Burning Down the House: 2014 Gwangju Biennale
by Earl Miller
Two shipping containers modified with viewing windows display bins of human skulls, vertebrae and other bones in Minouk Lim’s installation Navigation ID (2014). They are the skeletal remains of massacre victims of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, a student protest against the Chun Doo-hwan government that led to citizens taking up arms and a subsequent military response that culminated in 241 deaths. Located in the square fronting the biennale hall, Navigation ID quickly set the provocative tone visitors experienced when walking the serpentine path leading them through the 2014 Gwangju Biennale.
The Gwangju Biennale is Asia’s largest biennale. With 103 artists from 38 countries included in 2014, this omnibus exhibition risks thematic dilution by its very scale. Yet the confident directorship of Jessica Morgan has in fact ensured the opposite. Manifold direct thematic references to fire, home and houses build cohesion, beginning outside the Gwangju Biennale halls.
Indeed, at the galleries’ entrance, visitors hear a blasting loop of “Burning Down the House,” the Talking Heads’ 1983 anthem to suburban ennui (“I’m an ordinary guy/burning down the house”), as remixed by Joakim, a French electronic musician and DJ. The song serves as the exhibition title and, according to Morgan, implies “pleasure and engagement,” which she stresses is “the defining spirit of the Biennale.”1 The song’s funky beats channel the hedonistic pleasure of its inspiration: fans at a Parliament-Funkadelic concert at Madison Square Garden chanting “Burn down the house.” The song’s lyrics imply that engagement begins with destruction – burning down the house to rebuild. This cycle of destruction and rebuilding holds resonance locally because of the Gwangju Uprising.
Navigation ID aptly proposes a Phoenix-like reconstruction following this calamity by publicly correcting one lingering injustice from the uprising: the failure to recognize the massacre’s victims with a proper burial. Lim attempted to rectify this historic denial of basic dignity by building and orchestrating a tribute to those unacknowledged victims. At the biennale’s opening, the victims’ families donned mourning clothes, arrived on a hired bus and then formed a procession escorted by a helicopter and an ambulance while the shipping containers were installed in situ.
Visitors encounter a much different but equally evocative work upon entering the first of the five galleries of the biennale hall: Burning Window (1977-2002) by the late Jack Goldstein. Burning Window consists of a small inset window on the far wall of a black-walled room. Flickering red lights installed behind this window emit an intense red glow. Goldstein belies neither the destruction nor the cause of this fire; its source remains out of the picture frame. The piece, therefore, is a foil to the spectacular narrative climax of a house inferno one may expect by cinematic convention. It is less about dramatic destruction than the non-spectacular hypnotic fascination a fireplace or bonfire holds. Burning Window mesmerizes and so permits a brief pause just before viewers face a barrage of fire imagery.
Take Cornelia Parker’s Heart of Darkness (2004), for instance, in which the charred remains of trees razed in a Florida forest fire hang from the ceiling. Curatorial emphasis reaches an overload when such works front a theme-setting visual backdrop that runs through the whole exhibition: digitally printed wallpaper with smoke and flame imagery by the London-based multimedia design studio El Ultimo Grito (Mise-en-Scène, 2014).
Urs Fischer more effectively employs wallpaperas medium in 38 E. 1st (2014). This to-scale hyperrealistic reproduction of the contents of Fischer’s apartment, reminiscent of a trompe l’oeil, serves as the exhibition’s arresting centrepiece. In front of it, Morgan has astutely positioned work by other artists that veer from the exhibition theme, notably George Condo’s kitschy portrait heads, God 1 and God 2 (2014). Condo cartoonishly revises the colonialist primitivism of early 20th-century modern sculptures by Picasso and others. The mock jade bases that the portrait heads rest atop point fingers at European modernism’s simultaneous colonialist adoption of Eastern exoticism. The sculptures’ understated site-specificity provides an appreciated break from the literalness establishing the exhibition.
If Goldstein and Lim represent this exhibition’s two axes of pleasure and engagement, which (for better or worse) works such as 38 E. 1st and Mise-en-Scène serve to link, AA Bronson’s commissioned multimedia installation House of Shame (2014) is an exemplary merger of them. Housed in the Spiral Pavilion, a three-storey traditional pagoda behind the exhibition halls in Joongwoe Park, it is the last work most visitors experience. Bronson presents both solo work and his collaborations with a cadre of younger artists, including Ryan Brewer and Yeonjune Jung. Under Bronson’s mentorship, they celebrate queerness while at the same time highlighting its shaming – “addressing the homophobia of Korea,” Bronson notes bluntly.2 Included is a collection of international queer zines, some from Korea; wallpaper documenting violence and other adversity gays face; and pin-up style nudes.
The word “shame” puns “shaman” – significant given Bronson’s healing and magic rituals, which accompanied the installation. In one of the exhibition’s two inaugural performances, Invocation of the Queer Spirits (Gwang ju), for example, Bronson channelled those Koreans who died of AIDS, who committed suicide because of homophobia and who lived invisibly. Through first rendering past wrongs visible and then honouring those who suffered because of them, the performance is a social blueprint for constructing future visibility and human rights.
Politics merges not only with ritual but also with aesthetics in Travis Meinolf and Bronson’s colourful, overlapping woven hangings, as well as in Elijah Burgher’s equally vibrant paintings. Magical references defined both series: in Bronson and Meinolf’s case, the hangings resemble a shaman’s tent; and in Burgher’s, the cryptic, slightly abstracted shapes are actually sigils (magician’s symbols). Formally, these works share enticing linear compositions and arrestingly pure or nearly pure colour.
Housed in a building commemorating the Gwangju Uprising, House of Shame is a direct intervention, simultaneously offering a pleasurable as well as a paganistic religious experience. With a message of restorative healing from past trauma – similar to that of Navigation ID – House of Shame completes the framing of the biennale with a spirit of optimistic activism. This framing highlights the 2014 Gwangju Biennale’s overarching call for a political aesthetic that can propose if not elicit social change.