Curated by Maria Lind, director of Tensta konsthall in Stockholm, this year’s iteration of the Gwangju Biennale is titled ‘The Eighth Climate (What does art do?)’, a double-header that is equal parts complex (the former) and ambitiously broad (the latter). To unpack: proposed by the Persian mystic and philosopher Sohrevardi and later expanded by the 20th-century philosopher and theologian Henry Corbin, the eighth climate is a realm that sits between the material and the immaterial. Both in and out of touch with reality, it is a zone of imagination and possibility.
Lind draws parallels between this liminal dreamland and the terrain currently occupied by contemporary art. It is both connected to reality, but far from securely tethered by it. This brings us to the second part of the title: What does art do? Nestled within what Corbin termed an ‘interworld’, how can art react to the world of us mere mortals? In Lind’s view, it can observe, consider and predict, acting as a ‘seismograph’ or ‘a sniffer dog’ (or a mixed metaphor).
Of course, highlights are always subjective, and perhaps more difficult to arrive at when 101 artists are vying for attention, but here, foot in mouth, are mine:
Ane Hjort Guttu with Daisuke Kosugi, The Lost Dreams of Naoki Hayakawa (2016)
Commissioned for GB11, Ane Hjort Guttu and Daisuke Kosugi’s collaborative film revolves around the eponymous Japanese art director’s tales of working for an advertising company in Tokyo. Part interview, part fly-on-the-wall documentary, we watch as Hayakawa, played by the striking figure of Kosugi, fully commits to his professional career, working 12 to 16 hour days, and slowly sinks into an insomnia-driven state between wakefulness and dreaming. Amidst documentation of Kosugi’s day-to-day life, things go awry: an entire boardroom freezes, their palms facing the sky; a desk drawer is opened to reveal a growling mass of fur; Kosugi, wide-eyed, recalls moving a cup with his mind. The film is as much a thing of beauty as it is an inventive critique of contemporary labour: a nod towards the instrumentalization of the body and the capitalistic commodification of creativity.
Nicholas Mangan, The Limits to Growth (2016)
A large printer sits in the centre of a hall, unmanned but active. Below it lie a glossy ream of printouts, each depicting the same image: five large disks of aragonite limestone leant against a low black wall. In a dark room on the floor below, a screen shows a similar stone lying on the ocean bed. The Limits to Growth draws a parallel between two seemingly irreconcilable currencies: Bitcoin, the first successful example of cryptocurrency, and Rai, an ancient Yapese currency made from the abovementioned stony rings, which weighed up to several tonnes and were dredged from the ocean bed around the island of Yap in Micronesia. Mangan's truly fascinating project suggests that, while we might be experiencing a period of technological progression like no other, we still remain dependent upon the fruits of the physical world.
Anton Vidokle, The Communist Revolution Was Caused by the Sun (2015)
Shot in Kazakhstan, The Communist Revolution Was Caused by the Sun hones in on the work of Alexander Chizhevsky, a Soviet-era biophysicist who spent much of his career researching the correlation between heightened solar activity and mass social excitability. Chizhevsky remains absent throughout, but his work is conjured by staged footage of a scientist constructing an early air ionizer (dubbed the ‘Chizhevsky Chandelier’), bloody pigs rolling through an abattoir, and the ritual of Ancient Egyptian sun worship, recalled here by a drag queen with smoky blue eyes and a diamanté headdress. Echoing Mangan’s sentiment, Vidolke piggybacks Chizhevky’s research in order to accentuate our continued indebtedness to the natural. Why? As the narrator speaks at the close of the film, the camera lifting over a monochrome industrial landscape: ‘I want you to know that you are sitting at a fork in the road.’
Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz, Toxic (2012), Opaque (2014), To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation (2013)
In a dark room stand three large screens interspersed with objects: a black stage outlined by white LEDs, the buzzing antenna of a theremin, and a curtain of rainbow ribbon strips, the kind you find in smoky karaoke bars. You’ll find them scattered between three films from Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz: Toxic, Opaque, and To Valerie Solanas and Marilyn Monroe in Recognition of their Desperation. These are individual, distinct works in their own right, something underscored both visually (the first is set in a drag club, the second a swimming pool, the third a derelict house) and conceptually (the first based around notions of toxicity, the second Édouard Glissant, the third Pauline Oliveros), but together they represent a skeptical trifecta of questioning that takes to task the politics surrounding identity, gender and the right to representation. Repeatedly, Boudry and Lorenz’s subjects look down through the fourth wall. You, next to the curtain, to the left of the LED stage, you’re implicated here.
Amalia Pica, Joy in Paperwork (Archive) (2015-16)
Art always finds its way into the office; the office rarely finds its way into the gallery – until now, that is. The main component of Joy in Paperwork, London-based Argentinian artist Amalia Pica’s commission for GB11, is a desk. Not a vintage desk or your prized Eames replica, but that soulless model you always find warping on the street, beer can-adorned. Pica’s edition supports a black mesh pencil pot, two grey trays for blank A4 paper, and a litter of endorsing stamps in various languages. It really is a bleak scene. On the walls, however, are around 1,000 graphic drawings that have been made using Pica’s hardnosed, bureaucratic stamps, and they are anything but bleak. In fact, they’re joyous. Angular, awkward and charming, PAID becomes the head of a flower, ENVIADO becomes a celebratory figure, DINHEIRO looks a little like a snake. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that joy can be found anywhere, even in paperwork.
Suki Seokyeong Kang, Black Mat Oriole (2011-2016); Eyal Weizman, Roundabout Revolution (2016); Dora Garcí, Nokdu bookstore for the living and the dead (2016); Flo Kasearu, Uprising (2015); Jeamin Cha, Fog and Smoke (2013); Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Rubber Coated Steel (2016)
Main image: Metahaven, Invisible Skies, 2016, film still. Commissioned by the 11th Gwangju Biennale.