Research Log | Recent Travels to Copenhagen, Venice, and Basel

Seoul in Copenhagen
AAA Booth in Basel

The Venice Biennale

I arrived at the 51st Venice Biennale in the middle of the night with a group of Korean reporters who had been invited by the organizers of the Korean Pavilion. I had worked as a staff reporter for The Korea Herald, an English language newspaper based in Seoul, and this was my last official assignment for the culture desk. Dressed in t-shirts, shorts and sandals, we were caught off guard by the chilly night weather. The climate was a far contrast to the killer heat that pervaded the Francesco Bonami-led event in 2003. Air conditioners and iced drinks were the conversational topics of choice among an art elite plagued by sweaty armpits and heat-and-art induced exhaustion.

It was hard to disassociate the cooler weather conditions from the general atmosphere of the Biennale this year. In the article I wrote for The Korea Herald on the Biennale, it was described as being more quiet tea party than raucous art happening. Everything felt calmer and quieter, more private and subdued. This mood also might be attributed to the fact that there was no grand, overarching theme like Bonami's "Dreams and Conflicts: Dictatorship of the Viewer," and instead, head curators,Rosa Martinez and Maria De Corral, created two separate and simple international exhibitions. It might also be because this year's event was seen by some as a preface to a more extensive 2007 event that's to be headed by Robert Storr.

The Biennale banner hung next to the Arsenale, site of Martinez's "Always a Little Further" show, which featured two Asian tourists with a map of Venice and a little pug, suggested that the experience of the biennale this year was meant to be more of a casual, temporary visitation than a spelunking job deep into the recesses of contemporary art. Pick and choose your itinerary, wander throughout the city and get a little lost, but don't forget to catch your plane home. 

So I did all of the above, with my first stop being the Singapore Pavilion, where a white sign read "I Wanted to Bring Mike Over.¨ Because of problems with receiving press badges, I had wandered into the space adjacent to the Arsenale to see if the Singapore Pavilion had a bathroom. But instead of a row of stalls, I was confronted with an enormous space devoted to a single toilet and an elegant mirror sink. I couldn't go, for fear that I'd misuse a place that was meant to be seen instead of used. Heck, I didn't want to piss on someone's artwork. But finally, after some discussions with the artist Lim Tzay Chuen about his work (which technically wasn't there), I put the bathroom to use. I never did get to check out the men's room though.

Before hitting the chaos of Korea's "Secret Beyond the Door," I reveled in the structure of Hans Schabus's "The Last Land" in the Austrian Pavilion. Walking up and down the staircases and through the wooden passageways of the "mountain" made from the pavilion felt at times like a senseless perambulation. But moving through wood, light and shade, you finally reached a small hole that opened up to a vista of the Giardini grounds, with room for only one body to slip into. The experience was fortifying and comical. You go to the top; you are there. Guy Ben-Neri's "Treehouse Construction," in the Israeli Pavilion was comprised of videos featuring the artist dismantling and reconfiguring wooden furniture pieces into the playful treehouse displayed in the pavilion. It was probably not the best location for kids to have a members-only club for exchanging secret handshakes, but was perfect for an adult to climb onto and have a moment of contemplation from a different height. I seemed to gravitate toward pieces that dealt with wooden constructions, including Ricky Swallows's still life arrangements carved out of wood in "This Time, Another Year" in the Australian Pavilion. Other highlights before heading to the Korean Pavilion: Writing secret letters in the Arsenale at Rivane Neuenschwander's installation where all the keys on the typewriters had been replaced with full stops; hearing "art guards¨ in the German Pavilion dancing and singing, "THIS IS SO CONTEMPORARY, CONTEMPORARY, CONTEMPORARY" and checking out Ed Ruscha's incorrect but aesthetically pleasing use of the Korean language in one of his paintings for "Course of Empire" in the American Pavilion.

The Korean Pavilion was overcrowded, but Commissioner Kim Sun-jung, the former assistant director of ArtSonje Center in Seoul, delegated equal amounts of space to each artist so that no singular work stood out, with the exception of Choi Jeong-hwa's bright red structure built from plastic baskets located on top of the building. The lounge space in the central interior space created an informal setting where people sat down to check out Kim Sora's "Cosmo Vitale" a group of international music videos. Many seemed entranced with Ham Jin's miniature creatures protected by plastic cups, located on the new back ledge of the building. According to the commissioner, Ham's work had originally been located within the building, but had been moved outside and covered with cups after an army of ants kept on kidnapping his figures, which had been made from a vegetable-based clay.

