Jiyoon Lee: Biennales in Korea

Since the early 1990s, there have been unparalleled changes in art policy, art infrastructure and art practice in Korea [in this document, the term ‘Korea’ refers only to South Korea, unless otherwise stated.] (Goh 2006, Lee 2006, Oh 2006, Kim, B.K. et al 2007, Youn 2007). In the years prior to 1989, exposure of Korean artists outside Korea was mostly limited to few international art festivals such as Sao Paolo Biennale, and exhibitions next to the Italian Pavilion during Venice Biennales. For the government intent on economic development and international recognition, these participations in international exhibitions were seen only as a means to increase national exposure. Thus, in many cases those participating in the international art exhibitions were chosen not by merit, but more on the pecking order, giving the artists an opportunity of rare foreign travel. Of course, there were exceptions to this, such as Paik Nam June and Kim Hwan Ki, but these were exceptional cases, especially in the light that foreign travel for Korean citizens was strictly controlled.

This however changed in early 1990s. The relative affluence made possible by economic development and the right of freedom of travel granted to citizens in 1989 allowed a large number Korean artists to go to other countries in the West for further education. It should be remembered that for many of these young artists who were being educated in a curriculum constrained by detached classical/modern art aesthetics/history/practice, the freedom of travel was like opening of a floodgate, giving the artists access to cutting-edge avant-garde art.

One other point to note is that prior to 1990s, most of the artists who were allowed to travel to foreign countries were limited by their ability to pay for tuition and living expenses, and this meant they were mostly limited to France and Germany where the tuition and living expenses were subsidised by the government, even for non-national students. However, improvement of economic circumstances meant that they could and did begin to study and work in UK and USA, and this was an important factor for allowing Korean artists in increasing and improving their scope and understanding of the contemporary art trend and discourses in the global art scene.

The event which provided a key turning point was the opening of touring version of Whitney Biennale at Korean National Contemporary Art Museum in 1993. It was Paik Name June who made this possible by organising the fundraising as well as acting as a facilitator with New York Whitney Biennale which made this tour possible. His vision was to bring cutting-edge contemporary art to Korea, giving the Korean public, as well as Korean art scene, an opportunity to view the art as it is happening in the global scene. This had an impact that can not be underestimated, galvanising the artists and government bodies alike to put further fundings and efforts to catch-up, as well as take part, in the global art scene.

The Korean government was willing to spend, as well as to invite foreign talents, to do this. Bonito Oliva, the artistic director of the 45th Venice Biennale, was invited to produce the 1993 Daejoen Expo Art Show, followed by the opening of the Korean Pavilion in the 46th Venice Biennale in 1995. In the same year, the 1st Gwangju Biennale opened. It should be noted that although there have been other Biennale/Triennale events in East Asia prior to this e.g..Tokyo & Osaka, Gwangu Biennale was the first event of its kind in that region in that it aimed to be an international mega-event for contemporary art . By 2007, there have been 7 editions of Gwangju Biennale, with average budget of approx USD 12 million. Another major event, PICAF (Pusan International Contemporary Art Fair) opened in 1998, which later changed its name to Busan Biennale and retrospectively renamed the past PICAF events. By 2007, there have been 5 editions of Busan Biennale.

The experimental nature of Gwangju and Busan Biennales had an important influence in the development of Korean contemporary art. Whilst events such as Tokyo Biennale (last edition in 1990) and Fukuoka Triennale(1990-2001, mainly focused on paintings, prints and sculpture) were organised for the benefits of artists of their own country, Gwangju (and later, Busan) Biennale began as a cutting-edge international contemporary art event. Past commissioners and curators include Rene Bloch, Harald Szeeman, Kerry Brougher, Charles Esher, Rosa Martinez and Hou Hanru. Through the invitation and participation of these star-curators, as well as other art professionals, international awareness of Korean contemporary art began to grow. Another important aspect is that through these events Korean contemporary art was able to escape from the West-centric Orientalist view, instead allowing the artists to tackle the social and political issues arising from changes and globalisation. Some of these works and issues may seem dated now, but it should be noted that presentations of these works in numerous international Biennales influenced many contemporary artists.

