In the new global art world, the Busan Biennale is a relative youngster, with the fourth installment on view Aug. 21-Oct. 31, 2004. This years biennale features works by 92 artists from 37 countries, and has a strong Asian flavor. And though Busan must take second place to Kwangju as the smaller of South Korea's two biennials, it has an equally international profile. Among the participants are such festival veterans as Franz Ackermann (Berlin), Eija-Liisa Ahtila (Helsinki), Ana Laura Alaez (Spain), Darren Almond (London), Norbert Bisky (Berlin), Renee Cox (New York), Isaac Julien (London), Oleg Kulik (Moscow), Muntean/Rosenblum (Vienna & London), Olu Oguibe (Connecticut), Peter Robinson (Auckland), Roman Signer (Switzerland), Gillian Wearing (London), Yang Fudong (Beijing) and even the Guerrilla Girls on Tour.
As todays biennials go, Busan makes a moderately good showing. Many biennials labor under ambiguous, even ethereal themes, and Busan is no different, bearing the subtitle "Chasm." Of course, Busan is located on Koreas southeastern tip, snugly between Japan to the east and China to the West, and is familiar with the imperial aspirations of both countries. And so, the exhibition reflects on dichotomies, splits and in-betweenesses of all sorts -- though if youre seeking an address to the specific chasm between North and South Korea, youd best look elsewhere.
Does the art world care for art works addressed to geography, to national identity, to history on the ground, so to speak? The answer would have to be yes -- national identity politics is a vital thread in contemporary art -- though were dealing with a poetics, not a politics. In the end, though, it should all be about looking -- an exhibition is a success if it puts ideas inside your head that werent there before. It just makes sense.
Organized by Manu D. Park, a passionate and intelligent curator, the biennial opens with a life-size sculpture of an ominously snarling, blonde tennis goddess (widely considered to be Anna Kournikova) crafted by the Russian artist Oleg Kulik. As a representative of the artistic spirit of Mother Russia, Kulik has morphed from his early performances in the 1990s as a caged animal (literally) to this celebration of national character, i.e., the ubiquity of Russians on the womens tennis tour. Okay, so its not such a big evolution. But it gets the show started.
One piece that would have been better suited for the entryway is Japanese artist Tadasu Takamines absorbing installation focusing on his marriage to his girlfriend, who is Korean-Japanese -- and who was five months pregnant. Further complicating the wedding, Tadasu invited his drag queen friends and turned the event into a performance, which he videotaped. The complicated and touching story of a chasm of identity and difference bridged by love comes through clearly in Tadasus installation of photographs, video and Korean calligraphy that he learned and wrote himself.
Though the Busan Biennale has entirely too much video -- as has become de rigeur for these types of shows (video slips quite nicely under tight budgets and astronomical international customs charges) -- some of it is really good. The bar is set high by Eija-Liisa Ahtilas The Present, a multilayered narrative told on five monitors placed around a darkened room. The inner psyches of each character unfold on separate screens, tales of lives in flux from paranoia, bulimia, schizophrenia and other psychological ailments, in a way that could only work on multi-channel art video. It all makes sense as your eyes dart from screen to screen following the multiple narratives.
The Malaysian-born, Sydney-based artist Emil Goh also makes great use of multiple screens in his Remake (Ring), which presents three different versions of the same storyline in their original formats -- Japanese, Korean and American, emphasizing the minutiae of cultural context.
If Ahtila makes a case for video that supersedes the narrative potential of movies, then Haegue Yang exemplifies the use of art video as auto-portrait -- perfected by artists like Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman in the 70s. Yangs Speakers Corner, like most of her work to date, is about metaphorical chasms -- the place where the regular meets the irregular and the space between private and public, people and cultures often collapses. Documenting the performances of several actors reading the artists words and thoughts, Yangs work here takes on the vitally evident distance between art and its audience.
Equal parts sculpture, photography and film, Sonia Khuranas Zoetrope is a rotating cylinder lined with portraits of the artist singing. Between presence and absence, the changing frames of the figure spin from a slow take where each frame of the artist is identifiable to a speeding a blur leaving the image of a ghost.
Theres so much video! It must also be said that the works by British artists Darren Almond and Isaac Julien are both noteworthy, as is the installation by the Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr of two versions of the same film, one from 1933 and the other from 2003 -- and both disturbingly similar. Almonds four-channel video piece, If I Had You, is located in a warehouse across from a bar on the dock, and is one of the few pieces that really considered the site and sights of the seaside location.
The 2004 Busan Biennial, more than any other big recent international show (with the possible exception of the last Documenta), feels naturally (and refreshingly) international. Vastly different esthetics from vastly different places knock up against and bounce off each other. Is it all good? No, but its better than most. This is the exhibitions strength as much as contemporary arts failure. No matter where you go when you look for art in the confines of the coterie known as the international art world, time after time, its the same thing in a different place.
FRANKLIN SIRMANS is a New York critic and curator.