Ubiquity of Exceptions, after the Feast of Biennial Art by 강수미

noon: A Journal of Contemporary Art and Visual Culture, vol 2(2010.12)

Ubiquity of Exceptions, after the Feast of Biennial Art



Start: ubiquity of exceptions and Biennale

As large-scale suicide bombings, sexual assaults, and random shootings become common events of daily life, more and more people have fallen into a dilemma of surrendering their own freedom to public scrutiny or national authorities in order to protect the private details of their everyday life. In addition, national disasters and the malfunction of high-tech civilization are no longer surprising and, in fact, occurred so often that we even get bored with them. In this present time, we are living the experience of an ironic vicious circle in which we are helplessly left in completely primitive state despite holding digital devices of dazzling performances in our hands. What was considered as ‘exceptions’ in the past has become a part of everyday life, and natural and man-made disasters and violence are omnipresent and causing repetitive compulsion - this is unfortunately our life here and now. In such life, people, in one way, come to immune to the everyday-ness, ubiquity and habitual occurrence of exceptions but, in another, desire to get away from such circumstances consciously or unconsciously. For instance, this desire goes, beyond the familiar exceptions, to the fantasy on the more powerful repressive mechanism which flows back into the fantasy. Or, in reverse, with affirmation of and praise for the most conventional, one goes into tendency to erase their negativity and our phobia for the exceptional that inundating our reality.


From positive or negative and critical perspectives, culture and art critics have been discussing and debating the sudden mushrooming of biennials, globally more than 200 such events, in the second half of the 20th century.  For example, some critics assert that Biennale emerged as a new product of 20th century cultural industry in order to capitalise surplus revenue such as tourism in the name of art. In contrast, some evaluate it positive as a festival of aesthetic experience mediating community and art and as a platform for emotional sharing. Or some insists that international Biennale is the most distinctive cultural form of reciprocal globalism, that is splitting and dispersing the hegemony of art which previously dominated by Western Modernism. In the mean while, others denounce it as a stage for the new power, where the minority of some art professionals granted with huge budget and cultural capitals, mobilizes the masses to promote the spectacle of obscurantism.


On the one hand, these discussions are reasonable and productive. On the other hand, it is worth while to ask whether Biennale is a ‘derived model’ of the contemporary life, as mentioned before, life where the abnormal become normal. It is possible to look into that Biennale is a tangled saga with bizarreness/fantasy/ projection and projection-back projection of desire that we, internally and externally oppressed with habitual emergencies, managed to create. I mean that it is in our reality of exceptions’ ordinariness that where we can find the reason why Biennale, a large-scaled and temporary art event with enormous cost and manpower, a wide variety of topography and arts, the things / existence (which are defined as arts), hundreds thousands of spectators, indefinite supply of reports and discourse, has come under the limelight as exceptional event of cultural and artistic world. This reality of our contemporary life can illustrate why Biennale, born in this background, is occupied with the most technologically advanced, newer, more provocative, more experimental, and more exceptional and why this exceptional art form has become ubiquitous around the world and perceived as old and boring.


Production and consumption of art’s daily routine

A philosopher and critic Boris Groys regarded that art at the transition period from the 20th century to the 21st century, entered into the era of ‘artistic mass production’ from the era of ‘artistic mass consumption’. For major factors for this change, he counts “two primary developments”: “The first is the emergence of new technical means to produce and distribute images, and the second is a shift in our understanding of art, a change in the rules we use in order to identify what is and what is not art.”[1]Although economists would challenge Groys’s claim of dividing production and consumption into two centuries, at least in the area of art, his logic seems to be convincing. For example, a variety of tools / equipments / environments of image production and distribution based on digital technology, that is, communication and social networking systems such as facebook / twitter / youtube, and techniques of image creation and sharing reaches beyond the limit of a particular group of artists and permeates the social communities and the layers of individual life. From this current phenomenon, it is clear that the current time is the age of art (or more accurately speaking, image) mass production. In addition, when considering the current states that blurring the boundaries of art and non-art is established as a part of self-critical art practice[2]and that, for his/her arts, artists borrow and deliberate the Roland Barthes’s “the death of the author/artist)” and “the birth of readers (viewers)”declared in 1968,[3]the rules discerning art seems arbitrary and spontaneously shifting.