Seoul in Copenhagen

In an interview before the opening of the Biennale, Kim Sun-jung said Seoul was the inspiration behind the chaos permeating "Secret Beyond the Door.¨ Korea's capital city was also the theme behind a show in Copenhagen that opened a few days before the Biennale.

"Seoul: Until Now! City and Scene" at the Charlottenborg was organized by independent curators Lee Ji-yoon and Pontus Kyander and included 27 artists and artists groups based in Seoul. The show was city-based instead of country-based, allowing for a loose, panoramic exhibition scheme, instead of the "Contemporary Korean art" survey model. The contrast between a show containing works from an "Asian country with rapid economic/urban/cultural developments" with a beautiful late 19th century building located on a quiet canal in the Kongens Nytorv area worked quite well, especially in the colorful banners, typically seen as a form of advertisement in Seoul, that Choi Jeong-hwa placed on the building's exterior.

Despite some low points of the show that tried too hard to literally mimic what Seoul looks/feels like, there were some beautiful arrangements that brought out previously unseen nuances among artists, and between works and the exhibition space. Jeon Yeon-doo's wallpaper created from older dancing couples finally received the breathing room it deserved in the Charlottenborg's high-ceilinged, wood paneled gallery. One of the most successful galleries featured Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries flash animation"Lotus Blossom¨; Lee Sookyung's "USO", a fluorescent light-powered flying saucer with a miniature version of Seoul atop of it and a pile of clothing beneath; Nam Zie's metallic torture/interface contraption and two Park June-bum videos projected onto the floor. I finally started to notice how Lee Sookyung loves to make works that contain clothing droppings, as if some pervert has just stripped down and ran off naked into the night. It reminded me of the frequent scenes of indecent behavior visible in Seoul after 10 p.m., when office workers stream out of the city's bars and "room salons¨ I wondered if Lee was a perennial streaker too.

AAA Booth in Basel

Speaking of stripping, I've found myself of late attracted to works of the spare and bare variety. They're like a good dose of detox to the brain and eyes. While working at the Asia Art Archive booth with Claire Hsu, during the 36th Art Basel fair from June 12-19, I was able to see Simon Starling's "Cuttings¨ at the riverfront Basel Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, or contemporary art museum. The sparse show featured a half of a boat dangling in the air, holes drilled into the wall, a broken lamp and bottle pieced together, and camping equipment refashioned from bicycles and chainsaws. His work involved making complicated, elaborate procedures, and then, eventually things back together again.

Back at our booth located at the entrance to Art Unlimited, the building reserved for the fair's harder-to-sell works (read: museum and institution buys), such as videos and large installations, a selection of materials had been sent from the archive in Hong Kong and set up as Basel's very own mini AAA. A typical day was spent telling visitors that no, we were not selling the books on display, but that they are a portion of the archive in Hong Kong. But would you like to do an online search for a contemporary Asian artist? Would you like to be put on our mailing list?

While the majority of visitors found it odd that an archive not selling anything would be located at an art fair, many found it useful, particularly since Asian artists remain relatively underrepresented and undocumented. This was a prime reason why there was so much interest in "The Future of the Museum: Profile China,¨ a topic discussed during "Conversations,¨ a forum series on specialized topics running in tandem with the fair. Among the participants was Claire, who gave a presentation on Hong Kong's museum situation and the problematic development of a cultural district, and Guan Yi, a collector of contemporary Chinese art based in Beijing who spoke of his new exhibition space. But I was struck in particular by an ideal building design by Yung-ho Chang. Asked by moderator Hans Ulrich Obrist what his idea of a perfect museum would be, Chang conjured a museum that was a flexible space, capable of adapting to changing exhibits, needs and desires.


Now my travels are over and I am about to commence my work for the AAA. Undoubtedly, it will be a challenging year, as many Korean art professionals don't understand why archiving anything, contemporary art in particular, is important. I've been trying to figure out how to articulate the AAA's objectives to the galleries, museums, curators and artists in Seoul, and why it is beneficial to them. But I keep in mind Chang's ideal museum, for I see the AAA in a similar light: a space that is fortified by the ideas of the past and rendered flexible by the creative forces at work in Asian art today.




Fri, 1 Jul 2005

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