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Adam Patterson speaks to Jessica Taylor about Sensational Bodies

Adam Patterson speaks to Jessica Taylor about Sensational Bodies

ICF Head of Programmes Jessica Taylor interviewed artist Adam Patterson about his practice and the work he presented in the project Sensational Bodies, a performance and film programme curated by Taylor and Adelaide Bannerman for the 2018 Jerwood Staging Series

Sensational Bodies presented the work of two artists who consider expanded ways of seeing and speaking beyond the historicised or everyday through performance. In his practice Adam Patterson explores strategies of resistance to particular neo-colonial structures, working to subvert perceptions and deconstruct tropes associated with the post-colonial Caribbean. Interested in the fragility and vulnerability of human existence, Rubiane Maia examines the synergies and relationships between bodies, objects and nature.

Responding to particular constructions of masculinity, Adam Patterson presented a new performance for Sensational Bodies entitled Bikkel. Its namesake referring to the Dutch word for a man with an inauthentic strength or toughness, Bikkel adopts and re-imagines the motif of the sea urchin, depicting the spiked marine animal not as hard, brittle and defensive but as elastic and porous, with the capacity to be held and squeezed. Patterson’s approach to masculinity in this formation of Bikkel is inspired by Audre Lorde’s turn to love and softness as a means of survival and a tool of resistance against social expectations of gender.

Jessica Taylor: Can you speak a bit about the motivations behind the character of Bikkel?

Adam Patterson: Only for the past year have I been opened to the writings and thoughts of Audre Lorde. Lorde’s criticism of hardness and welcoming of softness, as these notions relate to opposing characteristics of masculinity and femininity respectively, really pushed me to reconsider certain approaches I have previously undertaken in my work which, for me, are now questionable and thus subject to scrutiny, reflection and revision. It led me to consider my own masculinity and the various social sources of masculinity that may have unconsciously shaped me between my upbringing in Barbados and my time of study and living in both London and Rotterdam. There is also the consideration that some of these social conditionings have failed me or that I’ve failed them by not meeting certain standards of masculinity and manhood. Bikkel comes from this place of expectation of masculinity and failing to perform certain expectations, alongside the conflict that comes from such conditions, and how this may or may not be reconciled.

J: There are several visual and behavioral elements that you bring together to form Bikkel – through costume, gesture, movement and script. Can you elaborate a bit on how those elements came together?

A: In his initial conceptualization, Bikkel stems from the types of fashion I’ve noticed in men of both London and Rotterdam. His silhouette borrows from tracksuits, bomber jackets and hoodies. There is a rich culture encoded in how these types of fashion and the brands they come in appeal to particular values and merits of masculinity, male prosperity, power and potency. Uninterested in criticizing it, what I appreciate most about it is its ideological conflict; that such soft and comfy clothes are also athletic wear that suggest physical or muscular exertion but also metaphorically refer to a particular masculine ideal. In essence, they are clothes that signify a male hardness or power but are soft and comforting in their physical nature. The use of script is important to me as it allows a moment for the character to live through speaking, through confession and memoir. It’s usually a conflicted reflection or explanation, which isn’t always too reliable or coherent as a piece of information. The script, the spoken word, the voice – these are tools to allow the character to reflect on itself and the usually twisted and unconsented circumstances of its coming into being. It’s like a self-obituary or exorcism or libation, whereby the character is confronted with the reflection of itself, trying to find rest in reconciliation in the difficulty of its reasoning, its being, its ideological heritage and inheritance.

J: How does the motif of the sea urchin – which you have incorporated into the character of Bikkel – function as a means of talking about notions of masculinity?

A: I have used the sea urchin as a tropical image of a beauty that is seductive and therefore dangerous; beautiful to look at, harmful to the touch. In its anatomy, it is a disinterested creature, facing the ground in contemplation, raising a host of thorns to protect itself from external forces. I have used it as an image resisting touristic and consumptive desires against my body, an image that defies a passive paradisiacal nature, a militarized paradise, a paradise in resistance. Bikkel’s spiked urchin face hopes to draw on this image of all the face’s pores, mouths and orifices closing and raising spikes – to suggest a state of being inaccessible, unapproachable, distanced, unable to speak or be spoken to, brittle, hard, closed, non-relational, which I think are all qualities of toxic forms of masculinity.

J: Bikkel is responsive to your use of the sea urchin in previous work as rigid and unimpressionable, how is the shift to a porous and more open way of addressing ideas of masculinity evident in the Bikkel performance informed by the writings of Audre Lorde?