The first edition of Gwangju Biennale can arguably be said to be the first new large-scale contemporary art Biennale of the post-1989 era. With 1.6million attendees, this event holds the attendance record for a Biennale events in the 1990s (compare this with approx 0.9 million for 51st Venice Biennale held in 2005) In fact, it can be said to be the only contemporary art biennale event in East Asia until the late 1990s. With an average budget of over USD 12M and over 80 participating artists, it is also one of the largest such events in the world.

Biennales of contemporary art inevitably have cultural and geopolitical ambitions, seeking to be internationally or nationally significant, by putting forward particular and supposedly local(Hanru 2005). Gwangju Biennale is no exception. Its earlier editions had clear political and cultural objectives, if not clear directives and methods – that of appeasement and impartation of national and international cultural prestige to the city, as well as international prestige to the country. The founding of Gwangju Biennale was also to have a historical significance, having its first edition coincide with the 50th anniversary of the founding of Korea after independence from Japan in 1945.

However, it should be noted that this was first announced in November 1994, whilst the event was to open in Sep 1995 (Kim OJ 2001, p.208). Even when provided with a large budget, the preparation time was short, and from the beginning there were frictions between the civil servants and artists based in Gwangju. The artists belonging to the traditional academic movement suddenly felt that their works and their medium were being sidelined by the more contemporary art forms, and the young artists who were developing the progressive art scene in Gwangju went against the Biennale, saying that the event was going to be a dominated by ‘junk from the West’. Thus, from the beginning, there was a split between the progressive Gwangju cultural and artistic groups and the Biennale organisation committee.

Since the Gwangu democratization movement [this refers to a popular uprising in the city of Gwangju, South Korea from May 18 to May 27, 1980. During this period, citizens rose up against Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship and took control of the city. In the course of the uprising, citizens took up arms to defend themselves, but were ultimately crushed by the South Korean army.] in 1980, there have been annual events known as ‘May Road Art Fair’, when these artists got together and prepared art shows by the road commemorating this event. These road-side art fairs were well-supported and liked by the general populace of the city and can be said to have formed the basis of the high attendee figures for the first Gwangju Biennale. This group of artists, in protest against what they felt was the misled way of setting up the Gwangju Biennale, independently set up an alternative event which in English was named Anti-Gwangju Biennale, but in Korean was known as Gwangju unification Art Fair. This event opened at the same time as the Gwangju Biennale on September 1995. With a strong sense of national identity and support from the community and artists around the country, the Anti Gwangu Biennale was not without fault but received favourable reception from the media and the general populace. Thus, two large-scale art exhibitions opened in Gwangju at virtually the same time, one being government run and supported (87 artists, both national and international) and the which was spontaneously set up and run (250 artists). It is noteworthy that these two shows, which were almost anti-thesis of each other, provided an art spectacle to the visitors of Gwangju which could be seen as better than the sum of two parts.

The first edition of Gwangju Biennale, whose theme was ‘Beyond the Borders’, opened on 20th September 1995 for a period of 2 months under the artistic direction of Lee Yong Woo. Armed with the large budget and an army of civil servants, the event could be seen as a mixed success. It could be seen as a success just by the fact that it opened under such a tight time constraint. It also had an attendance of more than 1.6 million. However, it should be noted that most of the attendees were Korean – the percentage of international attendees was low. The attendance figure was bumped up by buses arriving from main cities carrying school children – in fact, it was no exaggeration to say that for many attendees, the reason for coming to the Biennale was not for the love or appreciation of art, but more of national pride that Korea now had their own large-scale international contemporary art fair.

The response from the visitors was mixed. Expecting comfortable, conventional and classical art, the audience was faced with unfamiliar avant-garde and experimental contemporary visual art in various forms of installation, and performances. They were confused, feeling cheated and lost. In fact, the gap between the audience ability to understand and appreciate art, and that of the presented art was so large that the 1st edition of Gwangju Biennale was accused of alienating the audience, and the organizing committee was accused of being elitist and pro-western, turning their back towards art-for-the-people (Kim OJ 2001, p.19).

