The provincial Korean city of Gwangju, about an hour and a half south of Seoul, entered the biennial sweepstakes ten years ago. Bearing the scars of a government-led massacre of student and citizen protesters in May 1980, the city has tried to reinvent itself as an arts center, in part because it has failed to attract industry. The local government has poured money into the biennial enterprise -- a reported $8 million in 2004 -- in hopes of catapulting Gwangju to a new status as an Asian arts capital.
At this years opening ceremonies the president of South Korea, Roh Moo-hyun, gave the keynote address, emphasizing his governments commitment to the arts-center dream while at the same time admonishing his listeners that they must generate the money for this to happen. Art and money. No surprises there.
Gwangjus biennials have been ambitious from the start, attempting to link familiar western curatorial notions ("globalization," "identity," "information networks") with eastern sentiments such as the traditional basic elements (earth, fire) and the oneness of beings. The exhibitions have never shied away from the political, founded as they were in the shadow of extreme civic unrest. This year is no exception.
With its misty title, "A Grain of Dust, a Drop of Water," the exhibition attempts a rather shaky alliance between artists and what the organizers call "viewer-participants," people from around the world who were paired with notable artists in their region to discuss and strategize the nature of the work to be shown. Non-artists from more than 40 countries (a human rights activist from Cameroon, a psychoanalyst from São Paolo, a marketing specialist from Jordan, students, homemakers, etc.) met with artists over a period of a few months. Each of them is mentioned on the wall labels in the exhibition and featured prominently in the catalogue.
Floating on such a risky, utopian premise, this biennial surprises with a relatively high quotient of quality work.
Exhibition designers Yoon-gyoo Jang and Chang-hoon Shin have created spaces in the Biennale Hall, a structure with two multi-level wings around a courtyard, that both delight with their ingenuity (notably, a sprawling, curved pass-through on the top floor) and allow ample breathing space for the artwork to be seen and enjoyed. Thanks to this sympathetic design and the sophisticated installation (by director and chief curator Yongwoo Lee and artistic directors Kerry Brougher and Suk-won Chang), a cluster of icy trees made with resin by Barbara Edelstein, large wall drawings about global water needs by Marjetica Potrč, and four aquariums shaped like simple caskets and filled with salt water containing submerged wedding dresses by Asa Elzn, can all co-exist peacefully and winningly in the same area.
Close-by, projected on an oblique wall is an utterly charming animation by Eva Marisaldi "starring" small stones living in a totally stone world as they go to the movies, hold government meetings or sit at home alone at night on a couch watching the stone version of a show like Friends.
A significant collection of intelligent politicized work is concentrated on the second floor. Jim Sanborns Critical Assembly (1998-2003) is a reconstruction of the Manhattan Project Laboratories in Los Alamos as they were when the proto- atomic bomb was developed in the 1940s. First exhibited at the Corcoran last year, Sanborns installation is a haunting still life whose silence is broken by the constant tap-tap-tapping of machines recording data or spitting out information on the upcoming delivery of the bomb. He includes the actual desks, chairs, machines and hardware which he purchased via newspaper advertisements from former Los Alamos employees who had bought them as surplus materials during the 1950s.
A corridor leading into the atomic war room is lined with photos of the faces of luminous clocks that were on bed stands in homes in southern New Mexico on July 16, 1945, the day the bomb was tested in the nearby desert. In the room itself, the disconnect between the obviously dated furniture and machines and the futuristic Armageddon that was designed there is staggering.
Momoyo Torimutsus Horizons (2004), is a video projection cum installation that sends up global capitalism through the unfettered destruction wrought by hundreds of little G.I. Joe dolls, reconfigured into businessmen, crawling along the floor of a flat model of earth, banging into and toppling tall buildings and wrestling to the death with each other. In the video, human-sized robotic men in suits squirm their way down the gray-carpeted halls of some generic corporation whose employees are gathering for a meeting in one of the conference rooms. Unlike Maurizio Cattelans robot of himself as a child with an adult head riding a bicycle, these figures are terrifying and seemingly unstoppable.
Joon-ho Jeons video projection, In God We Trust, 2004 is a series of seamless animations of U.S. currency ($2 bill, $10 bill, $100 bill) in which Korean statesmen in traditional garb are inserted into the historical scenes featured on the bills. In the $2 version, for example, the Korean man regales the signers of the Declaration of Independence about the spread of American capitalism. Outside the projection room are more than a dozen gargantuan machine-gun wielding soldiers made of brown paper and wrapped in white rope. They point their firearms at the back door of the video room. A bit of spectacle? Yes, but its spectacular and was awarded a top prize by the Biennials international jury.