A: In the course of the script, Bikkel remarks on the softening of his spikes. It’s uncertain whether he will open fully but his brittle bony spikes melt to sponge and this porosity suggests a newfound openness. Reflecting on my previous work with sea urchin imagery, I fear the work is too tense and brittle, on the verge of shatter, in constantly resisting, forming itself in resistance. The softening, the loosening, contraction and lax in Bikkel’s spikes is a return towards a relational posture, materiality and approach. Bikkel’s mask is a soft stuffed mask, capable of being squeezed and holding its form in reflex. It’s this kind of reflex which allows for an indestructible vulnerability. Audre Lorde has indeed opened me to the ideas of finding power in softness and vulnerability, but it’s not about being without guard. We can still protect ourselves while actualizing more relational behaviors in ourselves.

J: You reference a variation of a line from her essay ‘Man Child’ at the very end of the Bikkel script – “If I cannot love and resist at the same time, I will probably not survive.” We’ve spoken above about love or softening as a form of survival –Do you think it is fair to say that enacting the relational behaviours that you mention above, both within ourselves and with others, can be a form of resistance to the generalizing or reductive forces at work in society in regards to gender and beyond?

A: Although Lorde, in that essay, is specifically speaking about her son, that excerpt refers to both her children. In surrendering my confidence as a “grown man,” it allows me the space to think of myself as a boy who’s still learning about myself and trying to find healthier ways of coming into myself and coming into the world. It’s important to acknowledge that you don’t know everything and that you could always know and do better. For me, I want to pay less attention to this practice of “resistance” and try and open myself to alternative ways of seeing, interacting and relating. The excerpt asks something which I would’ve once considered impossible and without sense – to resist and love, to resist and be open at the same time. It demands a revision of what it means to be both “resistant” and “vulnerable”. I still don’t entirely understand how to manifest that but that shouldn’t stop me or anyone else from trying. In this task of direct “resistance” whereby I close myself off not only to the evils of this world but everything else, where I am solely defined by this tension, this resistance, I deny myself the opportunity of receiving and being open to the potential of alternative worlds of relation.

J: You bring certain visualisations of masculinity across both the Dutch and the Caribbean contexts into relation with one another in Bikkel through your movements, language and costume, as well as through subtleties like the music playing from within your pocket. Do you consider the complexity of the character as a form of resistance?

A: No, the complexity of sources that converge within Bikkel informs his own sense of conflict. What needs to be considered is that these characters emerge from certain social conditions that would have shaped them without conscience or consent. If you are impressionable then your world will shape you and you will trust that it shapes you “properly”. Then, when you’re confronted with the realization that a lot of what has made you, what has conditioned you, what you have learned, is suspicious, groundless, damaging or simply questionable, you are led to a crisis of character and a kind of disenfranchisement with the world that has gradually made you. For Bikkel, specifically, it is this reckoning with this given image, these given expectations of masculinity, and the crisis of trying to unlearn this given shape, this given texture of roughness and hardness. The “resistance” per se is the crisis of this realization, and the swell of conflict responding to this mischaracterization; the realization that your world has betrayed you and your image.  

J: Is there another context that you would be particularly interested in performing Bikkel?

A: The next step for Bikkel (which was actually the original idea but was delayed) is to walk him through Zuidplein in Rotterdam. It is where a shopping center, bus station and metro station converge in the South. When it’s busy, you can see a lot of guys dressed in all varieties, designs, colours and styles of tracksuits, bomber jackets, sweaters and hoodies, posed around. Though some are in transit, the space does seem to function as a meeting point where these style icons can collide and compete in this public posing off. I think Bikkel would enjoy this space. 

J: You also screened a film during the event, Lookalook, which captured a performance held in Barbados earlier in the year. Lookalook calls out the violence that is elicited when a group of viewers are unable to name or understand something that they are looking at. Have you experienced a difference between the film being seen in Barbados versus the UK?

A: Not at Jerwood Space but the most vitriolic response I received when we screened the film during LADA screens in August was someone expressing their frustration in not knowing where Lookalook was performed or filmed, until Barbados eventually got mentioned. They were confident that my film and its script were not showing an accurate picture of Barbados, though they had admittedly never visited. Or, rather, the image I was posing did not agree with their expectations and preconceptions of Barbados and the wider Caribbean region. The fact that they took that as a point of frustration and not a point of transition, unlearning and revision concerns me but maybe I’m asking for too much. I’ve previously not seen the sense in performing Lookalook in London, as people avoid eye contact so desperately, but perhaps it would call for a new mythology of the character, getting Londoners to revisit a lost time when they used to look each other in the eye.