Economic dynamics that consumption cannot occur where there is no production and   production is useless without consumption, still applies to the case of art. In other words, we are living in an era when people, not just artists, freely produce images thanks to technological devices and simultaneously consume a huge amount of  diverse images that are poured into art world. Through Biennale, Triennale, documenta, and international art fairs, and, most of all, through various media delivering countless reports on these events, a large number of people experience advanced production method of contemporary art and its results or specific images. At times, people have obtained a pretty high level of understanding. Over the course of this process, the situation that the public are dealing with media matter and components as effectively as artists and routinely produce their own images, emerges in parallel with the consumption. Therefore it is perfectly appropriate to declare that, in contemporary world, mass consumption as well as mass production of art/ image happens reciprocally.


We also can think about the changes in rules defining art/non-art and the shifts in the public understanding and interests in art, in a different perspective from Groys’s view. In the context of his argument, what is critical to Groys is the moment when a product of a artist’s hand labour became no longer valid as the distinction of art/non-art by the people who understood art, that is, the moment when the physicality of an artist is alienated from his (her) work and creative process, as was since the artist Marcel Duchamp's ready-made, and its result become identical to the industrial production.  As this trend becomes an important axis in contemporary art, an era of laissez-faire seemingly arrives, that is, the era that everything can be art, depending on circumstances and conditions regardless of its original intention. But we cannot consider this as a phenomenon of total deconstruction of art into non-art. Nor should we see this as a stage that art is, without any art institutional consciousness, mass-produced in everyday at ordinary standard of life and naturally scattered around without any status. It is because that the more art explore into the formerly considered area of non-art, the more the delicate skills (for example, critical discourse, exhibition forms, the scope of the collection), have been developed in order to redeem non-art into ‘art’ and absorb it in the ‘art world’. It is also because that the more artists gives up their own authorities and become invisible, and even declare the symbolic death, the more effective means to consolidate and distribute the reputation and authorship of artists have been devised in the art world. Biennale, Triennial, Documenta, and art fair from all over the world that we now encounter or visit every year, not once in two, thee or five years, are only the examples of such devices or inventions. In these spaces, people experience ambiguous reality of art/ non-art and study intellectual, artistic, and physical conditions in which everything can be consumed as art.  In short, our present time is the moment when artistic mass production, coupled with artistic mass consumption, begins to establish and consolidate its place within everyday life through numerous art events of unusual scale and nature.


The oldest but  most recently human drama

<1000 Lives> is the theme of the Gwangju Biennale in 2010. This is quite timely and meaningful when considered what is happening in the contemporary human civilisation, that is, artists and the public continuously and constantly produce and consume images.  With this title, Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of this year’s Gwangju Biennale, made explicit reference to the poet Ko Un's Maninbo (Ten Thousand Lives). Maninbo, published over twenty-five years, is a literary accumulation of the images of memories about many individuals in a total of 4001 poems in thirty volumes,  <1000 Lives>, the theme of the Biennale, analogically resonant with the poem Maninbo, presents the vision to culminate a myriad of human figures and lives into images. Of course, what included here is not only impermanent and mundane life of human beings but also the transition of images. This is why the display of the 8th Gwangju Biennale is well judged. For another reference, Gioni presented Regis Debray's book on media philosophy, Vie et Mort de I'image, through which he made it clear that the exhibition would deal with all the images in the world and the fates of those images beyond the boundary of art.  <1000 Lives>, as a banquet of contemporary art in the form of Biennale, was intended to capture the compressed life and death of images which was almost indefinitely produced, as well as to depict the life and death of countless human beings in the history and the history of human civilisation. With borrowing Groys’s e-pression, this year’s Gwangju Biennale is the space where ‘artistic mass production’ and ‘artistic mass consumption’ of human being is dovetailing and also where contemporary gaze on the flourish and demise of art/image can be reflected in a meta level.


