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Issue 216

The Busan Biennale Captures the Changing Faces of the Korean Harbour City

A collaborative effort between authors, musicians and visual artists, this year’s edition presents site-specific works that focus on quotidian experiences and hidden histories 

BY Wooyoung Lee in Exhibition Reviews , Reviews Across Asia | 19 NOV 20

Strolling around the Busan Biennale, one of the city’s oldest art events dating back to 1981, feels particularly special in 2020. Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the aim of this year’s edition – to commission artists to produce site-specific works throughout Busan – might have seemed impossible to pull off. Yet, despite the unprecedented challenges, the show successfully materialized with a series of artworks revealing untold stories from overlooked parts of the city that offer a glimpse into how Busan has evolved – both historically and over the past few months.


Lasse Krogh Møller, Meanwhile in Busan - a journey at the desk, 2020
Lasse Krogh Møller, Meanwhile in Busan - a journey at the desk, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and the Busan Biennale

Under the artistic direction of Danish curator Jacob Fabricius, the biennial brings together 89 visual artists, 11 authors and 11 musicians from around the world. Fabricius invited writers from Korea, Denmark, Columbia and the US to devise short stories and poems about Busan, then asked visual artists to create works in response to these texts. Having been assigned to lead the biennial in August 2019, Fabricius was able to familiarize himself with the city before social-distancing measures were imposed and selected the old town and Yeongdo Harbour as two off-site locations that, together with the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan, would serve as the exhibition’s focal points.

Keen for the commissioned stories and artworks to speak to Busan’s local histories, Fabricius admits it was difficult to find Korean writers whose work was already translated into English. Meanwhile, the pandemic made it a challenge to collaborate with artists living abroad. ‘They had to rethink how to research and execute their works,’ he told me. And, while the writers were able to visit Busan in 2019, the visual artists had to rely heavily on the commissioned texts and virtual tours for inspiration. Despite these constraints, around two thirds of the 300 works on display are new commissions. ‘This is an honest response to the pandemic,’ head of exhibitions Lee Seol-hui told me. ‘It shows how artists are affected by the crisis and how they figure out ways to adjust to it.’

Bianca Bondi, The Antechamber, 2020
Bianca Bondi, The Antechamber, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and the Busan Biennale

Danish artist Lasse Krog Møller, for instance, took a virtual tour around Busan with local biennial team members to compile a research archive entitled Meanwhile in Busan: a Journey at the Desk (all works 2020), which includes maps, hand-drawn instructions of how to get to local sites – such as the fish market, Yeongdo Harbour and Gwangan Bridge – and objects encountered on the walk, including a broken section of pavement, an ice-cream stick, cigarette ends and straws. These items of ephemera are presented in glass vitrines at the Museum of Contemporary Art, documenting the quotidian experiences of city life.

At Yeongdo Harbour, Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui’s Evidence of Things Not Seen responds to Kim Un-su’s short story on the subject of loneliness, The Seal Inn. In the story, a man named Su-re stops at The Seal Inn, located in Yeongdo Harbour, where he meets and has a brief relationship with the owner’s daughter. Revisiting Yeongdo Harbour via an online tour conducted by local biennial staff, the artist came across a tree in a dilapidated house near the harbour, which he observed continuously for three months using motion-sensor cameras. The resulting video installation documents the tree’s slow yet precise movements as it responds to its surrounding environment.

Lee Yona, En route home, 2020
Lee Yona, En route home, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and the Busan Biennale

In the old town, a series of site-specific artists’ projects immerses visitors in this once-flourishing area of the city and brings it into conversation with other parts of the world. Busan-based artist Heo Chan-mi visited the places featured in Daily Walking Rehearsals by Korean writer Bak Sol-may. Capturing snapshots of the old business district, Heo reproduced these scenes on canvases that are dotted around the streets (Daily Walking Rehearsals: Rooftop-sky & Roof-sea). At a time when we are compelled to cover our faces with masks, the artist turned her attention to the walls, ground and sky. ‘I was able to document the changing faces of the city and feel the warmth of it,’ Heo noted in an interview with the biennial team. Pigeons are among the subjects that caught the artist’s eye, a painting of the which can be seen propped outside an old office building that now serves as an exhibition space.

Using a hand-held audio device, visitors can also experience Nigerian artist Emeka Ogboh’s sound work, Lagos Soundscapes, in the old town, which captures noise from the streets of the eponymous commercial city. The lively shouts of market sellers and sounds of beeping car horns in Lagos prompt us to reflect on what Busan’s old town might have been like during its mid-20th-century heyday of industrial development and economic growth. Yet, whilst no longer the city’s economic powerhouse, the old town remains a vital hub, pandemic notwithstanding, with a burgeoning café culture and commercial scene. Now, the Busan Biennale is revealing its rich histories once again.

Main image: Robert Zhao Renhui, Evidence of Things Not Seen, II, 2020, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and the Busan Biennale

Wooyoung Lee is a journalist based in Seoul, South Korea.