The second Gwangju Biennale (1997) opened in the shadow of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. The change of the political climate meant that instead of being driven by civil servants, this edition of Biennale had to engage more directly with the ‘artists’ on the Korean art scene.[ Kim Young Sam, the first non-military President in more than 30 years, was elected in 1993. He strove to remove the authoritarian ‘army’ culture which was prevalent in the government and civil service.] Ironically, the director of the first Anti-Kwangju Biennale was chosen as the chief secretary for the 2nd Gwangju Biennale, and the Anti-Gwangju Biennale became part of the Gwangju Biennale. Thus, what was Anti- became Pro- Biennale, and the 2nd Gwangju Biennale became a more people-engaging, as well as striving to strike a right balance between international and national artists.[The theme of the 2nd Gwangju Biennale (1997) was ‘Unmapping the Earth’] Directed by Lee Young Chul, one of the highlights of the Biennale was the show entitled ‘Speed’, curated by Harald Szeeman. It is interesting to note that when Harald Szeem an directed the 48th (1999) and 49th (2001) Venice Biennale, he brought a larger representation of artists from Asia and Eastern Europe.

The founding of the Gwangju Biennale, with its large financial and manpower support from the government, naturally awakened a sense of envy, as well as the sense of being side-lined, especially in the regions where the international art exhibitions and art fairs were being organized and held with minimal support from the government. One such city was Busan, which lies approximately 280km east of Gwangju. Although geologically quite close, city of Busan, and the surrounding Kyung Sang-Do area was relatively more developed and affluent than Gwangju, and has held international art festivals for some time. Privately funded and organized by Busan Art Association, Busan Youth Biennale held its 7th edition open in July 1994. Presented works included video, installation, performance, with invited artists from countries such as France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Russia, Taiwan and USA. This art exhibition was thus aimed to be cutting edge, with a clear focus on experimental, education and youth.

The perceived success of Gwangju Biennale prompted the Busan Art Association to organize an international art exhibition which, if not equal in size, at least equal in prestige, discourse and impact in the international art scene. Three separate art festivals, i.e. Contemporary Art Exhibition, Sea Art Festival and Busan Sculpture Project were rolled into one, and resultant festival was renamed as PICAF i.e. Pusan International Contemporary Art Festival. The aim was to, along with expounding on the themes chosen for that particular festival, to include the city of Busan into the ongoing theme such that the city itself, in terms of its geo-political and geographical identity.

The first edition of PICAF opened in Nov 1998, its theme being ‘Light on the New Millennium – Wind from Extreme Orient’. The ambition of the organising committee in making the PICAF to be of importance in academic discourse was evident by the inclusion of the organisation of Academic Seminars. The second edition of PICAF (2000) edition was more noteworthy as the Art Director Lee Young Chul was joined by Rosa Martinez [Then co-curator of Manifesta 1 (1996), Curator of 3rd Intl SITE Santa Fe Biennial (1999), curator of 4th EVA 2000 Biennial (Limerich, Ireland)], Hou Hanru [Curator of Shanghai Biennale 2000, Cities on the Move (1997)] and Tom Van Bleat, who joined the team as co-curators. In addition to the normal three exhibition shows, Contemporary Art Market and Academic Seminars were included in the mix. Although in the fringe (and still considered to be in the fringe), the exhibition focused on artists under 40, and included lively Q&A sessions in seminars, giving rise to interesting discourses. It should be remembered that Hou Hanru’s article ‘Towards a New Locality’ which was reprinted in Yu(2002) and Vandelinden & Filipovic (2005), was originally presented and printed in the 2000 PICAF Seminar Catalogue. The total budget was approx USD 1.2M, of which USD 600K was provided by the City of Busan by public funding. The rest was provided by commercial support and other means. The total expenditure was 10% of Gwangju Biennale, showing the discrepancy between the financial support for Gwangju Biennale compare to that in Busan.

In 2002, PICAF was renamed as the 3rd Busan Biennale, with the former PICAF editions being renamed as Busan Biennale retrospectively. Removing the academic seminar and art market of the show and focusing more on the presentation of contemporary show, each exhibition had an indigenous director, with invited commissioners from who would provide knowledge and support for selecting artists. [Contemporary Art Exhibition : Artistic Director was Kim Airyung, Commissioners: Kim Levin (USA), Catherine Francblin (France) & Akira Tatehata(Japan). Sea Art Festival: Artistic Director was Kim, Kwang-Woo, Commissoner: Yeon In-Mo (Korea), Busan Sculpture Project (Artistic Director Song, Keun Bae), Commissoner: Heinz Hermann Jurczek] The Busan Biennale still hung on to the tradition of focusing on young artists, with Contemporary Art Exhibition presenting works by artists who were mostly under 40. However, this unwritten rule was being relaxed on the Sea exhibition and Busan Sculpture project.