The good examples of this statement are a display of a private album of a Chinese man and Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s work <Visible World>. The former is comprised of sixty-two photographs of commissioned portraiture of Ye Jinglu himself who accompanied a diplomat of Qing Dynasty, from 1901 to his death in 1968. The latter is a contemporary art work by two contemporary artists who have collaborated for long time, with an installation of three thousands photographs in a huge rectangle light box. The photographs were selected from a tremendous amount of miscellaneous photographs that they took during travelling from 1986 to 2001, As it is evident in my description of these works, the two separate piles of photographs cannot be easily put together in one place as they represent the ordinary versus artists, private memorial photographs versus work of art, daily activity versus special art activity, accidentally found objects versus objects of intentional creation. Despite the differences, in <1000 Lives>, Gioni located them in the co-habitual space and weaved them into the context of meaning. Here, the boundary between art / non-art become more uncertain, and, at the same time, the range of Biennale, an art event of a contemporary format is expanded. We can comment that this is an attempt to open up art to anthropology and visual studies leaving behind self-referential art that the Modernist art cherished. Hinted from the list of reference proposed by the artistic director, this attempt seems to be fairly appropriate because <1000 Lives> was, from the beginning, not so much focused on avant-garde of contemporary art as on the whole spectrum of images. Art historian Hans Belting, wrote the following. “The question “What is an image?” needs an anthropological approach since an image, as we will see, ultimately amounts to an anthropological definition. … It (Image) may live in a work of art but does not coincide with it.”[4]It is, therefore, possible to consider that Gioni intended to deduce the main discourses of contemporary art through anthropological approaches to images. Furthermore, this exhibition can be evaluated as an indication which concisely represented the mechanism of culture of our time, where both artists and the public mass-produce and mass-consume images.


Let alone being unafraid of mixing art and non art, this exhibition have boldly reconstructed, under the eye of the artistic director, the chronology, geographic location, the implicit meaning or intent, art historical or aesthetic evaluation of each image. For example, an American minimalist sculptor Carl Andre’s maze installation, made simply with wooden blocks, was displayed together with a Chinese artist, Gu Dexin’s work that conveyed a strong message against the violence of human kinds by writing Chinese characters in a bloody colour. This juxtaposition is also observed at several displays in the Biennale: a pile of  'puppet' doll originated from the 19th century burial culture of Chosun Dynasty and three thousands photographs of people holding ‘Teddy Bear’ which symbolises Western family unity; landscape photographs of Chinese tombs lined with headless figurines and contemporary art work reproducing a monkey doll that was originally made by a behavioural psychologists in the 1950s for the experiments on mood swings of monkeys. Some may criticise the curator’s arbitrary interpretation and configuration of the displays. To tell the true, the criticism cannot be on thin grounds because, in Gioni’s own words, “this exhibition is a union of art works with found images and cultural artefacts”.[5]    More interestingly, Gioni is not only willing to take the predictable criticism, but also forcing visitors to a specific flow of viewing throughout the exhibition and, therefore, inhibiting viewers to see the display in no other context than his own curatorial direction. <1000 Lives> exhibition is neither like a warehouse, stuffed with the images of human, nor like an art history book with chronological line-ups. Simultaneously, the exhibition is not similar to internet space with full of users’ hypertext links. Rather, <1000 Lives> is more akin to ‘the drama of human existence/ image’ that one curator of extraordinary sensitivity and intelligence put together elaborately. A drama that is extensive yet autistic, aesthetic while grotesque, speculative, emotional and intellectual, at the same time, traumatic.


You idiot, the problem is not art but the image and media!

As the discussion in this article so far has been made within 'art world', we have, unconsciously and retroactively, applied all the phenomena mentioned above to the problem of ‘art'. But when viewed objectively, it is plausible to say that three main Biennales, held in three cities in South Korea this year, are more of the stage for ‘image’ than that for art itself. The reason is that ‘Gwangju Biennale’ in Gwangju, Seoul’s 'Media City Seoul' and ‘Busan Biennale’ in Busan, is not limited to fine arts and art work of aesthetic sense.  It is because that these events are readily dealing with images which were produced by contemporary culture or derived from everyday life. Consequently, those images include everyday things that are so aesthetic that it could be accepted as art works even within art aesthetics. On the contrary, despite they are made in the mechanism of art world, some art works are more close to mass media or a snippet of mundane living. In this context, it is accurate to consider that this year’s Biennales in South Korea turned into a kind of ‘mass media’ that mediates the mass production and mass consumption of art/ image. This point becomes apparent, in particular, in the comparison between Gwangju Biennale and Media City Seoul.