About the artist:
Adam Patterson is a Barbadian visual artist and writer based in Barbados and the Netherlands. He completed his BA (Hons) Fine Art at Central Saint Martina, London, in 2017. His work emerges from imagining strategies of resistance in the face of neo-colonial encounters and desires that affect Barbados and the Caribbean region. His work has been exhibited at Tate Exchange at Tate Modern, London and he participated in “Sonic Soundings / Venice Trajectories,” a sound art project coordinated with the Diaspora Pavilion presented by ICF during the 57th Venice Biennale. He has contributed to panel presentations at the “Caribbean Diasporic Dialogues” conferences at Goldsmiths University and the British Library. He has written for Fresh Milk Arts Platform, ARC Magazine and Sugarcane Magazine. He is currently an artist in residence in Caribbean Linked at Ateliers ’89, Aruba.

Images: Adam Patterson, Bikkel (2018), Performance for Sensational Bodies, Jerwood Space, London. © Hydar Dewachi

 

Rubiane Maia speaks to Adelaide Bannerman about Sensational Bodies

Rubiane Maia speaks to Adelaide Bannerman about Sensational Bodies

Adelaide Bannerman interviewed artist Rubiane Maia about her practice and the work she presented in the project Sensational Bodies, a performance and film programme curated by Taylor and Adelaide Bannerman for the 2018 Jerwood Staging Series

Sensational Bodies presented the work of two artists who consider expanded ways of seeing and speaking beyond the historicised or everyday through performance. In his practice Adam Patterson explores strategies of resistance to particular neo-colonial structures, working to subvert perceptions and deconstruct tropes associated with the post-colonial Caribbean. Interested in the fragility and vulnerability of human existence, Rubiane Maia examines the synergies and relationships between bodies, objects and nature.

This voice cuts me off, removing my feet from their place – post-performance movement of thought

Preceded in 2017 by the performance for camera, Stones across the Ocean: Northern Hemisphere  (part 1) (digital vídeo 10 mins looped), This voice cuts me off, removing my feet from their place (2018) is the second work realised by Rubiane Maia in the UK. It is consciously minimal in its presentation of the mulitiplicious dislocations and familiiarities that script one’s personal relationships, movements and spaces taken up in the world.

Drafted intermittently between September and October 2018, much like its live counterpart, the following  presents a conversation between Maia and myself around the ideas, development, choices and disclosure of the work, observing and sharing how it felt as a durational act, and how it sounded in translation. We would like to give our heartfelt thanks to Manuel Vason and his support during our exchanges.

Adelaide Bannerman:

At an early stage in the development of the work and during our conversations you created a space to incorporate other bodies, a tree, and another human being. Can you perhaps talk about what led you towards deciding upon these features of the work?

Rubiane Maia:

The first element that was created in this work was the text. I started writing in January this year. After the birth of my son I didn’t have time to devote myself to anything other than motherhood, but I felt a deep need to express other urgencies. So I had to come up with a strategy that would allow me to do so. I then began to use the time he was sleeping to sit in front of the computer and write. I made a promise to myself to write ‘anything’ of any time, be it present, past or future without thinking of telling a linear story. The text ended up loose and fragmented. Soon, I realised that this process was becoming extremely cathartic.

For the performance I stitched different fragments of what I had written into a single text with the aim of creating a dialogue with an audience. For the first time I then re-read parts of these texts. At this point it became clear that what interested me was not a desire to affirm a self-identity or a personal diary, but to give space to a pulsating “becoming-voice”, one that was alive and vibrant. The willingness and opportunity to work together with a collaborator who could read the text as part of the action came soon after, so I invited you, Adelaide. For me, this other body in the performance becomes a temporary incarnation of this voice – a kind of spiritual channeling. Also, since I do not speak English very well, it was a perfect solution as it was important that the public could access the text fluently and accurately.

