“NERIRI KIRURU HARARA”: SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016

SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016 runs until 20 November at Seosomun Seoul Museum of Art, Nam-Seoul Living Arts Museum and Buk-Seoul Museum of Art.

Opened on 1 September, the 2016 SeMA Biennale is entitled “NERIRI KIRURU HARARA”. Art Radar spotlights some outstanding works in the exhibition.

Joo Hwang, 'Vesti La Giubba [Put on the Costume]', 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Joo Hwang, ‘Vesti La Giubba [Put on the Costume]’, 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

The title “NERIRI KIRURU HARARA” of Seoul Museum of Art’s (SeMA) Mediacity Biennale 2016 is a quotation from a poem by Tanikawa Shuntarō. It doesn’t give much away because it is in the imaginary language of Martians. It acts as a promise connecting with the exhibition’s aim to present “alternative versions of the future”. The clamour of works, in the central venue at the Museum of Art persuasively declares this thematic trajectory. Versions of the future polarise around two visions, the first is the overbearing sense of a creeping environmental and socio-political toxicity and the second is the purity of outer space; one dense and mired the other free and open.

In this Biennale space is deployed, as nature once was, as clean and perfect an innocent territory as yet unpolluted by the human touch. This is perhaps most explicit in Indonesian artist Venzha Christ’s Evolution of the Unknown #02 (2016), where conversations with an astronomer and an astrophysicist can be heard in an installation incorporating four suspended sculptures looking like early communication satellites. As signs of an optimistic future these are flawed because these look more like classic 1960s prototypes than contemporary forms with their associations of terrestrial surveillance and military targeting.

Venzha-Christ, 'Evolution of the Unknown #02', 2016 installation view. Image courtesy SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul.

Venzha-Christ, ‘Evolution of the Unknown #02’, 2016 installation view. Image courtesy SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul.

Spread between three venues, in separate districts of the city, it is apparent that many hours must be devoted to the exhibits, unfolding over long durations, in order to appreciate this show. Outside the main museum venue Sara Hendren’s Slope: Intercept (2016) is an inconsequential looking piece of skate park paraphernalia, arranged perpendicular to the entrance. It sets the scene before the show gets underway. In another public space it could be overlooked, here it is something that might trip you up just when you think you are starting to have fun.

Marguerite Humeau, 'Black Mamba', 2016, installation view. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Marguerite Humeau, ‘Black Mamba’, 2015, installation view. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

It is a portent for many works where an initially seductive appearance turns out to obscure problematic content. The highest form of this trait is dramatised in a corridor-like space where all the surfaces are painted a delicious lemon yellow. In a work entitled Black Mamba (2015), Marguerite Humeau has incorporated 2 grams of Black Mamba venom into the paint. Although it is not clear just how poisonous this makes the work, visitors don’t feel inclined to be curious and enjoy the space with caution.

The museum atrium provides a potentially long diversion in the form of seven extended interviews with Korean curators around the contextual exhibition Married by Powers (2016) by Dutch artist duo Bik Van der Pol (Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol). They present these encounters on monitors perched amid a stack of boxes, representing the Museum’s repository of works in storage.

Seoul Museum of Art atrium with Bic Van de Pol, 'Married by Powers', 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Seoul Museum of Art atrium with Bic Van de Pol, ‘Married by Powers’, 2016. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Part Time Suite, 'Wait for Me in a Crashing Airship', 2016, installation view at Seoul Museum of Art. Image courtesy of SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul.

Part Time Suite, ‘Wait for Me in a Crashing Airship’, 2016, installation view at Seoul Museum of Art. Image courtesy of SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul.

An entrance leading from this airy space is particularly striking and immediate, taking visitors into a twilight space, to the left a cage like enclosure, and to the right tall canvas tents housing, composing Wait for Me in a Crashing Airship (2016), an immersive 360-degree VR video by Korean artists Miyeon Lee and Jaeyoung Park, going by the moniker Part-Time Suite. The cage presents a changing exhibition of works drawn from the permanent collection as an outcome of Van de Pol’s intervention.

Two powerful photographic images of atomic explosions by Kyungah Ham, Nagasaki and Hiroshima Mushroom Clouds (2009-2010), are found to be North Korean hand embroidery: the instant recognition of a painstakingly fabricated image is untypical in this show’s pace, which is marked by the drawn-out unfolding of events coupled with oblique images that require close scrutiny.

SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul, exhibition view at Seoul Museum of Art with Kyungah Ham, 'Nagasaki and Hiroshima Mushroom Clouds', 2009-2010. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul, exhibition view at Seoul Museum of Art with Kyungah Ham, ‘Nagasaki and Hiroshima Mushroom Clouds’, 2009-2010. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Geography is a recurring motif, with both real and fantasy space being mapped and evoked with a wide repertoire of images, models, films, text and diagram. For example, in Natacha Nisic’s multipart works, Hamburg in the period 1914-18 is evoked via performance, video and artefacts connected to German cultural theorist Aby Warburg. This is typical of an approach to history in which the artist claims, “the positive idea of the truth of the event will be questioned”. This means providing an overload of raw research evidence that must be assimilated to get to the work’s point.

