So Close Yet So Far Away August 1 – 31, 2009
Incheon is a port city facing the China Sea in the northwest section of the Republic of Korea. Situated adjacent to Seoul, the country’s capital—on the edge of the border with North Korea—Incheon is the fourth largest city in the Republic and, in some ways, retains one of the country’s most charming and unusual urban environments. As the sole male invited to participate in a symposium accompanying an exhibition of over a hundred women, I was asked to speak on global post-feminism—a topic that was never accurately defined throughout the proceedings. Even so, there was an opportunity to address some important issues, including the history of qualitative decision-making in art and the exclusion of mature women artists from significant exhibitions. It was also an opportunity to see paintings, sculpture, handmade paperworks (very important in East Asia), video, photography, performance, and political installations, all devoted exclusively to the perspective of women. While the Incheon Women Artists’ Biennial, thematically titled “So Close Yet So Far Away,” was promoted as an international event, the distribution was given primarily—yet, by no means exclusively—to Asian women, with specific emphasis on Korea. The decision was not accidental, but consciously made by the organizational committee. Rather than being a criticism, one might argue in favor of a curatorial approach where attention is given to artists from the geographical location in which the exhibition is held.
Despite the displacement of a physical sense of geography through virtual technology, the notion of getting a more direct on-site understanding of how cultures function in lesser known areas of the world might be useful in promoting a global discourse. In light of this approach, one might question whether an even distribution of statistical participation is the best solution in making a selection of artists for a biennial. Often the implicit reason for doing so is to fill a quota of artists who have name recognition but little knowledge or understanding of the geographical place where they are exhibiting, simply to appease the expectations of the sponsors. Whereas the Gwangju Biennial presented in the southwest region of the peninsula focuses largely on this approach, Incheon offers a refreshing alternative. Most of the artists who participated at Incheon were not as yet well known, and therefore fewer investors, collectors, and dealers were present. Instead, there was a genuinely relaxed aura that afforded an opportunity to really look at the work. There was a certain pleasure in scoping out the work of artists, both younger and more experienced, not because of their marketability, but because of their honesty in addressing issues that mattered deeply to them—namely, women’s issues.
“So Close Yet So Far Away” was a large event—generally well organized, curated, and installed. With significant support from the sensible mayor of Incheon, and the leadership of Professors Yang Eunhee and Kwon Kyung-Ae, the exhibition was spirited, relevant, and, in many ways, profoundly moving. The curators, Thalia Vrachopoulos and Sutthirat Supaparinya, divided the exhibitions into three sections, titled Fluid Interior, Personal Territory, and Contested Space. Roaming through the superbly designed exhibition “platform,” as it was called, revealed a diversity of approaches in which the thematic categories were elucidated through highly original and intelligent uses of material, space, form, and concept. In the first category I was taken by the gold-brushed abstract calligraphy of Lee Eun Sook, the hand-knit fishnet suspended from the ceiling by Marcia Widenor, the abstract Persian calligraphy by Parastou Forouhar, the delicate paper room titled Pandora’s Box by Angiola Maria-Riva Churchill, the hanging cloud installation by Kim Soon-im, the delicate, colorful paper and wall drawing by Jook Wook Grace Rim, and handmade paper birds arranged in an optical circle directly on the floor by Vietnamese artist Le Hien Minh.
In the second, I discovered the split woman’s portraits in Moghul stylization
by Iranian artist Samira Abbassy, the sexualized red and white striped wall coverings by Dutch Indonesian artist, Mella Jaarsma, the profound reinterpretation of the Greek legend of Medea by Tina Karageorgi, and the humorously absurd installations of Little Red Riding Hood by Belgian artist Lucile Bertrand. The third category was also extraordinary as it included an intervention by Greek/Turkish/Egyptian artist Despina Meimaroglou into the commercial media’s obsession with crimes by women, an ironic video of Thai villagers discussing reproductions of French genre paintings by Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, the conceptual neon signs of Kwon Namhee, and the red brick wishing well by a third Iranian artist, Mandana Moghaddam, in which a real-time conversation could be had with artists in Sweden.
While Incheon was the site of this Biennial and women were given a full range of media and ideas to express or define divergent points of view, the dialogue remained open and concise. Over a five-day period, I gleaned a considerable amount of information, but most of all I was struck by the model of this Biennial—administrated and curated by women who chose women artists whom they believed offered a pronounced and relevant position within the present global environment. This Biennial was really about art and about what it means to organize an exhibition focused primarily on what women artists have to say to one another and to the rest of the world.
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.