I believe the plant represents the poetic body of the performance. It is the strongest visual and symbolic element. The text speaks substantially about the feet and I wanted to work with roots so as to create a parallel between those two supporting elements. I chose to do the transplantation of the plant in an unusual way, because I wanted to use the same vase, but replacing the old earth with a new one; a procedure that is inevitably traumatic for the plant. But I tried to do everything very delicately and slowly, because the roots are a very strong part of the plant, but at the same time, extremely fragile. I have a lot of interest in plants, and this is not my first performance with ‘bodies-plants’. I believe that a kind of intuitive and silent communication between plants and people is possible. In this case, I chose a Ficus lyrata, a plant native of western Africa, a continent that is part of my history as a black woman descended from African slaves born in a colonised country. So I think ‘we’ somehow share aspects of that ancestral memory.

AB:

Our shared connectedness to Ficus Lyrata (the tree) became very strong. In fact, I found it amusing that I was over-identifying with her.  Your invitation to narrate from the other side of the wall between us was very welcome in that it enabled me to draw psychically from a small ensemble of thoughts, personal therapeutic actions, and texts, specifically Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider in particular ‘The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action’, Mlanden Dolar’s, A Voice and Nothing More, the chapter ‘The “Physics” of the Voice’(I’m forever enamored with his re-telling of Pythagoras’ pedagogical methodology to teach from behind a curtain so that his students would attend to listening to his voice and words),  and Through Vegetal Being, co-authored by Luce Irigary and Michael Marder, which I found to be very healing during a bout of depression. These texts have become companions. They came together in my sensing of your action.

Reading your translated text fully was bewildering in the sense of how it held together and alternated between perspective and persons being addressed. The pace of my cognition in understanding how to read each sentence and paragraph shifted constantly between certainties, doubts and revelations. To read it was challenging for my voice and relatedness to each scenario. Being amplified I did wonder, what could be heard? How faithfully did the translation to English represent the nuances of your text?

RM:

It was nice for me to hear your voice and feel your physical presence on the other side of the wall. We must remember that the wall in the performance also represented a significant element of the piece – connecting bodies, however separated by different perspectives. I think the issue of the translation has to do with exactly this: a playful game of proximity and distance between the two of us; between us and the plant; between your voice and the audience. I think it is essential to make visible the trace of my being as a foreigner who comes from a Latin American country. Inevitably this is a performance charged of many questions about language, but I believe that the strength of the work stands on the aperture toward other modes of understanding and different forms of listening. At the same time it gave me the opportunity of appropriating  my right to speak. The text is purposely fragmented, has many layers and it is really difficult to absorb it from beginning to end, but I was surprised by the silence and the level of attention paid by the audience. The action created a meditative and contemplative atmosphere that encouraged each one to perform a dive into an inner connection.

I identify myself a lot with the idea you suggested: that certain texts and books have accompanied you or  are still guiding you during your life. I feel it constantly. They are part of the voices that help us denunciate, reveal, and question inspiring poetry, and so much more. This year I managed to read only two books: ‘M Train‘ by Patti Smith and ‘Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. They are both great for the sincerity and simplicity with which they deal with complex issues. I felt that ‘M Train’ influenced me a lot because I recognised myself in this person who leaves the house almost every day to sit at the same cafe, in the same table with the purpose of writing for many years, over and over. There is this subtle quality in revealing intimacy in so many things greater than us as human beings. Writing has been a strategy of personal therapy that I have encountered accidentally, as the daily exercise of writing has given me the perfect instrument to shake up very deep psychic aspects, enabling an intense updating of the perceptions that I have about my memories, especially those that mark a sense of identity. I am confronted with the countless narratives that my personal, family, professional, social, ancestral history are made of. Reviewing events, traumas, abuses, injustices, mainly caused by racial and gender issues, has been an arduous and exhausting process, sometimes emotionally unbearable, but of extreme urgency.

AB:

Lorde says,

“Each of us is here now because in one way or another we share a committment to language and to the power of language, and to the reclaiming of that language which has been made to work against us. In the transformation of silence into language and action, it is vitally necessary for each one of us to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognise her role as vital within that transformation”.

Writing is challenging. To write, speak, live authentically without censoring is a singular and collective action towards finding ourselves. Your text was deeply entrenched and reflective of the differing circumstances one encounters, and though your text was built over a period of time, it was fascinating that the fervour of it articulated itself almost as a stream of conciousness. I imagined the words guiding your fingers teasing out the roots of Ficus. How is she?

