After years of artists uncovering lost episodes of history and micro-phenomenon buried in the present, visions for the future have returned to urgency at several major biennials in 2016. The SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016, “Neriri Kiruru Harara,” is the latest of them, where artistic director and curator Beck Jee-sook, has brought together more than 60 artists to, in her words, “formulate individual and common expectations out of unsought-for-inheritances, be it war, disaster, poverty or displacement,” and “to generate as many version of futures as possible and imagine plots of radical discontinuity.” In other words, this thinking about the future is not one that imagines a monolithic, utopic vision where new technologies will have homogenized and harmonized. Instead, Beck and her curatorial team sought out projects that forge new languages (art itself being one). This approach was reflected in the title, “Neriri Kiruru Harara,” a line in the poem “Two Billion Light-Years of Solitude,” (1952) by Shuntarō Tanikawa, in which an earthly protagonist imagines what Martians are doing, and riffs in derivations of Japanese words, whether they also “sleep’eep, wake’ake, work’ork.”
Like the poet’s imagining of the Martian language, artists’ new languages are nonetheless still based on our own understanding. That sense of familiarity, and yet jarring discontinuity, is immediately dramatized in Pierre Huyghe’s video/film Untitled (Human Mask) (2014) shown at the Seosomun Main Building, which captures a monkey wearing a blank, white-plastic human face and a wig of human hair, who navigates a decaying restaurant in a Japanese town abandoned after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011. The uncanniness of watching the monkey perform quasi-human activities, while also pausing to touch its wig and mask as if musing about its own identity, gives flashes of a post-human intelligence ruling the world, or an animal experiencing its own cross-species transcendence into the role of a human. The sense of unintelligibility or “mis-intelligibility” between civilizations, suggested in Huyghe’s film, is amplified in Duane Linklater’s 3D-printed replicas of artworks from the Native American Collection at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, which, presented on mirror-top surfaces, have had their already long-lost cultural significance doubly effaced, first by their collection in a museum and then by the digital rendering, to the point of becoming mutely archetypal. Between these two artworks is the Korean duo Part-Time Suite’s Wait for Me in a Crashing Airship (2016), a 360-degree virtual-reality video, for which one enters a blue-fabric cabin, puts on a headset and headphones and sits in a chair that allows one to swivel in all directions. The work locates the viewer at the center of the artists’ (Miyeon Lee and Jaeyoung Park’s) performative actions, which happen within highly cinematic and game-like, dystopian settings, such as a desolate bunker beneath Yeouido island in Seoul’s Han River. The sense of future marred by our dismal present continues on the facing wall, where Sylbee Kim’s three interrelated works have married primeval symbols and koans, in a video monitor, entitled A Sexagesimal Love Letter (2016). Meanwhile, Kim’s A Little Warm Death (2016), a digital print of animal flesh and organs, is stretched across the wall like the memento mori in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533), and a projected video, Sisters in the Plutocratic Universe, depicts two women in conversation that goes from a mundane park introduction to a cosmic-looking fantasy.
Far from being presented as a form of salvation, technology is frequently presented as aiding and abetting. In Kim Heecheon’s engrossing video Sleigh Ride Chill (2016), the artist overlays three narratives—one about a suicide club, another about someone who has their personal data stolen, and a third featuring a gamer named “Pork Daddy” as he live-streams driving the Seoul racecourse in the video game Gran Turismo 4—with interludes of face-swapping graphics and actual footage of central Seoul at night, to depict an augmented “K-Future” where entertainment and individual tragedies have become indistinguishable. The effacement of the real returns to the land in Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s adjacent five-channel video, sound and sculptural installation And Yet My Mask is Powerful (2016), where performers wearing masks appear amid the ruins of Palestinian villages, between excerpts of an Adrienne Rich poem entitled “Diving into the Wreck” (from the early 1970s). Jonathas de Andrade’s installation, comprising 142 parts spread out on the wall over 15 meters, depict how the banana-flavored Nego Bom candies are manufactured in northeastern Brazil, as well as the identities and wages of 40 workers, in a complex portrait of modern-day manufacturing that appears akin to colonial-era structures of slavery. On the day I visited, three of Soichiro Mihara’s moss-covered marble balls were on the museum’s landing, like benign-seeming creatures except for the unstated connotations—in Japan and in central Europe and possibly elsewhere—of moss as the prime carrier of radiation in the wake of nuclear meltdowns in Fukushima and Chernobyl, respectively.
I fully admit that the more technically complex portions of the exhibition eluded me: Norimichi Hirakawa’s The Indivisible (Prototype No. 1) (2015) is a room-spanning wall of digitally produced, abstract visual noise accompanied by grating static, which reminded me primarily of Ryoji Ikeda’s data-based audio-visual installations that are meant to evoke the sublimity of the digital realm. With interactive works, there’s often a feeling that you, as the audience member, are not doing it the correct way. Playing Akihiko Taniguchi’s Big Browser 3D (2016) computer game, I could only guide the character (resembling the artist) around the top of a white cube that seemed to be in the middle of a lake; the character’s face was embedded into a browser window that could be used to view information about the artist’s past work. I similarly failed to connect with Christine Sun Kim’s Game of Skill 2.0 (2015), which required guiding the tip of an antenna along narrow, loose-hanging Velcro strips hanging overhead in order to activate a sound recording, which was unintelligible to me. It was entirely unclear whether—and how—to engage with House of Natural Fiber founder Venzha Christ’s Evolution of the Unknown #02 (2016), which resembled a satellite and supposedly “visualizes a space signal received through an antennae.”
More graspable was Ben Russell’s 23-minute film Atlantis (2014), which surveys various interpretations—by Plato, a Knight Templar and folk-musicians—about the mythical lost city; Nicholas Mangan’s solar-powered, two-channel installation Ancient Lights (2015), which pairs footage from diverse aspects of scientific research into the sun’s effects (on crops, energy, political history, the atmosphere, trees) with a screen showing an endlessly spinning Mexican ten-peso coin; and Zhou Tao’s film Blue and Red, shot largely in Thailand in 2014, which depicts a society of lost-seeming people, living tenuously, largely outdoors, and sleeping on the ground or the grass. Here, the people and spaces seem to be illuminated largely by the light of urban billboards, as if in a futuristic universe—before their actual situation is revealed in a footage showing violent crackdowns by the government on political protestors, which appears briefly at the film’s end (the video is also featured in the concurrent Gwangju Biennale 11).
Beyond the main museum are the outcomes of the Biennale’s two “Summer Camps”: “The Village” run by Yang Ah Ham, which takes place at the Nam Seoul Living Arts Museum and serves as “a haven for women confronted with misogyny on a daily basis, or an educational community where learning is embraced everyday, or a temporary real utopia.” At the Buk Seoul Museum of Art is the Taeyoon Choi-led “Uncertainty School,” which investigates the relationship between art, technology and disabilities through the tactic of “unlearning.” I caught one of the latter’s projects outside the Seosomun Main Building on September 4, when choreographer Alice Sheppard, who uses a wheelchair for mobility, performed her dance Under Momentum on a stage of wooden architectural elements (Slope:Intercept, 2016, by Sara Hendren) that resemble skateboard-park structures, yet are on the scale of handicap access ramps. The familiar tropes of modern dance—including the unabashed aspiration for perfection—were entirely transformed in the body of this performer into something new and yet more fundamentally human.
SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul is on view at the Seoul Museum of Art until November 20, 2016.
HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific.
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