READING A WAVE
By Andrew Maerkle
Song Min Jung – Custom (2022), mobile phones, video installation, dimension variable. Installation view, Choryang, Busan, 2022. ⓒ Sang-tae Kim. All images: Unless otherwise noted, courtesy Busan Biennale Organizing Committee.
This year’s Busan Biennale opened to the public on September 3 with a powerful typhoon bearing down on the Korean Peninsula and the hotly anticipated opening of Frieze Seoul in full swing in the Korean capital. While those conditions were not ideal for feting an international art festival, the Biennale, entitled “We, On the Rising Wave,” did not disappoint. Artistic director Haeju Kim, the former deputy director of Art Sonje Center in Seoul, put together a smart, dynamic exhibition that situated Busan amid historic and ongoing transnational flows of commerce, conflict, and migration. Each of the four venues lent a different character and density to the exhibition. The Museum of Contemporary Art Busan, which has served as the Biennale’s main venue since it opened in 2018, provided three levels of white cube space that accommodated a range of presentations, from an immersive installation by Arturo Kameya to a performance by Otobong Nkanga. At Pier 1 of Busan Port, works were dispersed across an open-plan former warehouse space, which creaked and dripped in the rains leading up to the typhoon. An abandoned factory building on Yeongdo island, also overlooking the harbor, was home to Mire Lee’s gigantic scaffolding installation and a speakeasy-like structure where Chim↑Pom from Smappa!Group displayed bottles of their homemade alcohol blending Korean and Japanese brewing methods. Finally, an abandoned house in Busan’s Choryang neighborhood was dedicated to a project by a single artist, Song Min Jung. Positing the titular “wave” as a metaphor for both flows of information amid tremendous technological change and the rolling terrain of Busan’s seaside hills, Kim’s curatorial framework succeeded in connecting the practices of the 69 Korean and international participants with the local context, and in turn used the local context to amplify themes connecting the participants, from postcolonial memory to indigenous rights and climate justice.
Following the Busan Biennale’s opening, ART iT corresponded with Haeju Kim over email about the process of organizing the exhibition.
Alexander Ugay – More Than a Hundred Thousand Times (2020), single-channel HD video, 35 min. 48 sec., video still. Commissioned and produced by Art Sonje Center, Seoul. Courtesy the artist.
ART iT: You are one of a unique cohort of curators to organize a large-scale international exhibition under pandemic conditions. How did this situation shape your approach to Busan Biennale 2022 and your conception of how to position Busan in both Korean and international contexts?
HK: The pandemic was still in full swing in April 2021 when I was appointed artistic director of Busan Biennale 2022, but the vaccine had been developed and mass vaccination was finally rolling out in Korea, so it was also a moment of hope, as things seemed to have turned a corner. Furthermore, we were seeing real reflection on the ways in which this pandemic was a direct consequence of our own actions, namely, our relentless development and greed and environmental destruction. At the same time, the sheer speed of the virus’s spread prompted some to reject global connections altogether, whether between individuals or countries. And so the planning for this edition of the Busan Biennale coincided with a dawning awareness of a new, pandemic-shaped reality. I think being confronted with how deeply we are all connected also gave us an opportunity to examine how our connections function in the world and reconsider how we can best utilize those connections.
As borders closed down and our movements were restricted, with certain countries even committing to complete lockdowns, I think we saw many people take a new interest in the immediate radius of their individual lives and in local and regional histories. While “We, on the Rising Wave” may not directly address the pandemic, it’s undeniable that the exhibition was indirectly influenced by it. Now, in October 2022, travel across borders is relatively easy once again and pandemic-related restrictions are relaxing. Many people here in Korea still wear masks when they go out, but the general fear of Covid-19 itself seems to have greatly dissipated. It does make me wonder whether the many concerns and powerful questions and demands for change triggered by the pandemic might follow suit and just . . . go up in smoke.
ART iT: In recent years it’s been common to see teams of curatorial advisors working on international surveys, and you would think the first idea for someone directing a big exhibition under pandemic conditions would be to set up an extensive advisory network. Was it a deliberate decision to limit yourself to three advisors, Christine Tohme, Philippe Pirotte, and Yuk Hui?
HK: In the case of the Busan Biennale, the question of how many curatorial advisors to consult with is left to the discretion of each edition’s artistic director. In 2020 there were three curatorial advisors, while in 2018 there was an advisory committee. This year’s curatorial advisors are distinguished by the depth and breadth of their experiences, from exhibition making to academia, as well as their practical know-how about putting together large-scale events like biennales, and so I felt they would be more than qualified to provide the necessary guidance. Of course, pandemic-related travel restrictions and our resulting inability to invite advisors to Busan or seek them out for face-to-face discussions also played a part in my decision not to consult a larger group of advisors. And though they were not official advisors, in the early days of my exhibition research I did meet with a number of Busan-based scholars—cultural researchers, historians, and architectural experts—for individual counsel.