RM:

This statement is very powerful because it highlights the core of a great conflict: the non-fidelity of language and, at the same time, our implication in the breaking of silence. It’s a difficult commitment to take on because it puts us on the front line of the battles. I have reflected a lot on this idea of ​​breaking the silence, because I realise that we are living in a moment in which this disruption has become a collective urgency. I feel part of this. I feel contaminated by this need to affirm ethical and political issues that have long been invisible. The exercise of speech, writing and action makes it possible to take a position in this place of transformations. We are giving up a neutrality that never really existed, but which has always nourished the maintenance of certain privileges (which benefited only a few). It is a tremendous job to deconstruct the censorship that is embedded in our bodies, our minds, our emotions. The commitment to write every day without having a definite direction has put me in confrontation with some issues: the encounter with unexpected, dirty and perverse facts that interrupt the writing with an alarm. As a consequence, a part of me responded immediately by taking a step back.  Unintentionally the filter of politeness, civility and defence emerges by saying: this yes, that not. Writing puts us at risk, and it hurts, but it’s a pain that makes you wake up, and that helps cleansing the wounds.

I began to study the ‘Automatic Writing‘ of the surrealists, as well as the ‘Psychography’ of Allan Kardec’s spiritualism. Surrealist poets used this exercise with the intention of entering into a trance capable of subverting the conscious mind that controls and limits what is acceptable to be said or written. In Psychography there is this idea of ​​‘body-passage’: a body that opens to be crossed by a stream of energy. Both concepts interest me, because I’m just looking for strategies to access this crude, ungoverned language. I will continue, it will be a long-term job, but I want to create a kind of ‘performance book’. The idea is that each presentation will give birth to a new chapter. So, This voice cuts me off, removing my feet from their place was the first. Now, I am preparing ‘Chapter II’ with a new performance and a new text that will be presented soon in Brazil.

As for Ficus, she’s here, very close, and I can see her as I answer your questions. Ficus is a mysterious plant that I am learning to know. Her appearance has not changed much after a month, although I feel she is not comfortable yet, needing a lot of attention and care. It’s too early to gauge the impact the performance has had on her roots, but she’s still standing with bright green leaves, and is stronger than I could imagine. I’ll tell her that you send her a special and loving hello.

Sheena Rose: performance ‘Island and Monster’ Thoughts and reflections

Sheena Rose: performance ‘Island and Monster’ Thoughts and reflections

By Liz Lydiate

On the evening of 27 February 2017, the cosy and lamp-lit Academician’s Room at the Royal Academy of Art, London, was filled with people from the Caribbean, particularly Barbados, for the first UK performance event by Barbadian artist Sheena Rose: ‘Island and Monster.’

Rose materialized quietly at one side of the room, dressed in a black patterned lace-knit body suit with garlands of flowers at the shoulders. People gradually fell silent, assuming the role of audience in anticipation of performance. She started to address the room, in a very direct and personal way, talking about her own thoughts, difficulties, pain, uncertainty, dilemmas and questions. Her narrative addressed the decisions of her life – where to work; how to deal with location; identity; how to relate to her heritage; how to relate to the art world; questioning the nature and focus of her work. She explained much about both the island and the monster, delivering a very honest, revealing and provocative insight into her situation as a young female artist from the Caribbean;

Immediately this performance raised questions of conduct for the audience; how to behave when another human being is laying her soul bare, whilst engagingly but scantily dressed in carnival style? Do we look her in the eye, say ‘hello’, respond to her questions, deal with her accusations, try to help – or do we subscribe to the conventions of theatre and insert an imaginary proscenium arch between ourselves and the performer?

In the later discussion with Jessica Taylor, of organiser ICF|International Curators’ Forum, Rose cited earlier street performances she had made in Barbados, which had elicited straightforward bawdy criticisms of her approach and her underwear. Barbados is used to body-led street performance; the Academician’s Room is not. Rose is still exploring and developing her practice, using a range of media including performance, which itself has quite recently been reclaimed/rediscovered by the visual art world and is still beating the bounds of its own conventions. Rose will probably further this debate in future work and refine/develop her decisions about and management of the performer/audience interface.

In ‘Island and Monster’ she addressed the issue of the gaze in one particularly sensitive way, placing toy makers’ ‘googly eyes’ from the haberdashery counter in her triumphant crown of hair. Hair styling is huge in the Caribbean, but it is entirely to be looked at; definitely not touched, and Rose’s decorative eyes comment on this. In his magnificent 2009 documentary ‘Good Hair’ Chris Rock explores the wonders of African-American women’s hairstyling. He films a group of elderly black men in a barber shop reflecting “Oh man, don’t touch de hair – man, never ever touch de hair…..”

