Installation view of YONA LEE’s En route home, 2020, stainless steel, objects, dimensions variable, at Yeongdo Harbor, Busan Biennale, 2020. All images courtesy Busan Biennale Organizing Committee. 

Busan Biennale 2020: “Words at an Exhibition – an exhibition in ten chapters and five poems”

Multiple Locations
Korea, South

Located on the southeast coast of Korea, Busan is a city without a true center; rather, it is a collection of industrial and residential pockets squeezed between mountains and the sea, with vast expanses of reclaimed land allowing for high volumes of trade that have made it the world’s fifth-largest port. Known domestically for its brilliant sandy beaches, flavorful cuisine, and unique history, this year Busan also distinguished itself in a global context as one of the few places to successfully mount a biennial exhibition.

Leading these efforts for the Busan Biennale was artistic director Jacob Fabricius, who gathered works by 67 international artists, 46 of whom realized new commissions for the exhibition. The well-appointed Busan Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) served as the biennial’s primary venue, with additional exhibition sites located at a dockside warehouse on the city’s sprawling Yeongdo Harbor as well as a host of alternative spaces in Busan’s old city. In conceptualizing the exhibition, Fabricius placed an overt emphasis on engaging with the locality of Busan itself, which he considers “a city of fiction”; despite the exoticizing undertones of this moniker, it nonetheless offered crucial context for the literary disposition of the biennial’s theme, “Words at an Exhibition.”

This title pays homage to Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s acclaimed 1874 Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite of ten piano pieces based on the experience of visiting an art exhibition. Each movement in the musical score serves as a musical illustration of an individual painting, with five recurring interludes that approximate the composer’s route while walking through the exhibition. Whereas Mussorgsky sought to transpose sensory perception from the visual realm into the aural, Fabricius invited visual artists to respond to works of literature in their presentations at the Busan Biennale. The ten stories (“chapters”) and five poems forming the backbone of Fabricius’ exhibition ran parallel to the structure of Mussorgsky’s piano suite, providing an organizational framework that guided viewers through the biennial’s various exhibition sites and spaces.

Installation view of MANDY EL-SAYEGH’s What’s it called? Nothing, I just collect stuff, I’m a yard man, 2020, mixed media, dimensions variable, at The Museum of Contemporary Art Busan (MOCA Busan), Busan Biennale, 2020. 

At least, that was the intention. Eleven authors were invited to visit Busan in advance of the biennial and commissioned to produce texts that reflected a diversity of literary tastes and genres: poetry, historical fiction, crime fiction, sci-fi, drama and theatrical colloquy. These texts were then relayed to the biennial’s artists, who either created new works or selected extant ones that correlated to a particular text. So far, so good: artists frequently take inspiration from the things they read, either depicting a text’s subject matter or mining its content for thematic motifs. However, the issue that arose in the Busan Biennale was the sheer number of individual texts involved, requiring a copious amount of reading for ordinary viewers to familiarize themselves with each narrative (the biennial’s supplemental Korean-English reader weighed in at over 450 pages in length). Although Fabricius’ biennial was entirely premised upon the encounter between literature and visual artists, the first half of this equation was effectively withheld from the audience, and the brief synopses and wall texts provided were unable to convey the nuance and quality of each author’s writing.

Take Suah Bae’s story “I Had a Single Song,” a grief-filled sequence of narratives about love, loss, previous lives, and coming of age, written in a deeply affecting style that no summary could ever encapsulate. The absence of the full text for viewers to read left a contextual lacuna that made it all but impossible to draw coherent connections between the disparate art works related to the story. An immersive installation by Mandy El-Sayegh, What’s it called? Nothing, I just collect stuff, I’m a yard man (2020), combined many of the artist’s signature elements—newspapers, large-scale abstract paintings, and vitrines filled with books, documents, and objects—that propel her ongoing inquiry into the nature of trauma and meaning in a senseless world. The work laid bare El-Sayegh’s raw and incisive negotiation between memory and knowledge, subjectivity and representation, yet the installation’s pairing with surrounding works left viewers scratching their heads.

Installation view of MARNIE WEBER’s Song of the Sea Witch, 2020, single-channel video with color and sound, mannequin, costumes, chair, dimensions variable, at MOCA Busan, Busan Biennale, 2020.

Installation view of SONG KICHEOL’s Deeply dark, Far distant from the dim, 2020, mixed media, single-channel video installation with color and sound: 4 min 20 sec, dimensions variable, at MOCA Busan, Busan Biennale, 2020.

