Photos supplied by the artists and obtained and retransmitted by the Gwangju Biennale
Gwangju Biennale Critique
By Doug Stuber
The 8th Gwangju Biennale fits right in to an era in which artists’ statements are often more unique and creative than the art being presented. Case in point: award-winning Haegue Yang who drapes very tidy yet common household items (from blinds to yarn to white crocheted “dream catchers”) over mobile hospital intravenous bag holders, complete with casters in case you’re daring enough to make one a “mobile un-mobile.” Ah, but she allows playfulness on spinning wall displays, and her room is good, but still the second-place room to the Chinese ink-master Guo Fengi whose delicate, intriguing shaman-inspired large-scale drawings show technical prowess and artistic aesthetics often lacking in this exhibition.
But is the Biennale a “success?” Indeed it is, and overwhelmingly so in the areas of depicting the sacrifices activists have made in order to gain cultures peace and democracy, or die trying. Within the realm of documentaries-as-art, and in what may be the very first major show to support a hitherto snubbed facet of art known as “bold-faced derivative,” the Chinese Trickster Monkey that’s long been implanted in Artist Director Gioni’s fertile mind is with us again.
This brings us back to Yang. There’s nothing that scalds a critic more than an “installation artist” hauling out their closet, attic, garage and storage bin and scattering it about a room in order to win monster-sized art grants (since the art itself is both unsellable, and “site specific,” which is another way of saying the artist couldn’t replicate or even move this set up to your house in its exact form even if you did buy the work). And wouldn’t the cats and kids just tear Yang’s stuff up? Yang’s installations are far from innovative and too close to “flea-markets-as-art,” for the likes of Barbara Wien (Berlin) to fall for, but fall they have. It’s nice to have promoters, and to her credit, Yang admits to being surprised at her rise.
Walter Zimmerman was using hospital trays, found and blown glass, rubber tubing and lots of chrome and white-painted metal to make interesting installations before Yang was born. More to the point, Robert Janz, who was in on the inception of installation art as a founding member of London’s Continuum in the 1960s, once made a completely black room that “viewers” had to grope three quarters of the way down and bump into a pedestal in order for its water to be lit up and shown on a screen to gain any image at all. The shimmering water was enhanced as the exhibit went on by art students and others floating leaves, etc. on the water. 75% of the entrants never saw a dang thing, according to legend.
In an era when one HAS to be a firm believer in conceptual art to understand anything that’s going on with the younger artists, I’m old-school enough to not want to have to read what the artist is trying to say with their art in order to figure it out. Artists should be brave enough to put their concepts on display and take the risk that some viewers will get it wrong and others won’t get it at all (like Janz did ages ago). If I want didactic, I’ll just go see a Hollywood movie.
But why settle for didactic when I can get Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s 1000 tiny Polaroids (I liked 91 of them, how many do you like?) to end my fourth. . . strike up the Gilligan’s Island theme. . . three hour tour. But it will take you 15 hours if you watch all the movies all the way through, which I did, but it took four passes. OK the movies rock, and so does the wide array of heavy-hitting stars, like the sculpture room with Duane Hanson, the ubiquitous Jeff Coons, Jonathan Borofsky, Bruce Nauman (I don’t love his ear-poke movie in the first room, but can live with his hanging heads) Nayland Blake and Karl Schenker flanking the Art Orienté Objet (Laval-Jeantet & Mangin). But, other than the spectacular showing of Zhao Shutong, Wang Guanyi and the Rent Collection’s Courtyard Collective, sculpture does not get a full share of the pie.
In the close-friends-of-the-director category, the winner is: Maurizio Cattelan who is either doffing his hat to the feminist movement by saying all their efforts were for naught, or lamenting the fact that the working mothers who are strung out on stress are thus crucified by it, and have no time or interest in any activity that might start by wearing a man’s white button down (remember the sexy adds in such garb on American TV?).
So another sub-theme is how different cultures relate to sexuality. Men with their penises chopped off, Cindy Sherman in a pseudo-sumo wrestler outfit as the nude Joan-of Arc, and Choi Kangho’s entire family in the buff, regardless of age. Of these, Choi’s room, in the folk museum (don’t turn right when you go in unless, like Gioni, you want a little extra out of your time in Gwangju) is the most effective. He’s got the balls to display the fact that Koreans not only have sex, but also grow old and die with or without dignity, which he has stripped in the geriatric nudes.
If artworks could express their feelings, Bridget Riley’s “Painting with Two Verticals,” would tell us she feels out of place. Even the scant paintings in this show are often made up of a series of faces or other human parts smashed together for effect. In 103 years worth of art, we get only a MOVIE about abstract expressionism, and, talk about derivative, not a single Andy Warhol print or painting (though he is listed as an artist in the promotional material as a lure, only a documentary about how his mother scrambles eggs, with a young Andy asking questions and his Mom’s aprons and a few letters from his brother in artifact museum display cases are presented) but no actual paintings. Credit: Warhol is so famous for forcing himself to become famous, that the innocence of this collection is charming.
There is a wall with two Warhol prints, but they’re by Sturtevant NOT WARHOL, along with Sherrie Levine’s take on Walker Evans’ photos, lined up side-by side (but down separate walls). Again the Trickster Monkey got the best of Gioni, which perhaps succeeds in “fooling” us provincial commoners unless we read the place cards on the wall. The only thing missing here would have been a sign over the door (similar but not equal to the sign Gioni hung in New York telling people his minute “museum” is closed and to “go away”) saying: “I, Massimiliano Gioni love derivative art.”
Since paintings and sculptures are used merely as decorations to pull you from one example of human sacrifice for the common good to another (from Vietnam to concentration camp bricks, from Che Guevara, to Tiananmen Square, to humming mourners surrounded by pictures of the May 18th dead, to those getting ready to be executed in a Pol Pot Prison, (hey where was Jeb Zapruder’s footage of the Kennedy assassination anyway!?) to those seeking peace and justice and labor fairness in Ireland, the banality of the rest of the exhibit is in fact undoubtedly on purpose so that we can focus our attention on the more important things in life than art.
The “bigger” the name, the more obvious the artwork is (Warhol excepted). I know Gioni could have found better sculptures, after all he has connections, even if he stuck with the exact same artists, example: was Coons’ pig-push was the best Coons available?!?
Even a 20-seconds-per-photo glance at all the teddy bear photos could cause instant phlebitis-of-the-feet. So why put in the leg-work to see this exhibit? Because it lays out, in dramatic juxtapositions, the importance of images, still and moving, while hopefully inspiring us to get every single scrap out of life of every single day. If you walk away from the Biennale and are not inspired to go do something, anything, to help your neighborhood (or larger area of earth) then you missed one of the largest sledge-hammerings in the history of large-scale exhibitions. Gioni is saying, IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: get off your ass and change your world NOW, do not bother with art, unless you are an artist, collector, museum director, curator or (ahem) critic, and MOSTLY: you too can expose the world with all its beauty and grotesque moments for the price of a pocket-sized camera/video device and a tripod, (maybe $250, total).
So what are you waiting for? Youtube, Myspace, and Facebook are dying to see your work.
(Note to editor, you need not run any images with this story, this will nudge people to go see the show.)