Burning Down the House, Gwangju Biennale 2014

Ahyoung Yoo

CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources)/Mellon Fellow for Dissertation Research in Original Sources and PhD Candidate, The Ohio State University, Department of History of Art

Burning Down the House
The 10th Gwangju Biennale
September 5- November 9, 2014

Curator Jessica Morgan borrowed the title of the 2014 Gwangju Biennale, Burning Down the House, from the Talking Heads’ 1983 hit song of the same name. The rather provocative title provided a framework for the artists to work with or against the status quo. Wall text at the main entrance of the exhibition made the curatorial conceit explicit:

The theme – burning down the house – highlights the capacity of art to critique the establishment through an exploration that includes the visual, sound, movement, and dramatic performance. At the same time, it recognizes the possibilities and impossibilities within art to deal directly and concretely with politics.

The city of Gwangju holds a special place in Korean history as the site of the largest pro-democracy movement against the dictatorial regime of Park Chung Hee and later Chun Doo Hwan. The spirit of the biennale situates itself firmly in the revolutionary, democratic history of the city, and this year’s specific theme fits this local context. The lyrics of Talking Heads’ original song stood as shorthand for resistance against bourgeoisie capitalism and the general activist spirit that Gwangju symbolizes in South Korean modern history. The artists explored what the ‘house’ could be in various capacities: a place, a boundary, a system, and an institution.

The five galleries each housed a group of works that explored various aspects of ‘burning’ as a practice, event, and process, and all appeared actively working against the establishment. At a closer look, these included exploration of body as the site of resistance and struggle against oppression, the worldwide expansion of commercialism and its effects on daily life, the visualization of ‘burning’ as a means of renewal, and the ghostly figures resurrected at the site of these renewals. This doesn’t mean that each gallery was an independent unit, but they were rather a part of larger thematic and visual cluster that more or less connected with each other. The works of Lee Bul first set the tone of the exhibition upon entrance into the first gallery. Although Lee is now well-known for her cyborg sculpture series, the exhibition instead features her video and performance works from 1980s and early 1990s that explicitly questioned the meaning of the female body in the context of contemporary patriarchal Korean society. These works are clearly early ruminations on body that lead to her later cyborgian works. In the video Sorry for Suffering – You Think I’m a Puppy on a Picnic? (1990), Lee marches around cities like Tokyo and Seoul wearing hand-made costumes with multiple legs and arms, which gives her the appearance of a sci-fi monster. Her performance in her bloodstained bodysuits unfailingly produces abject repulsion at the same time as a bizarre grotesque appeal. This monstrous figure, skillfully formed by the artist, can easily evoke fictional creatures like Godzilla or terror in the post-war post-nuclear East Asia context, or even become a symbol of the West. In each case, however, the work always leads toward gender and sexual politics. Another work, Diet Diagram (1992), is a two-channel video. Lee is recorded in the process of undressing. Next to her bare body, there appear Korean words customarily used to sexualize, degrade, and objectify women and womanhood. Juxtaposed with each other – the artist’s body against the derogatory text – the work reveals how female sexuality has been associated with shame and guilt and how everyday slang words are misogynistic in nature. Here, the ‘house’ from the title of the exhibition stands in for the oppressive domestic sphere, and Lee uses her body as a site of resistance against that domestic space at large.

If Lee’s early performances pointed out the institutionalized, domestic oppression of women in the domestic context, local artists from Gwangju explored the political condition of the Korean body in the aftermath of the pro-democracy movement in 1980. For example, Kim Young Soo’s puts the suppressed history of political torture on display in his photograph Torture, which features a masked man in generic military garb kneeing a naked prisoner in the stomach while strangling him. Kim’s reenactment photographs produce images for an undocumented past. The ropes by which the victim is bound extend past the edges of the frame, indicating a larger, still hidden context and more unnamed actors.

Vanished Landscape, 2013, Sehee Sarah Bark, Video, Photo courtesy Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

Vanished Landscape, 2013, Sehee Sarah Bark, Video, Photo courtesy Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

Some of the works in the exhibition deal literally with the act and process of burning, turning the incendiary event into something productive in which renewal is possible. Yves Klein’s famous fire painting from 1961 is one example that turns the immaterial process of burning into a material object, by scorching the surface of paper and transforming it. Sehee Sarah Bark’s video Vanished Landscape (2013) recorded the actual process of burning a photograph rather than showing the end product. The artist first photographed a landscape and then placed the printed photograph in front of that actual landscape, and then burned it from the edges while recording it. The viewers realized over time what they had first assumed as a real landscape was fake, just a photograph, and what lay behind was the actual landscape. The ‘true’ landscape is revealed, yet the viewer is still left with a sensation that something is missing. The loss of lives and historical documents regarding Gwangju continue to reverberate within the calm landscape. The burning process suggests the way historical narratives and memories may be lost, re-written, and altered altogether. And what are the ‘truths’ that remain unrecorded in documents, photographs, and sites? In addition, the burning process evokes cremation and the sacrificed lives of citizens who were, during the pro-democracy movement in 1980, mostly university students.