Above: Kim Dohee – Shrimp Fingers (2017), archival pigment print, 59.4 × 84.1 cm. Installation view, Pier 1 of Busan Port, 2022. ⓒ Sang-tae Kim. Below: Hwayeon Nam – You Only Live Twice (2022), single-channel video, 6-channel sound, 47 min. 48 sec. Production still. Photo Gim Ikhyun, courtesy the artist.
ART iT: “We, on the Rising Wave” examines how Busan, as a strategically located port city, has served as a staging/reception point for transnational flows of commerce, conflict, and migration. What were some of the core works you had in mind at the start of the curatorial process?
HK: In the exhibition planning process, we identified four broad categories to shape the direction of our research: “Migration,” “Women and Labor,” “The Ecosystem of the City,” and “Technological Change and Locality.”
“Migration” is a central issue when it comes to the demographics of Busan and is also a topic of long-standing interest to me. I am drawn to the multilayered cultures, languages, and experiences of migrants, and how their individual contact points with historical narratives find expression in works of art. In terms of the Korean diaspora, I thought of the work of the third-generation Korean-Kazakh artist Alexander Ugay as well as that of Sung Hwan Kim, who has been researching Korean immigration to Hawaii, and Kim Jooyoung, who explores the theme of nomads.
Concerning “Women and Labor,” I thought of Kim Dohee, whose works are often set in Kangkangee Maeul, the shipyard village in Yeongdo where the artist grew up. Another work that felt important in the context of labor—and especially women’s labor—was Choi Ho Chul’s painting depicting Kim Jinsook’s sit-in protest atop a giant shipyard crane in 2011. Kim was actually symbolically reinstated to her position just this year, 37 years after being dismissed from her job with Hanjin Heavy Industries for her role as a union organizer. Artists like Kang Tae Hun, Oh Suk Kuhn, and Gim Ikhyun quickly came to mind in relation to Busan’s industry and history, as did Lee In-Mi for urban ecosystems.
Before long, we had a solid lineup of Korean and Busan-based artists. But even though this exhibition takes Busan as its point of departure, it was never our intent to center any sort of regionalism or nationalism. Far from it. Our intent was to recover that which has been omitted by the existing languages we have for describing this place we call Busan, and elicit a reexamination of the city’s multifaceted identity and stories. At the same time, it was also important for us to show that Busan’s situation is not unique to Busan alone, but rather a touchstone for similar historical situations faced by other regions and countries. Narrowing the context to just one specific situation and place can produce a somewhat exclusionary effect, after all. So we conducted a series of research trips, and the works I encountered abroad became the basis for the lineup of international artists.
In retrospect, we didn’t really have specific artists making up the core of our exhibition; rather, the four subthemes guided our research, and each new work we brought in expanded the map of connections I was building in my mind, contributing to the overall vision.
ART iT: How did you attempt to strike a balance between individual artworks and the atmospheric venues that you employed, such as Pier 1 of Busan Port?
HK: Since 2018, each edition of the Busan Biennale has made a point of finding and using new spaces across the city to complement the main venue, the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan. Last year, in the process of scouting these other sites, we learned that an empty warehouse at Pier 1 of Busan Port was available for use. Since the construction of a major new port in the west of the city in 2006, Busan has seen many of its now-defunct docks get repurposed for redevelopment, but Pier 1 has been left largely untouched thanks to its historical significance as Busan’s first port; many citizens have called for stakeholders to prioritize deliberation and discussion over quick action. In fact, all development there is currently suspended until a consensus can be reached about how best to preserve and utilize the space.
The warehouse at Pier 1 is a large space of about 4000 square meters, and transforming it into an exhibition hall was indeed quite a challenge. Not only had it never been used as an exhibition hall before, it was literally just a warehouse—and one in pretty rough shape at that, requiring significant repairs, because it hadn’t been used in some time. Still, after much deliberation, I decided we had to use it. The history of the location itself was just so perfect for an exhibition that set out from modern-day Busan, a city shaped by migration and open ports. I was also thinking about differences in scale and how dynamic shifts between artworks and spaces might come together into a visualization of the “wave” in the exhibition title. This is why I chose spaces with such different scales and original functions, from a private home to a museum to a warehouse. The warehouse at Pier 1 was just standing empty, so starting from my initial visit in December 2021 I was in and out of there constantly, just trying to get used to the scale of the space. To preserve the singularity of the wide, completely open expanse—and to keep costs down—we chose not to use partitions and simply clustered the works throughout the space, almost like an archipelago.