This viewing area is punctuated by the resounding noise of gunshots coming from Kendell Geers video installation, The Devil Never Rests (2004). On the left of two adjoined screens, books with "Point Blank" printed on them are shot at, and, on the right, after the camera walks down a shady, empty corridor, a wall is exploded by a bomb. The silence between the shots and the lack of specific place in the video suggest the terror of a sequestered detention center.
Other floors offered less charged work, like Waltercio Caldas minimal yet playful suspended strings of colored yarn, and Pablo Cardosos exquisite suite of blurred paintings of street scenes in his native Quito, Ecuador. Based on photographs taken on daily walks, these small acrylics on circular wood appear deeply personal and, at times, ominous.
Cardosos project is one example of a successful collaboration between artist and viewer-participant (in this case, a young Councilwoman in Quito, Paulina Espinosa). In writing of the connection they made in the months before the Biennial, Cardoso says, "perhaps the most pleasant part of this unexpected encounter has been the new experience of counting on another participant, with someone who viewed and was present during the very intimate but also torturous process that is the creative process. Her presence allowed me to question myself and to alleviate my eternal doubts." This generosity on the part of artists toward their lay counterparts is not uncommon in the transcripts contained in the catalogue.
How many viewer participants played a significant role in the creation of any given art work is hard to say. In her catalogue entry, Jennifer Steinkamp says, "I have always considered the idea of audience participation as a part of my work. . . . This process really had no effect on any of my decisions."
On the other hand, extensive and touching correspondence between Jimmie Durham and his partner, Peter Kwong, includes this email from Durham in his own shorthand: "It is late at nite n berlin (a great city. . .) so I will close. But I hope we wil work wel 2gether. I like 2 b given ideas, tasks, jobs. Best, Jimmie Durham."
The challenge with heightened experiences such as those between several of the viewer-participants and the artists is how to translate to the larger audience the enthusiasm that occurred in these dyads. This type of intense encounter is what curators and museum directors would hope for all visitors who come to their exhibitions. Unfortunately, it is not something wall labels can communicate.
In the end, it is always the artwork itself that either moves us or doesnt. In exhibitions of this size, it is inevitable that some choices fall short, in some cases, way short.
In a stairwell between the first and second floors is the egregious and highly offensive video, Dogs That Cannot Touch Each Other, 2003, by two Chinese artists, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. The tape shows dogs that have been harnessed and placed on running machines facing other dogs. They become increasingly aggressive and agitated but are prevented from attacking their opponents. These dogs have been forever changed, trained in the ways of violence.
The video should be removed immediately. . . and confiscated. Why this equivalent of a snuff film is placed on the main stairwell, making it the most unavoidable piece in the entire exhibition, is incomprehensible. These same artists display a long white column leaning against a wall of an upper floor. The structure is made from human bones. Someone in China is not paying attention.
Other clinkers include Koji Iijimas installation, Iron Dogs (2003), based on a performance in which the artist releases flames from the scowling steel dogs mouths (this is not a good biennial for canines). In a confounding catalogue comment, Iijima writes: "I avoid any exhibition where the viewer appreciates the completed works of art." Not to worry, Koji.
Curious and misguided also is the inclusion of work by art stars Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha and Richard Hamilton. Their presence seems like the afterthought of organizers who didnt have enough trust in their other judgments and felt they had to provide some marquee splash to the proceedings. Some real-time splash was provided by the performance program, including Larry Litts hilarious reading ( la Def Jam Poetry) from his multi-year project, "The Blame Show;" a techno-infused live radio set up by the collective named free103point9, and some spontaneous, irreverent dances by the Kingpins, an all-girl group from Australia. Several off-site spaces extended the reach of Biennial art to subway stations, public toilets, and city parks.
Together with Lee and Brougher, the curatorial team of Milena Kalinovska, Chika Okeke, Roberto Pinto and Won-il Rhee have created a worthy, world-class exhibition. They gambled with the potentially disastrous experiment of matching artists with so-called "viewer-participants," but, in the end it paid off. After all, as Okeke reminds us in his essay, plenty of artists (Thomas Hirschhorn and David Hammons among them) work this way on occasion. It might seem a dangerous time for artists what wit the "dictatorship of the viewer" in Venice and the triumph of the "viewer-participant" in Gwangju, but Im not concerned. Ill take the tyranny of the talented artist any day.
MICHAEL RUSH, former director of the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art, is the author of Video Art and the forthcoming New Media in Art (Thames and Hudson). His radio show, Rush Interactive, premieres this month on wPS1.org.