Additionally, the use of the Academician’s Room itself formed a major element of the piece. A room where ‘art world insiders’ meet and chat in an intimate setting was temporarily taken over by a shared expose and lament about the situation of a working artist. Similarly, Rose’s barely-there but beautiful costume, and its exhibition of her body in a public context, perhaps raised other issues about sexuality and the art world. To what extent does a young woman’s attractiveness detract from her being taken seriously as an artist – and to what extent within the art world milieu is she still eye candy for older (and more powerful) generations? And what about the inevitable role of ageing?

Rose’s performance demonstrated great courage, focus and sincerity. In common with much contemporary work, it inevitably raised issues of context and reference. It is likely that most of Rose’s RA audience were already familiar with her work, but how accessible would this piece have been to someone without this background knowledge? The ‘after-chat’ helped a lot in this regard, but there remain issues about content and completeness that could perhaps strengthen future performance work from this artist.

Rose’s recent drawings – shown as part of the after-chat – use the economy and accuracy of graphic narrative media (e.g. cartoons) to communicate complex and personal issues with great accuracy. Her self-portrait, the head surrounded by tiny aeroplanes, entirely reflects the situation of growing up on a tiny island but gaining awareness and ambition to play a serious part in an international professional community.  This autobiographical approach is the core strength of Rose’s work. She is to be congratulated on her steadfastness and commitment in navigating a very personal route through the shark-infested waters beyond the reef that encircles and protects her tiny home island.

Liz Lydiate
Consultant Visiting Scholar
Centre for the Visual and Performing Arts Barbados Community College

Jiyoon Lee: Biennales in Korea

Jiyoon Lee: Biennales in Korea


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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Arts Council England awards ICF £300,000 for new project Tactical Interventions

Arts Council England Awards ICF-300000 for new project Tactical Interventions


The International Curators Forum in partnership with UAL University of the Arts London has been awarded £300,000 for Tactical Interventions: Curating the first ever Diaspora Pavilion. The project will heighten visibility artists from diverse backgrounds working in England. 10 artists from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds will be selected to participate in the programme including mentoring, bursaries, and working with international mentors and curators. They will also showcase their work in the Venice Biennale 2017.

“This support is a great recognition of what ICF has achieved to date. ICF approaches its 10th anniversary in 2017, and this investment from ACE and our partners will make a valuable contribution to the visual art sectors regionally, nationally and globally. In a climate where difference is currently criticized and threatened, this project not only celebrates English/UK diversity, but foregrounds it at the world’s most prestigious event for the visual arts, the Venice Biennale.” David A. Bailey MBE, Director of International Curators Forum, London.

See Arts Council Press Release here

See here for more information on the international funding programmes

This project will build on success of a 2015 project in which ICF took a group of young artists and curators to the 56th Venice Biennale – below are images of the group at the UAE Pavilion in Venice with curator Hoor Al-Qasimi and at the House of Commons in London with curator Okwui Enwezor, MP David Lammy and artist Nicola Green.

ICF leads international diversity with £150,000 from the Arts Council Elevate Fund

ICF leads international diversity with £150,000 from the Arts Council Elevate Fund


The International Curators Forum
(ICF), in partnership with UAL University of the Arts London, has been awarded £150,000 for a two year project targeting the under-representation of professionals from BAME backgrounds at senior levels within the visual arts. It will prioritise and support curators from diverse backgrounds within a productive networking and developmental environment, and explore the curatorial changes, disruptions and interventions that occur across the international art world, documenting these processes for the benefit of the sector.

The grant comes from the Arts Council’s Elevate fund, set up to tackle the under-representation of diverse organisations nationally, particularly BAME and Disability-led, and to strengthen the resilience of those who are contributing to the Creative Case for Diversity.

Joyce Wilson, London Area Director, Arts Council England, said: “This is a critical project from the International Curators Forum, and one that will have a significant impact on the Creative Case for Diversity. We’re pleased to support it through Elevate, and look forward to seeing the benefits across the sector in the near future.”

David A Bailey MBE, Director, ICF, said: “ICF and our projects partners are very excited by this award.  We see this project as a two-year strategic intervention programme which will explore the curatorial changes, disruptions, and interventions that occur across the global art worlds and documents these processes to allow established, future and emerging BAME curators to discover, learn and develop their professional practice.”

Elevate
Elevate was set up in response to the publication of the Arts Council’s 2015 equality analysis which identified that diverse organisations were under represented in its National Portfolio.

A total investment of £5.3million has been made in 40 organisations across the country.

See the full list of successful applicants and find out more about the fund here.