When I put together an exhibition I enjoy spending time in the space during the installation process, as I can see for myself how different compositions might come together within a viewer’s gaze. Pier 1 felt particularly interesting in this respect because the departure from the norm (that is, a traditional museum with lots of compartmentalized spaces) meant we could try out a new display syntax. Due to the size of the space, I thought it would be more effective to deploy fewer works in larger chunks, rather than packing it with a lot of smaller pieces. Artists Hyun Nahm, Chung Heemin, and Kim Jooyoung all stepped up to the challenge of creating significantly larger pieces than they usually do, and we projected Hira Nabi’s video (which depicts scenes of the Gadani shipbreaking yards in Pakistan) at such a large scale that it could be seen from anywhere in the space. Nabi’s piece felt especially right for this exhibition, both because of the importance of the shipbuilding industry to the Busan/Yeongnam region, and because Gadani is a place where working conditions are still very much a contested issue. Hwayeon Nam’s discrete piles of objects, such as piles of branches, and Song Min Jung’s choice to install a small smartphone work at the end of a large wood deck that extended inward from the entrance are two more examples of works that were responsive to the size and context of the space.
Above: Hira Nabi – All That Perishes at the Edge of Land (2019), single-channel video, sound, color, 30 min. 33 sec., video still. Courtesy the artist. Below: Hsu Chia-Wei – Samurai and Deer (2019), two-channel video, 8 min. 50 sec. Installation view, the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan, 2022. ⓒ Sang-tae Kim.
ART iT: I was struck by the number of works by artists dealing with Japan and the legacy of the former Japanese empire, from Korean artists Gim Ikhyun and Song Min Jung to Taiwanese artist Hsu Chia-Wei, Malaysian artist Au Sow Yee, and Japanese artist Yusuke Kamata, who researches Japanese houses in other countries. Did you see this as a constitutive theme of the exhibition or was it more of a chance occurrence? How do you see such artworks contributing to broader discussions of decolonization in the Asia Pacific?
HK: Busan is the closest city in Korea to Japan. Regional trade with Japan through the trading post of Waegwan (literally, “Japanese dwelling”) can be traced back to the Joseon Dynasty, and the Treaty of Ganghwa and opening of the port in 1876 had a decisive impact on shaping the city itself. Relations with Japan, which intensified after the port opening, in turn played a critical role in Busan’s formation. It is impossible to talk about postmodern Busan without discussing the Japanese occupation, which lasted from 1910 to the conclusion of World War II, and in fact several artists in this year’s Biennale work with topoi that reflect the modernization and urban transformation that took place during the occupation, from railways to ports, factories, and submarine cables. This period of upheaval also links directly to the international situation at the time. This also established a context for introducing the works by Hsu Chia-Wei, Au Sow Yee, and Yusuke Kamata.
Now in their 30s, both Gim Ikhyun and Song Min Jung spent their formative years in Busan in the early 1990s. Busan is close enough to Japan that back then, when Japanese media was still essentially banned in Korea, you could even tune in to some Japanese radio stations—and it was generally easier to come in contact with Japanese culture (compared to elsewhere in the country). Indeed, it was quite common to have a family member or two who made frequent trips back and forth to Japan. Exploring his natural interest in the relationships between photography, modern technology, and light—especially as embodied in lighthouses and railroads—Gim Ikhyun overcame the hurdle of pandemic travel restrictions between the two countries by collaborating with Japanese photographer Hana Yamamoto to produce a video for the Biennale. Song Min Jung, meanwhile, borrowed the conventions of the mystery genre to create a Japanese-language narrative featuring two unidentified speakers, presented through smartphones.
As the exhibition came together, we came up with a kind of glossary of 30 terms drawn from the exhibition planning process and from works by various artists, which we posted to the website under the heading “Buoys.” Of these terms, Enemy’s House (referring to assets and properties that were owned by the Japanese colonial administration and then reverted to Korean ownership following the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948), Buyonghoe (an association for Japanese women who moved to Korea after marrying Korean men during the Japanese occupation era), Korea Strait/Genkai Sea, Port Opening, and Daemado (Tsushima) are among those that directly reference Japan. Meanwhile, Hsu Chia-Wei’s multichannel video work Samurai and Deer (2019) explores 17th-century trade between Japan and Southeast Asia, which was mediated by the Dutch East India Company, and Au Sow Yee’s multimedia installation The Extreme Journey of Perwira and the Calm Sea: In 3 Acts (2019–22) traces the fictionalization of the true story of Yutaka Tani, a Japanese agent who lived in colonial Malaysia in the early 20th century. I think it is really important to compare and connect Busan’s transformation during Japanese colonization to the situations of other Asian regions at the time, as well as before and after, because doing so can help us better understand our world today and how contemporary Asia came about—which in turn improves our ability to communicate with one another.