I want to emphasize that audience should visit both ‘2010 Gwangju Biennale’ and ‘Media City Seoul 2010’ and view them together. Each exhibition is, of course, a completely independent International Biennale, unrelated to each other, apart from the fact that they both were held in South Korea at the similar time. There are several differences in two exhibitions: the locality and geographic distance of ‘Gwangju’ and ‘Seoul, the scope of exhibition as ‘forefront of contemporary art scene’ in case of the former and ‘specification to media’ in case of the latter; distinctively different themes such as ‘Maninbo’ and ‘Trust’; the Italian art director who works globally from his New York base and the Korean director who is expanding the radius of her activities from her root in Seoul to Asia and Europe. Despite of the differences, two exhibitions show a sort of ‘relationship’ in terms of the mentality to construct the exhibition contents, intermediate interests in contemporary art forms and research methodologies. As two exhibitions neither demonstrate cross reference nor show the results of shared discussion, ‘the relationship’ cannot be found in the principal intentions of the directors and organisers. Rather, the relationship between 2010 Gwangju Biennale and Media City Seoul can be recognised from the audience’s perspective and conceived and structured in the minds of audience. In short, this relationship is a new awareness and reconstruction of 'image' and 'media' and the image characteristics and mediablity of art that I am rewriting, defining and establishing in this article.


Kim Sunjung, Director of Media City Seoul 2010, describes contemporary society as a society where “the social responsibility and value that media was to embody is no longer working and mutual trust, trust in each other is not valid any more”. She, therefore, proposed the exhibition <Trust> as an opportunity “to reconsider trust as social morals and capitals working within social community, in the midst of changes that media has brought to life and environment.” [6] This intention for exhibition planning is based on the preconception that both 'media' and 'art' fundamentally exist on the social dimension and, therefore, they should carry out social functions. It is probably the reason why most of works shown in <Trust> convey explicitly messages of social and political criticism. The majority of the exhibits utilize real life events or social, political and economic impediments of present time as basic visual data and intervene with them by using visual art methodologies. For instance, Catherine Opie presents the portrait photographs of people who were excluded at the inauguration ceremony of Obama on the January 20, 2009. They are still in the margin of society, despite it was they who made the first black U.S. president. Im minuk makes her public performances at the sites of four river developments that current Korean government is pushing forward against the public opposition, at the docks of Han River, and in the empty ghostly apartment buildings. Recorded with a thermal camera, her images and screen emitting reddish glow and heat evokes that our nature and world is not the site of development but a kind of the living organism with body temperature. Walid Raad, Lebanese artist from Beirut, completed a video art by mounting CCTV footage taken by the police in order to monitor the citizens at the beach. Kim bum made a small TV footage by re-editing the familiar news footages and by modulating the news anchors’ manuscript with the script written by artist himself. By positioning 'media art' in the specific life of society, <Trust> commented on the role of media in contemporary politics and everyday life without throwing away the thin surface of ‘art’. In addition, it could respond to various applications of reality images as critical resistance of art images. Briefly, the exhibition clearly ask questions about whether our lives captured in art works is trustworthy and about to what level media and image are played to trust or mistrust in such society.


How come, without deliberate intentions, both 2010 International Biennials of Gwangju and Seoul put together displays dealing with the fundamental questions about image and media? We can find the reason in our current culture, in which social interests in visual culture/visual art is widespread in everyday life and never higher than before. People go to see exhibitions as they visit holiday resorts and like to purchase art works as they buy luxury goods at department stores. They want to find an immediate use for art works as they spontaneously choose applications from smart phones and want to consume images of art as they look at fashion magazines. It is this public desire and act of perception that lead the changes of attitude towards themes, forms and displays of international Biennale. Accordingly, at first, artistic directors and curators of Biennales throw themselves into reconfiguring and repositioning, in mass scale, unfamiliar images that are related to everyday practical issues and familiar yet interesting enough. Secondly, they begin to reconsider the meanings and roles of image and media within specific human lives, as well as historical and social contexts. In the second direction, the following statement by Groys is accurate: “Today, the art scene has become a place of emancipatory projects, participatory practices, and radical political attitudes, but also a place in which the social catastrophes and disappointments of the revolutionary twentieth century are remembered.”[7]


