail) | REALTOKYO
Suh Do-Ho: Who Am We?: Uni-Face (detail)

While works by Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson and other celebrities from the field of fine art were the most outstanding things to see at the previous installment, this time it was the above-mentioned Cho, along with works by Suh Do-Ho, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Douglas Gordon that were particularly captivating. Kapoor – rather unusually – unveiled a video piece, Eliasson stuck to his trademark light-based installation, Suh presented another video (that conspicuously resembled Kitano Ken’s), and Weerasethakul and Gordon were both showed video installations, making it fair to say that the curators did choose works leaning toward media art within the realm of fine art. However it surely is even more true that this rendered a clear definition of both genres impossible, or eliminated the special characteristics of media art in a narrow sense. The genre of media art is perhaps about to dissolve altogether.


Following the previous installment, the 8th Gwangju Biennale (9/3-11/7) was again an extremely high-level affair. The event that opened under the general theme “10000 Lives" has received favorable comments for its clear concept, appropriate choice of artists and artworks, and meticulous calculation. I cannot give detailed accounts of each of the 134 participating artists/groups here, but one work I do want to mention as an embodiment of "sprawling investigation of the relationships that bind people to images and images to people," as director Massimiliano Gioni formulated the event’s central slogan in the catalogue, is Artur Zmijewski’s video “Blindly".


Zmijewski had asked a number of visually impaired applicants from the general public to draw self-portraits, landscapes, or pictures of insects. Some of them are congenitally disabled, others became blind by accidents or other causes. They pick up cans pf paint and ask the filming artist about the respective colors. When drawing unfamiliar insects, they add verbal explanations of the insects' special features. While most of them use their hands to apply paints directly onto the large sheet of paper on the floor, one woman paints with her feet. She is of course not aware (or didn't care) that her underwear is visible underneath her skirt. When walking on the paper, she leaves footprints all over her painting due to the paint on her feet…


Unidentified Prisoner, Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1975-79, photograph, © The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, Cambodia/Doug Niven | REALTOKYO
Unidentified Prisoner, Tuol Sleng Prison, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 1975-79, photograph, © The Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide, Cambodia/Doug Niven

The result is a masterful work that inspires the viewer to think about the difference between seeing and drawing, the connection between language and film, and ponder the question, "What is art?" With rather schoolbook-like displays including photographs of genocide victims of the Khmer Rouge that were also shown at Rencontres internationales de la photographie d'Arles in 1997, the Gwangju Biennale generally lacked a glamorous quality, and left a somewhat bitter taste instead. However, in my opinion Zmijewski’s work alone made it absolutely worthwhile (even though it is surely going to travel around some other cities now…)


The overall framework of the Busan Biennale was significantly modified for the event’s 7th installment (9/11-11/20). While the biennale used to be separated into the "Contemporary Art Exhibition", “Sea Art Festival" and “Busan Sculpture Project", assigned to three different curators, this time the separation was abolished, and one director was put in charge of the entire festival. That person was Azumaya Takashi, one of the curators of the previous "Contemporary Art Exhibition", and also the curator of the "Gundam" exhibition that was touring around Japan a few years ago. The general theme Azumaya chose was "Living in Evolution". Among the three biennales, it was certainly the one in Busan that displayed “evolution" as a festival.


Yishay Garbasz: Becoming (detail) | REALTOKYO
Yishay Garbasz: Becoming (detail)
Yishay Garbasz: In My Mother's Footsteps (detail) | REALTOKYO
Yishay Garbasz: In My Mother’s Footsteps (detail)

As a side effect of narrowing down contents, the number of participating artists was radically cut down to 72 from the previous installment’s 189 (92 of which featured in the "Contemporary Art Exhibition" alone). As a result, the available floor space and number of works to exhibit increased for each artist, which proved helpful in conveying the diversity of the artists' endeavors, as well as communicating intentions behind series of works much more clearly than ever before. A more detailed account you can read in the fourth issue of "Libertines" magazine (out since 11/10), so in this place I only want to point out that the two featured works by Yishay Garbasz did a magnificent job in highlighting the artist’s bilateral character in a mutually complementary manner, and that one could get a very clear picture of Nawa Kohei’s intentions and interests from the continuous displays of his dot themed drawings, animations and objets d'art.


The number of participating artists at Media City Seoul dropped from 69 to 46. I suppose the number of international art shows that choose "quality over quantity" and therefore cut down the number of artists is going to increase in the future. At showcase type exhibitions that overwhelm with large amounts of artworks, it is difficult to grasp the ideas and intentions of individual artists, and consequently, there is very little to take home mentally. After Seoul and Busan, who will be next?

Ozaki Tetsuya / Editor in chief / REALTOKYO