Duane Linklater, 'UMFA1981.016.002' and 'UMFA1981.016.003', 2015. Image courtesy SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul.

Duane Linklater, ‘UMFA1981.016.002’ and ‘UMFA1981.016.003’, 2015. Image courtesy SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul.

With radically different media, American artist Duane Linklater presents a similar argument. In his 3D prints of Native American artefacts from Utah Museum of Fine Art, technology strips them of their essence, as well as their colour, while truthfully copying them. You can see the detail but you can never experience their lifeblood. This exposes the problem of the reports that have a strong presence in the contemporary media art gathered in this exhibition.

Mediated by technology, with a wealth of detail, they fascinate, drawing the spectator in to consider topics, places, communities, relationships or disputes – but as more and more detail is provided it reveals a larger context. Here their multiple perspectives are found to be no more objective than a single dogmatic image would be – there is no such thing as a neutral image and this applies jut as much to the moving image or soundscape.

Christine Sun Kim, 'Game of Skill 2.0', 2015, installation view at Seoul Museum of Art. Image courtesy SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul.

Christine Sun Kim, ‘Game of Skill 2.0’, 2015, installation view at Seoul Museum of Art. Image courtesy SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul.

In an exhibition with many long passages of video, punctuated with benches, cushions and drapes, the highlights all step back from the pervasive cacophony to seek a ‘luddite’ simplicity.

Christine Sun Kim’s Game of Skill 2.0 (2015) allows the audience to listen to the voice of the artist’s grandmother by following a suspended track above head height, with a rather cumbersome piece of equipment. An antenna picks up the faltering voice only by movement along the track. It’s a frustrating and awkward means of accessing the voice, the physical engagement replicates how memory is traced, how it leaks out, only partially, and how we interpret it, clumsily.

Cinthia Marcelle also leaves content ambiguous focusing on the medium of recall. Her 4 Sobre Este Mesmo Mundo (This Same World Over) (2009-2010) is a long blackboard with only the traces of erasure to see. She says it is “a world that is written and overwritten, to suggest an extended view on learning”.

Mire Lee, ;the way things fall apart–in my wildest dreams', 2016, installation view. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Mire Lee, ‘The Way Things Fall Apart–In My Wildest Dreams’, 2016, installation view. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s richly coloured 16mm film loops show unexceptional encounters with beauty. In the exhibition 11 short 16 mm films, ranging in length from 1.5 minutes to 8 minutes, are shown around, and projected onto, a sculptural divider of the exhibition environment. One of these, Chopping Fruits and Vegetables (2016), is an animation that launches the spectator on a voyage through the inner space of the title’s vegetables. They become fantastical, as if they maintain the magic and innocence of virgin territories.

Zhou Tao also shows charming and innocence in the two-channel video Chicken Speaks to Duck, Pig Speaks to Dog (2004). Zhou invites suburban farmers, who are all adept at mimicking animal sounds, to ‘perform’ these in an urban setting. The simple effect of the displacement creates a curious distance, an incompatibility between nature and the city.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, 'Another Cosmic Interluded Orbit', 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, ‘Another Cosmic Interluded Orbit’, 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

With its densities and durations, the Mediacity Biennale suggests many artists moving in differing directions, making varied demands on their audiences too. In its publicity the Biennale poses two big questions: “What are the roles of art in alleviating unsought-for consequences at this point in history, be they war, poverty disaster or displacement?” and “Can art instill the radical discontinuity of history and generate alternative versions of the future?”

The content of the exhibition suggests more dilemmas than answers, particularly by drawing attention to the problem that the technologies of media, and even its content, belong in the real world. Unlike the preindustrial materials and techniques used by artists, new medias do not evolve from artisanal tradition but move in the flux of the present. In the poem that lends its words to the title of the Biennale, Tanikawa writes:

I have no notion what Martians do on their small orb […]. Universal gravitation is the power of solitudes pulling each other. Because the universe is distorted, we all seek for one another.

SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016, exhibition view at Seoul Museum of Art with Dineo Seshee Bopape, 'Sedibeng, it comes with the rain', 2016. Photo and image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

SeMA Biennale Mediacity Seoul 2016, exhibition view at Seoul Museum of Art with Dineo Seshee Bopape, ‘Sedibeng, it comes with the rain’, 2016. Photo: Andrew Stooke. Image courtesy Andrew Stooke.

This too is ominous, as well as seemingly optimistic, where in art’s turn to media technology there is a vision of the future that celebrates an aspirational view of outer space as a frontier territory. This vision, to imagine new colonial opportunities in and around the solar system, unfortunately is also inevitably part of the escape plan of those with power, who may also be culpable for the degradation of the earth’s climate and the exploitation of its peoples.

Andrew Stooke

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Related Topics: Asian artists, European artists, Brazilian artists, biennales, new mediavideo art, events in Seoul

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