But which audience or how many viewers welcome and visit the art sites, art spaces of the nature which Groys recognise? Instead, isn’t it an exhibition executed with direction and attitude that most general visitors anticipate? Needless to say, in this modern world, we all live in the era of such a global constraint created by global capitalism  that the word ‘freedom’ does not fit in anymore. In this current society, we also witness all kinds of terror and dispute from all over the world and hear the news of death through the various routes of media. When horrific sexual abuses of children are no longer unusual news, "a radical political attitude" does not occur within us, moreover, such attitude, if ever arises, would be harmful for the wellbeing of our own and our family. While knowing the circumstances, international curators, biennale organisation bodies and foundations dedicate the art sites to the stages of spectacle of numerous images. Even worse, pretending to be an explosive space of cartoon-like imagination, the space of Biennale is filled with works that compromise with our secret propensity for sensual stimulation and erotic, bizarre things.


I think that unfortunately 2010 Busan Biennale with the ambitious theme of <Living in Evolution> is the case of the point. Azumaya Takashi, Exhibition director of the Biennale explained that the exhibition was organised to show "works reflecting on human existence and intellectual evolution in contemporary society” and “works illuminating the private life that shaping relations within civilised cities and social spaces”. But can we truly consider an installation to show drawings of an ape and bipedal human being on a transparent plastic sheet as a reflection on “human existence and intellectual evolution”? Isn’t it somewhat naïve to discuss a quality of “illuminating the private life” in “civilized cities” in front of characters and sculpture based on science fiction, similar with those from a Japanese manga 20th Century Boys ? Obviously there is no reason to undervalue the entries themselves in the Busan Biennale. What is the matter here is the curatorial tyranny of dragging, inserting and repositioning numerous works into the overblown context of <Living in Evolution>. In addition, what is a problem is the insurmountable gap created between the aesthetic reality of each work and its interpretation by the curator. For instance, while the audience certainly experience a particular sensory stimulation in front of some works, a curator deliberately put up an exhibition as if the exhibits should be observed in pseudo scientific or humanistic ways.


Conclusion: minding the unconscious visualism and image gazing

The similar problem, although of different nature, exists in this year’s Gwangju Biennale and Media City Seoul. In both exhibitions, the overwhelming majority of entries are photographs and videos. These media possess mediablity that easily mass produce images and then reproduce and communicate in different formats and meanings. Therefore, they are the media that easily change, adapt, manipulate and distort the originality of an object and its individual context, while superbly visualise it. This is shown in the case of the Lebanese artist at Media City Seoul, as mentioned before; he was able to send a feed back on the illegality of the administrative authority through his visual data which was adapted from the police CCTV surveillance footage of Lebanese citizen.


In the meanwhile, we can think about the impact of transformability and adaptability of media in the context of the ‘overall standard of exhibition’.  Look again what is included in the enormous image mosaic, <1000 Lives>: works of art (drawing, oil painting, sculpture, conceptual art, kitsch art and so on) and the segments of historical images (Korean puppet, China's tombstone, a photograph of war prison during the Vietnam War, American newspaper reporting the 9.11 etc.). Or think about again the images floating in the public media space (ads, movie billboards, tabloid magazines, photos and videos on websites, etc.) and images of private life (personal albums, private collections, travel photos, etc.) They were made or appeared for different purposes in different areas and contains historical, geographical, cultural, emotional and personal narratives that cannot be replaced with any other. Nevertheless, <1000 Lives> fused and dissolved these irreplaceable individual pieces into one flat space, that is, the scholarly logical and aesthetically sympathetic Biennale exhibition. We, audience only ride the visual wave of massively released reproduction images, without any reason and space to wonder about the identity of individual images. <Trust> of the Media City Seoul is similar but, in terms of visitors’ responses, a slightly different pattern is detected. As mentioned earlier, the exhibition leans towards a number of photographs and video with strong social and political criticism. We, as spectators, visually come to contact with the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, civil war situation in the Arab world, Europe’s growing fear for Chinese economic growth, racism still at the heart of the multi-ethnic and multi-racial nation such as the United States and issues of Diaspora. But why do we have to see the image in that way? Will it be overstating that we do because they are presented to us as exhibits multifariously and interestingly? Anthropologist Johannes Fabian explained our taxonomic impulse to find the appropriate visual symbol revealing differences in a term, "visualism". In other words, it is "the ability to visualize the culture or society".[8]Until the period of Modernism, through visualism, people have been classified in detail and with accuracy, the self and the other, blacks and whites, main and marginal characters, the West and the East, the primitive and the civilised, even invisible realms such as peace and conflict, repression and trauma. As we discuss often, photography and screen images are the most prominent tool in this classification, regardless to say about research purposes. In fact, the contemporary is the period of various experiments in order to reflect and overcome the ocularcentrism of the past.