Beyond the South Korean political context, there were works that revealed the globally pervasive logic of commercialism and materialism within contemporary forms of capitalism. Geng Jianyi collected discarded objects by asking friends to give him things that were no longer being used. For his work Useless (2004), the artist installed more than 500 objects, each in its own glass box. These objects, varying from worn shoes to outdated electronic gadgets, all spoke to the speed at which consumer items become obsolete. The sheer volume of collected objects epitomizes not just East Asian culture but any consumer society.

The Ozymandias Parade (1985) by Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz deals with similar issues. The large installation filled an entire room and provided a grotesque, nightmarish, and terrifying sight when first viewed. Life-size figures and horses stand on a lit, arrow-shaped base that faces the direction the horsemen are heading. There are three uniformed figures that represent the generic prototypes of political or military leaders. The work mocks dictators and politicians, but also provides a critique of American capitalism, materialism, and discrimination, as the fake US dollars and small Native American figurines at the foot of the horses make clear. The satire of generically greedy and unstoppable leaders rather than actual historical persons, however, suggests the work can also easily read as a critique of recent global problems under neo-liberal capitalism. As such, one of the leaders holds a stick with the Korean flag at the end, suggesting the work provides a platform for criticism against the local government where the work is shown.

Some of the most poignant works in the exhibition deal with the theme of overturning – or burning down – the establishment through actively evoking terror. The body is no longer a site of resistance, but becomes a vehicle through which we both enact and experience terror. Eduardo Basualdo’s Island (2009) is a hut made with burnt remnants of a building in Buenos Aires. To experience the work, the visitor is told only one person can enter the hut at a time, which provides a moment of solitude from crowded exhibition halls. This solitude quickly turns into a rather anxiety-producing experience as the hut is divided into several compartments, and the participant needs to find her way out in complete darkness. One needs to feel the objects in the room (thus coming into contact with burnt wood) to find the hidden doors that lead to the next space. The experience is oddly claustrophobic and centers on the desperate, helpless need to escape from the maze like structure. The burnt remnants that sustain this hut point to the fact that the renewal process after fire is always tinged with the haunting past and the traumatic moment of combustion.

We Cannot Leave This World To Others, 2014, Sharon Hayes, Four-Channel Video Installation, Photo courtesy Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

We Cannot Leave This World To Others, 2014, Sharon Hayes, Four-Channel Video Installation, Photo courtesy Gwangju Biennale Foundation.

The breadth of the works shown in the Biennale was overwhelmingly large, as is common with any international Biennale. Many were created in response to specific local contexts, which, when brought together, can generate new forces and meanings in the global context. However, the strength of the exhibition lies with the new works produced specifically for the Biennale, as they are keenly aware of the domestic South Korean context and its future. One such example is Sharon Hayes’ We Cannot Leave This World To Others (2014). Commissioned for the Biennale, Hayes’ four-channel video installation was born out of site research in Korea, and shot in Seoul and New York. There are four screens that record various aspects of protest, private and public, individual and collective, in two cities. In particular, two of the screens are devoted to ‘daejabo’ protest posters. ‘Daejabo’ is a large poster, usually handwritten, traditionally used by Korean college students in protest against governmental control of the press. This particular daejabo addressed and problematized the government’s mass layoff of railway workers who had protested against rail privatization in 2013. The poster called on college students by reminding them how grave the results of political indifference could be. Most importantly, the title of the daejabo, “how are you doing?” went viral online through social media and networks. Many college students responded to this wake-up call. It became a slogan to post online, “No, I am not doing well, because . . . ” followed by various social issues that were overlooked and silenced in South Korean society.

Hayes’ other two screens feature people of Korea and New York, caught in the moment of struggle and protest. First, two Korean women are wrestling with each other in public. One of them is identifiably older than the other. The other screen, devoted to the American context, is an extension of the artist’s previous In The Near Future series, this time taking up the faces of protestors in New York. The juxtaposition of two different regional contexts, Korean and American, reveals the gap between protesting voices; the age, race, culture, and language differ. And yet, the overall work shows how a common question such as “how are you doing?” reverberates within different societies with the same impact, power, and urgency.

As Hayes’ video installation shows, the Biennale is at its strongest when the works reveal the struggles and complexities of people. In this sense, Morgan’s edition of the Gwangju Biennale suggests that the task of the contemporary artist is to continuously contextualize local works and political situations in relation to global matters so as to avoid provincialism as well as find new connections and commonalities among sites and across generations. After all, “Burning Down the House” forces us to identify with the builders, burners, or eventual rebuilders of state and social structures. The enduring question this Biennale asks is what ‘house’ do we live in and what would it take to burn it down as well as its aftermath.


Ahyoung Yoo is a PhD candidate in the history of art at The Ohio State University and a CLIR/Mellon Fellow for Dissertation Research in Original Sources. She is working on her dissertation on contemporary Korean new media art in the context of globalization.