ART iT: Some of the strongest works in “We, on the Rising Wave” were by artists of the Korean diaspora, from New York–based Choong Sup Lim to Kazakh artist Alexander Ugay and Korean-Dutch former adoptee Sara Sejin Chang (Sara van der Heide). Is the diaspora still an important part of public consciousness in South Korea, or is it something that requires active revisiting for younger generations?
HK: I believe stories of the diaspora are gradually being forgotten in Korean society. One particularly striking example is the case of third-generation descendants of Korean immigrants to Central Asia. Although in recent years many people from these communities have returned to Korea as members of the Korean diaspora, the local society treats them as if they are complete foreigners. This exhibition brings up stories of migration and diaspora to remind us that Busan was a city where immigrants from different regions all coexisted through the late 19th century, the Korean War, and industrialization; it is a call to defend and maintain that spirit of openness and inclusion. Busan was once so progressive that it was where the 1979 Busan Masan Democratic Uprising against the military dictatorship took place, but now I’m worried that it is slowly becoming more and more conservative. Even as the population of Busan gradually shrinks, the population influx from abroad is actually increasing—and a great many of these new residents are migrant laborers, coming to work on fishing crews. I hope people receive the message, albeit indirectly, that these migrants need to be embraced.
Gim Ikhyun – Into the Light (2022), single-channel video, rear projection, sound, 25 min. installation view, the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan, 2022. ⓒ Sang-tae Kim.
ART iT: As reflected in the current popularity of the performance lecture as a genre, art has taken a didactic turn in recent years, with works drawing on documentary methods to inform viewers about everything from historic events to current social issues. At the same time, international art festivals, often backed by substantial government funding, have traditionally been considered to serve a didactic function in introducing local audiences to contemporary art and showing them how to engage with it. How did you seek to negotiate the balance between aesthetics and didactics in putting together your exhibition? How do you see Busan Biennale 2022 speaking to local audiences?
HK: Well, in my experience, works based on fact and real-world research tend to be received as the most informative. Two examples of this are Francisco Camacho Herrera’s project connecting Busan’s shoemaking industry to rubber production in Southeast Asia and the Amazon and Hira Nabi’s video about shipbreaking labor in Pakistan. This exhibition also includes several works by active documentary filmmakers based in Busan. Overall, the specificity of the exhibition’s themes is reflected in the clarity of the messages and facts in the stories the works tell. At the same time, of course, the artists employ wildly divergent formal methodologies to weave together these stories and facts, making it interesting to observe which messages are best revealed and emphasized by which forms. For example, visitors were very enthusiastic about Eoghan Ryan’s video installation Doggerel (2022), which uses rhythmic sound and visuals to present a critique of contemporary European society, as well as Aki Sakamoto’s video lecture-performance Movie: Yield Point (2017). Both works are structured around informational utterances that are rich with implication and which become complex signifiers in their own right.
As you noted, biennales are generally able to reach a wider, more general audience than most exhibitions [this year’s Busan Biennale recorded some 138,000 visitors by the exhibition’s closing], and so we naturally found ourselves considering how best to approach diverse audiences with different levels of familiarity with contemporary art. It was my particular hope that the exhibition would present an opportunity for locals to draw connections to their own experiences and memories of the city and perhaps even rediscover the city in some new and significant way. Although ultimately it is the works themselves that largely determine how this process gets mediated, it occurred to me that the physical and sensory experience of the exhibition as a whole can also bear some of the load. The connections between works—in terms of both meaning and form—the rhythms we feel in the shifts between images and other mediums, differences in scale between works and also between spaces—I began to wonder whether all this could come together in a larger rhythm of exhibition viewing to create a certain kind of emotional experience. I also considered the spaces and trajectories of movement between works. With a large-scale exhibition like a biennale, it’s easy to get so overwhelmed by the sheer number of different works that you can’t even remember what you’ve seen afterward; so I wanted to leave time and space for people to breathe, and think, between one work and the next. That, more or less, was the balance I tried to strike between the aesthetic and the didactic for this exhibition.
Haeju Kim’s responses were translated from the Korean by Maya West.
Haeju Kim: Reading a Wave