Three internationally active curators who directed three major Biennials in Korea, however, showed little consideration for this problem. This is because that the exhibitions project world media power, political reality of divided Korea, colonialisation of global cultural capital and the Middle East political conflicts as one in the piles of examples depicting various reality of ordinariness of exceptions. A video art throwing doubts on the functions of contemporary media is mobilized in the visualism of international Biennale working as ‘mass media’ in itself. A work reflecting on the political power of image plays a part of the mosaic in the ‘image epic’ of international Biennale which realises strong organisational intention. This is the apparent contradiction and the dilemma. International curators who organised the Biennales in Gwangju, Seoul, Busan, unconsciously and unintentionally, viewed themselves as a rational subject with awareness and judgements (in the sense of Kant) on the global aesthetics. Therefore, they thought that the essence of the exhibition was dependent on visualisation of ‘the gaze of image', 'the media of the past and present', and 'the evolution of human life' in a very neutral way or on a flat surface level. Surprisingly, in this way, we now encounter the fault of history which granted imperialism and the colonial policies of Western powers, racism during the early and mid 20th century, and the identification of the other by the subject. Not only just simply encountering, all of us are now found ourselves facing the problematic past in the midst of ambivalent and disturbing self-identification of ourselves as individuals in a developed country, at the same time, a stranger and a person in the periphery, authority of power as well as oppressed subject. 


Ph.D. Kang Sumi (1969-)

Aesthetician, art critic, and senior researcher of Seoul National University Institute of Humanities.

BA and MA in Fine Arts, Hongik University, PhD in Aesthetics, Hongik University. PhD dissertation title is ‘Art in the Technological Age: An Essay on the Materialistic Aesthetics in Walter Benjamin’s Thinking’.

[1]Boris Groys, “Marx After Duchamp, or The Artist’s Two Bodies” in e-flux journal #19 (October 2010), p.1.

[2]The Curator, Nicholas Bourriaud see “the political substratum of contemporary art” in “the persistence of a gesture … undermine all the material and immaterial edifices that constitute our deco”. Regardless the probablity of his claim, it is true that Bourriaud’s view stems from a major contemporary art practice of blurring the boundaries between art/ non-art. Nicolas Bourriaud, “Precarious Contructions, Answer to Jacques Ranciere on Art and Politics” in http://www.skor.nl/article-4416-nl.html?lang=en.

[3]Huiyoung Kim trans. “The Death of Author” in The Pleasure of the  Text, Seoul: Dongmunsun, 1997, pp.27-35.

[4]Hans Belting, “Towards an Anthropology of the Image”, in Anthropologies of Art), Mariët Westermann (ed.), Massachesetts: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2005, p. 42.

[5]Massimiliano Gioni, “1000 Lives”, 2010 Gwangju Biennale Catalogue, Gwangju: Gwangju Biennale, 2010, p. 428.

[6]Sunjung Kim, “Media City Seoul” in 2010 Media City Seoul Catalogue, Seoul: Seoul City Museum, 2010, p.20.

[7]Boris Groys, “Marx After Duchamp or the Artist’s two bodies”, p.2.

[8]Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object, New York: Columbia University Press, 1983. p. 106.


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