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Busan Biennale: Which Side Are You On?

This year's edition of the Busan Biennale, South Korea, finds eerie resonances of cold war divisions in present-day art and politics

It is a sad reflection of the state of world affairs that the theme of this year’s Busan Biennale, ‘Divided We Stand’, feels so apt. Organized by artistic director Cristina Ricupero and curator Jörg Heiser (a former frieze co-editor and current contributor) in collaboration with guest curator Gahee Park, the exhibition is relatively compact. Work by 65 artists from 34 countries is installed across just two venues. Yet it toggles through a dizzying array of locales and contexts, from the political situation in the Korean Peninsula, divided between North and South, to the aftermath of the cold war and more abstract takes on notions of division. If for this reason it can feel unfocused in places, the exhibition rewards extended viewing.

The stakes are set early on the ground floor of MoCA, where large-scale multimedia installations by Minouk Lim and Henrike Naumann explore the dynamics of dispersal, consolidation and repeated division that accompany social upheaval. Lim’s installation, The Promise of If (2015–18), revisits a 1983 television programme by the Korean state broadcaster KBS, which helped long-lost family members separated in the chaos of the 1950–53 Korean War locate each other. It takes the form of a surreal broadcasting studio in which a stage is littered with enigmatic props (a taxidermied lapdog reclining on a cowhide, a mannequin with a goat on a leash). Accompanied by monitors and a projection showing excerpts from the television programme, the installation points to the challenging position of people whose desire for reunion is vulnerable to ideological manipulation. Naumann’s 2000 (2018) presents a notional home in post-reunification East Germany, kitted out in the castaway, garish decor of late capitalist hyperproduction – including a hand-shaped leather chair, a cloud-shaped mirror, a heart-shaped table and a functioning Salvador Dalí-style melting clock. Dotted with short videos (some of which are staged) that chronicle the growing discontent felt by the former East German populace under neoliberalism, this space of semiotic excess and temporal slippage evokes the shock and disorientation of one social system colliding with another.

Henrike Naumann, 2000, mixed media, dimensions variable, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Gallery KOW, Berlin

As with the pairing of Lim and Naumann, the exhibition is at its best in showing how recent history spills into the present and how one geopolitical context spills into another. In the basement of MoCA, Smadar Dreyfus’s poignant, multimedia installation Mother’s Day (2006–08) plays audio recordings of mothers exchanging greetings over loudspeakers with their adult children across the border area between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, obliquely recalling the similar loudspeakers that until recently blasted propaganda messages across either side of the Demilitarized Zone. Around the corner, the percussive accompaniment in Hsu Chia-Wei’s video projection Ruins of the Intelligence Bureau (2015) – which recounts the story of a Chinese Nationalist operating in the Golden Triangle through Southeast Asian puppet dance – bleeds into the Korean folk songs sung by members of the Korean diaspora in Joo Hwang’s four-channel video Minyo, There and Here (2018). Nearby, speakers in Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Ilha de Vénus (The Isle of Venus, 2018) emit a stream of white noise. They establish an ambient buffer zone around the miniature replicas of classical European sculptures, stuffed into colourful condoms, the artist has set on a cinderblock island across from photographs of refugees at sea that are obscured by black rectangles.

Hsu Chia-Wei, Memorial Chamber of the Intelligence Bureau, mixed media, 264 × 634 × 40 cm, 2015. Courtesy: Le Fresnoy and Liang Gallery, Taipei

Also at MoCA, another important group of works exposes the normalization of war in militarized societies. Kelvin Kyungkun Park’s wide-format projection Army: 600,000 Portraits (2018) vividly documents life in South Korea’s conscript army, including a Christian prayer meeting where rows of hormonally charged young soldiers in T-shirts and shorts cheer on a performance by a blank-faced Christian Pop girl group. Similarly, Yuichiro Tamura’s installation The Spider’s Threads (2018), which suspends a collection of embroidered sukajan souvenir jackets from a web of thick ropes, maps the ghoulish insouciance with which US servicemen have deflected the psychological tolls of enforcing the postwar Pax Americana: one jacket commemorates nuclear tests at Eniwetok Atoll with palm tree and mushroom-cloud motifs.

At a time of unprecedented connectivity, we can underestimate how hard it is to get a conversation going between different parts of the world, each embroiled in its own parochialisms. I appreciated ‘Divided We Stand’ as an attempt by Ricupero and Heiser, who are both based in Europe, at splitting the difference between regionalism and internationalism. Still, there’s a nagging flatness to the exhibition. The curators make reference to issues of racism, sexism and classism in their introductory text, but they avoid explicit statements of contemporary identity politics where maybe they could have used more divisiveness. And although a number of participants incorporate visual materials from North Korea in their projects, the absence of works by actual North Korean artists indicates one limit of the curatorial premise. Thus, while many of the works poetically cross borders and barriers, the inverted wording of the exhibition’s title in fact pose a difficult question: What are the divisions we are willing to live with?

The Busan Biennale 'Divided We Stand' runs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan and the former Bank of Korea, Busan, until 11 November 2018.

Main image: Yuichiro Tamura, The Spider’s Threads (detail), jackets, rope, neon, mirror, dimensions variable, 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Yuka Tsuruno Gallery, Tokyo

Andrew Maerkle is a writer and editor based in Tokyo, Japan.

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