Without reading Bae’s text, it was difficult to wrestle El-Sayegh’s sobering conceptual installation into a shared hermeneutic framework with other artists’ presentations that responded to the same story. As such, works like Song of the Sea Witch (2020), a surreal video by Marnie Weber in which a hermit woman hallucinates a choreographed reverie performed by a throng of anthropomorphized sea birds, were thrust into incoherent encounters with Song Kicheol’s video installation Deeply dark, Far distant from the dim (2020), which combined masochistic symbolism and gothic aesthetics to propose a dialectic of uncertainty amid the disorder of a dystopian reality, as well as Jeuno Je Kim’s and Ewa Einhorn’s tongue-in-cheek animated short films and accompanying video game satirizing the cultural construction of Scandinavian identity. Although each of the exhibition’s eleven commissioned texts unfolded multiple modalities of interpretation throughout the biennial, the art on view didn’t always articulate intelligible ties to their content.

Installation view of ANGELICA MESITI’s Over the Air and Underground, 2020, five-channel HD video installation with color and 10-channel mono sound: 9 min 8 sec, at MOCA Busan, Busan Biennale, 2020.
Installation view of ANGELICA MESITI’s Over the Air and Underground, 2020, five-channel HD video installation with color and 10-channel mono sound: 9 min 8 sec, at MOCA Busan, Busan Biennale, 2020.

If the Busan Biennale sought to establish proof-of-concept for adopting a literary approach to organizing a large-scale biennial, it did so largely based on the strength of the artworks themselves rather than the communicative potential of a singular discursive format. The best of the exhibits invoked a participatory impulse that invited audiences to immerse themselves in fictional worlds, with or without the benefit of a textual reference. Over the Air and Underground (2020), a video installation by Angelica Mesiti, carved out an otherworldly meditative space within the overstuffed Busan MOCA by combining tranquil imagery of mushrooms and other organic matter together with a looping soundscape of humming voices, their audible breathing inducing a somatic response that brought viewers back in touch with their own bodies. Lasse Krogh Møller’s Meanwhile in Busan — a journey at the desk (2020) offered a meticulously documented collection of objects and ephemera found on Busan’s city streets, with hand-drawn maps pinpointing their sites of discovery that fostered a sense of subversive sleuthing. Wild seed (2020), an intense and discomfiting single-channel video by Minjung Song, haunted viewers with its juxtaposition of casual remarks on the tedium of everyday existence and unironic descriptions of stepping inside another person’s skin. Considerations of the other were also central to Charlie, Echo, Triestero (2020), a conceptual pen-pal project by Korean artist collective CO/EX that adhered to strict rules for communication between the two correspondents and their respective visualizations of hypothetical travels.

Installation view of YONA LEE’s En route home, 2020, stainless steel, objects, dimensions variable, at Yeongdo Harbor, Busan Biennale, 2020.

Perhaps the most emblematic work of the biennial was a site-specific installation by Yona Lee. Activating the cavernous industrial space of the former shipyard-turned-warehouse in Yeongdo Harbor, En route home (2020) wove a vast labyrinth of thin steel pipes that supported various fixtures of domestic interiors (a sofa, sink, bathtub, and stairs) as well as household commodities (a cup of instant ramen, a can of tuna, a toothbrush, and a roll of toilet paper), which lent the industrial warehouse a distinctly familiar, if unexpected, set of referents. Lee’s spatial intervention succeeded in transforming the forlorn remnants of Busan’s once-booming shipbuilding industry into an emotionally charged arena of imagination, where viewers’ memories of their own homes could take root and foster a temporary sense of belonging within the otherwise discordant space.

In many ways, En route home was an apt symbol not only for the Busan Biennale, but the city of Busan itself: expansive, incongruous, and unconstrained by any fixed representational logic. The manifold voices of the authors anchoring each “chapter” of the biennial, as well as the artworks that responded to their respective themes, reflected the hybrid identity of port cities as urban anomalies: communities shaped by competing interests and resolving into pluralities of haphazard forms that coalesce into meaningful systems of interdependent relationships. Ultimately, however, the onus was on viewers to uncover the literary layers at the exhibition’s core that informed latent linkages amid the morass of heterogeneous artworks on view.

Andy St. Louis is ArtAsiaPacific’s Seoul desk editor.

The Busan Biennale 2020 was on view at various locations in Busan until November 8, 2020. 

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