If you’ve been lucky enough to take advantage, this is the year of the Biennale, which is the Italian word for “biannual art exhibition”. Daegu hosted both a Photo and and an Architecture Biennale, Changwon initiated their Sculpture Biennale, and the Gwangju Biennale reached its ninth season. This is also the sixth season of the Busan Biennale wrapping on Saturday, November 24th and if you’ve got the time, it’s an event not to be missed. While Korea hosted at least five city-wide bi-annual exhibitions celebrating art and design this year, Busan’s “The Garden of Learning” goes one step further, injecting art directly into the cityscape by using the buildings and history of the city as the basis for many of its works, and inviting members of the public to help select the works for the final product.
The Garden of Learning’s main exhibition takes place at the Busan Museum of Art, the bright and airy museum located in the heart of shining Centum City, but I started my tour with one of the special, themed exhibitions. Collectively titled “Outside the Garden” these exhibitions are being held at various and curious locations around the city. I began at the “Mobile Museum”, curated by Christina Choi and located at the former Busanjin train station. Removed from operation after the construction for the high-speed KTX railway in 2004, the train station makes for a perfect art gallery, with its high ceilings, balconies, and just enough history to make it quirky.
I had visited Busan’s previous biennale in 2010, titled “Living in Evolution” and I also visited this year’s Gwangju Biennale, “Round Table.” I thoroughly enjoyed myself at both exhibitions and so I knew (or thought I knew!) what to expect Busan’s show this year. My first surprise was the complete transformation of the train station into art gallery. Its exterior was brightly painted and interior so austere you’d have difficulty placing its original use if it weren’t for the occasional passing of trains nearby, and many artists drew upon this juxtaposition to create their works.
The opinions I offer here, although informed by my studies of art and art history, are mainly observations by a regular art-lover. For example, Ju-Ryeon Noh’s Perfect Cube reminded me of passengers crowding while waiting for the train, while the clear, ghostly cubes seemed to whisper that trains no longer passed here.
Outside the Mobile Museum, a separate wing housed curator Hoon Suk Lee’s “The Cage of Recognition” which was home to many of my favourite works from the biennale. The rooms were equal parts haunting and hilarious. The Cage of Recognition showcased works created by Russian artists who were invited to address what Lee terms “…the bleak and depressing” image that many Koreans and Westerners have of Russia.
Artist Veronika Rudyeva-Ryazantseva’s works concentrate on images of women, turning dolls and strippers into the protagonists of her darkly humorous video works. In contrast, a video by The Gentle Women Group is anything but gentle, and transports the viewer directly into the hard, icy landscape of Russia, while Alexander Shishkin-Houkousai’s animated cardboard paintings, Feast, give us a glimpse into the world of the Russian proletariat.
While I was enjoying the exhibition, I was confused as to its general theme. The concepts of “learning” and “garden” didn’t seem apparent in any of the works, a frustration I also experienced when attempting to connect the theme of “Round Table” to the exhibition in Gwangju. The Garden of Learning’s artistic director Robert M. Buergel explains, “The Garden of Learning has no theme, but follows a method” (Introductory Notes 1, Exhibition Catalogue, page 10) and upon learning this I felt free to enjoy the exhibition as it was. The works were selected by a collaborative group known as “The Learning Council”, a group of people from all walks of life who helped to bridge the gap between the high-art world and the civilian one, a divide that many feel upon entering a museum and finding themselves unable to decipher its contents. The Learning Council staged many free, public events to continue building the relationships between art and viewer, artists and curator.
In the interest of growing these relationships between high-art and art viewers, The Busan Museum of Art was remodeled to resemble a venue under construction, highlighting the work being done to repair and rebuild those relationships. Inside the “remodeling” continued, with free-standing metal grids being used to fill the museum, create extra exhibition space, and reflect the shifting dynamics of a growing city.
Inside the museum, the artworks seem to take over, occupying every corner, nook and cranny. Jurgen Stollhans’s chalk drawings are tucked away in the highest and remotest corners, available only to the curious who look up beyond the museum walls. Ramuald Hazoum’s masks made from ordinary objects seem to ask the viewer, “Where have we met before?” thus whisking the viewer’s imagination to spaces beyond the museum walls.
I love paintings and video works, my personal favourite works are installation and sculptural pieces, of which the museum had many. One immediately impressive work was Sakarin Krue-On’s Monument of an Awakening Era, a dark room filled with white porcelain antlers and a poem detailing the demise of the Schomburgk’s deer in Thailand, the artist’s home country.
Also captivating were Olaf Nicolai’s interactive Samani, Some Proposals to Answer Important Questions and Thomas Bayrle’s Korean Rosary. Samani is a computer-operated spotlight that spins furiously on a vertical axis, its machinations filling the room with sound, but giving no clue as the questions the contraption proposes to answer. Meanwhile the chant and hum of Bayrle’s wiper machine leave viewers questioning the machinations of everyday life.
Aside from my initial frustration with attempting to interpret the theme of the exhibition, and difficulty locating some of the outdoor artworks, I really enjoyed the Biennale and plan to visit again before it finishes on November 24. The ideas of growth, learning, and of building relationships between the city, art, and the audience really appeal to me, and I think these ideas should be pursued further if we want citizens to continue to enjoy and patronize the arts.
“The Garden of Learning” continues until November 24 at the Busan Museum of Art. “Outside the Garden” is being held at the former Busanjin train station and the nearby Jwacheon Apartments, the Busan Cultural Center, and at Gwangan’s MeWorld amusement park. There are also four sculptures on display throughout the city.
*Notes taken from the exhibition catalogue, “The Garden of Learning 2012”.
Busan Biennale: The Garden of Learning
September 22 to November 24, 2012
Busan Biennale Organizing Committee
38, Busan Asiad Main Stadium
Worldcup St. 123 Yeonje-Gu
Busan 611-809, Korea
Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly three years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.