Another noteworthy event in Korea is the Seoul Media Art Biennale. Originally planned as annual event and named Media City Seoul, the event was founded in 2000, with special focus on media art through various channels such as mobile phones and large outdoor screens. Making use of the diverse media portals available in the city of Seoul, this event, whose 5th edition opened to the public in Sep 2008, introduced various international media to the general public. Seoul Media Art Biennale is very much international in flavour in that whilst the main creative director is Korea, curators were all foreign.

There are other Biennale events in Korea such as Taegu Photo Biennale and Eechun Ceramic Biennale, and there are other large scale events which are currently in the planning stage. However, this is more of a result of cultural development policy since the de-centralization of the Capital management policy launched. Also it provided substantial funding to allow an almost carte-blanche development of regional culture scene. This policy, which is now more than ten years old, is in a need of urgent revision, as the mission statements or visions which may have been applicable ten years ago is certainly not applicable now.

The current administration is in fact in the process of reviewing the art policy and the art support infrastructure, with focus on removing the reliance of civil service and more on art professionals in terms of running these events, as well attempting to impose a more of a long term view. It is also interesting to note that the funding for these art events is to remain the similar amount as before, but the process and directions by which the funding would be awarded is expected to change drastically, although the details are currently not known.

Although provided with strong government and public support, Gwangju, Busan and Seoul Biennales had mixed successes over the years. These events are now established as major contemporary art events in East Asia, attracting attracts international attention, but there have been criticisms that these events, especially the Gwangju Biennale, absorbed disproportionately large percentage of the cultural fund of Korea, without discernible impact of Korean contemporary art in the world art scene. Also, some critics (Lee YW 2006, Morgan 2006) have stated that this event-based art exhibitions have negative aspects in the development of the contemporary art scene in Korea, as the art infrastructure and art scene were working in the year of work – year of no work cycle, with pressure to come up with new ideas every other year. Also, there have been criticism that this event-based structure, where the people involved in them were replaced by events, the lessons learnt were not properly transferred to the next team, resulting in same organizational, operational errors being committed. Also, Gwangju Biennale’s position as the foremost periodic art fair in East Asia is coming into question as more and more Biennales are coming into forefront, especially those in China and Japan. We are entering a new period of biennales, where both Gwangju and Busan biennales have to re-discover and re-print their identities, both in national and international art scene.

The other important development in the Korean contemporary art scene which we cannot ignore is the development of alternative space. These could almost be said to be an anti-theses of Biennales, in that they run on shoe-string budget, with more focus on art-production (compared to art-showing by Biennales). They developed almost out of necessity, as Biennales and other large-scale events developed under the Regional Culture development policy siphoned off the majority of cultural budget, leaving a relatively small amount for local artists in institutions for use in art production and exhibitions. The average government funding for local artists or alternative space owners for purpose of art production or exhibition is about UDS 5000 per annum, and it would be up to the artists or alternative space directors to procure the remaining budget by whatever means possible. At the same time, it was the alternative spaces, and their director/ owners who provided the opportunities and impetus for young artists in terms of art production, discourse and exhibition. It is with little exaggeration that we can say that these alternative spaces were the art factories of Korea for the last ten years. Most noteworthy of these are Ssamzie (est. 1992, also provides residency for artists), LOOP (est. 1998 run by Suh Jin Suk, known for providing exhibition for artists who came back from international education as well setting up a media art archive), POOL (run by Park Chan Kyung, with more emphasis on political-socially orientated art) and Sarubia café space.

The activities of these large scale events and small-scale hotbeds, the Korean contemporary artists became aware of the context, as well as their place in the international art scene, and also provided the impetus for them to further activities in the last ten years.
Jiyoon Lee is an independent curator, writer and advisor specialising in contemporary arts.

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