Two Biennials, Two Models:
GwangJu and Lodz
Some will say that a biennial is a biennial, that no matter who you pick or what you choose, they are all the same. You go for the holiday, not because you are going to see anything different or anything special—these claims are often true. Where the market presides over the selection of artists (whether or not curators are aware), and where dealers play a preeminent role in influencing curatorial decisions, and where critics are called “journalists” in order to avoid a confrontation with local sponsors, how can this not be the case? And yet there are exceptions. As a critic in GwangJu, South Korea and a critic/curator in Lodz, Poland, this September, I saw something in these two places that viewers would not expect to find in Venice, Sao Paolo, Kassel, Sydney, Lyon, or Shanghai.
What was happening in GwangJu and Lodz were attempts to avert market pressures and to put forth two models of what a biennial could be. Could a biennial be something other than a survey or a display to accompany art fairs, such as Basel or Chicago? Could it be something other than a game of hide-and-seek where ambitious curators hand over sites or pavilions to retentive artists in order to prove that cultural exclusion is not merely a national conceit but the cynical basis of art? Could it be something other than a political diatribe from the position of privileged artists living in exile from underdeveloped nations? What I found in GwangJu and Lodz is that all of these are possibilities.
This was my fourth visit to GwangJu since I first attended the Biennial in 1997. The region of GwangJu is important cultural center in a city surrounded by beautiful, majestic mountains, home to Buddhist temples and monasteries. Eastern and Western culture coincide in GwangJu, but in many ways this division is a little out of date. Indeed, differences do exist between Asian and European cultures. But rather than generalized attitudes that attempt to impose some kind of overlay or synthesis, I believe that whatever these indigenous cultures retain under the dark umbrella of economic globalization should be allowed to exist for its own sake, and that the differences should be understood and respected and not forced into a synthesis that ultimately has no meaning for anyone other than multi-national corporations, oligarchies, and marketing developers. On the positive side, GwangJu presented an opportunity to assess differences between artists, to transmit ideas, and to share new forms of art.
The thematic title of this year’s Biennial was “a grain of dust, a drop of water.” The director Youngwoo Lee and his associate Kerry Brougher commented that the title signifies what is essential to life, that by focusing on these infinitesimal essentials they bring us humility and a new way of thinking about ourselves. Grains of dust and drops of water are about the passage of time, and time is something that has been given less significance in the age of the computer where we all live in virtual space. Virtual space is not time. It is a kind of fiction that we mistake for time. I like the fact that dust and water create a kind of disappearance in relation to one another, an emptiness. For me, this signifies the creative process. Add a few more grains of dust and drops of water and you have a ball of clay. Keep adding more drops and more grains and you may have a ceramic bowl—a beautiful object that may last for hundreds of years, as we know from the history of Korean ceramics.
What struck me most about this GwangJu Biennial was the attempt to create a balance between the aesthetic and the political dimensions available in the field of advanced art today. To enjoy art, to take pleasure in art, is a refuge from the conditioning of commercial media that perpetually breeds spectators. The pursuit of a successful biennial should be to transform spectators from the everyday world into viewers who become actively engaged in art—and this is as political as it is aesthetic. The concept of the “viewer-participant” instigated by Youngwoo Lee as a means to facilitate the quality of communication between artist and viewer offers a model for thinking about the purpose of biennials in general, since without critical tension, art does not achieve cultural importance. And this is what I think this year’s GwangJu Biennial attempted.
The history of Lodz constitutes one of the richest and most tragic histories in Eastern Europe. Lodz was a leading center of music, theater, and art for the first half of the twentieth century, largely due to the textile industry, operated by Russian-Jewish immigrants and their descendants, who supported and encouraged the arts. This ended abruptly when the Nazis invaded Poland, and the second largest Jewish population in Europe was virtually annihilated. Yet over the past fifteen years, since the fall of the Berlin wall, a flickering light of the former grandeur of Lodz has begun to re-appear.
Ryszard Wasko and Adam Klimczak—the two primary organizers of this Biennial (and artists themselves)—should be recognized for their focused commitment and their unfaltering efforts in making this event happen. Wasko dreamed of a Biennial in Poland since he began his series of “Construction in Process” exhibitions in 1981. Shortly after, Wasko was forced to live in exile during “martial law” until 1990 when he was finally able to return to Poland. In organizing the first Polish Biennial in Lodz, Wasko’s intentions were far removed from the art market associated with Western Europe. To accomplish his goal, Wasko invited a team of international curators to choose a selection of artists, including Richard Long, Polly Apfelbaum, Kim Sooja, Christopher Williams, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Karin Sander, Shane Cullen, Grace Jungwook Rim, Hong-wen Lim, Tadaaki Kuwayama, Helene Aylon, Gerda Meyer Bernstein, Samm Kunce, Mimmo Roselli, Angiola Churchill, Alain Arias-Misson, and Marjetica Potic.
The exhibition was housed in a series of former textile warehouses and spaciously deserted factories. The results were stunning. Instead of the normal competitive and trendy atmosphere that pervades most biennials, the activity in Lodz was one of cooperation fostering a sense of cognitive and sensory well-being. Instead of artists isolating themselves from one another, they worked together in relation to one another with the help of enthusiastic Polish high school and college students (all English speaking). The evenings included dinners together with opportunities to talk and exchange ideas. What impressed me about Lodz were the sheer energy and cooperation, the willingness to work for little benefit other than the pride of making the Biennial work and seeing the work of these international artists.
And it did work. As the “viewer/participant” model worked in GwangJu, the spontaneous cooperative agreement worked in Lodz. These models suggest a different direction for international biennials in the future, a direction that still needs refining in terms of the logistical and financial realities and the communicating an understanding of advanced art to an interested general public that the sponsors, organizers, curators, and ultimately, the artists aspire to address.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.