This year’s East Asian biennial flurry seems, particularly in South Korea, to have attained a certain maturity with a series of slick, high-production art events, all impeccably installed, hosted and promoted. The biennial Media City Seoul, now in its sixth iteration, is no exception. With its base at the Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA), and spreading to a handful of nearby venues, this is an ambitious presentation of works by 45 established and emerging artists with a propensity for lens-based media.
Media City Seoul 2010 opts for reflexivity, looking to build upon interpretations of ‘media’ in previous editions of the biennial, as well as exploring ideas of the mass media rather than the niche genre of ‘media art’. This inadvertently created a dialogue with the Gwangju Biennial, which opened just a few days before, the broad theme of which aims to portray the role of imagery in contemporary life. The four curators invited to collaborate on Media City Seoul – Sunjung Kim, Clara Kim, Nicolaus Schafhausen and Fumihiko Sumitomo – formulated a thematic frame based on the notion of trust in the relations between people, the media and ecology. Their curatorial essays emphasize the more political aspects of media infrastructure, citing a range of theorists – from arch neo-con Francis Fukuyama’s thesis on trust in the social realm as the determining factor for economic prosperity, to Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983), the latter of which is referenced eloquently in the text by REDCAT’s Clara Kim. Kim summarizes Anderson’s depiction of a public sphere in which ‘marketing poses as friendship, solitude as community, populism as democracy’, ultimately describing the depoliticizing effects of neo-liberalism on society and its consequences for notions of community and identity. In relation to these ideas, the exhibition might be described as a selection of politically engaged art works that proposes a more humanist approach to media technologies.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the recent tendency for artists to investigate the socio-political connotations of archival or historical material is abundant here. Los Angeles-based Adrià Julià produced a three-channel video installation entitled Notes on the Missing Oh (2009–10) about the now-forgotten film Oh, Incheon (1982), which focused on the Incheon Landing Operation during the Korean War. Considered something of an oddity in film circles, the original movie incorporated real footage of the 1980 Gwangju Massacre in its battle scenes, as well as featuring guest appearances by the US military as extras. Julià’s installation dwells on the interchangeability of the machineries of propaganda and entertainment, and its possible instrumentalized entry into the collective consciousness. Christodoulos Panayiotou’s I Land (2010) comprises a series of slides from the Bureau of Public Information in Cyprus depicting the day-to-day activities of the nation’s first president, Archbishop Makarios III. Rather than deconstructing this imagery, Panayiotou presents it as an intimate and unadulterated slideshow, encouraging us to make our own interpretations, particularly with regard to national identity and nation building. This kind of re-imagined ‘power play’ between mass media and individuals is hinted at throughout the exhibition.
The intertwining of fantasy and community is a common theme in a number of works. In their ‘Xijing’ series (2007–ongoing), the Xijing Men, a pan-Asian collective including Chen Shaoxiong, Gimhongsok and Tsuyoshi Ozawa, look to depict the events of a new, mythical city called Xijing. The artists enact aspects of this imagined Utopian space – from the daily life of its president to its history, city planning and economic structure – in a series of humorous video works, the detritus of which accompanies them within the artists’ strewn, ephemerally constructed installations. Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s video installation Nabua (2009) builds on the dreamlike cinematic language of his previous feature films. The subject of the work, the town of Nabua in Northern Thailand near the Laotian border, is a so-called red-zone town once populated by alleged Communist sympathizers who faced persistent state aggression between the 1960s and ’80s. With most men having fled or been killed, the depiction of this ‘widow town’ is entwined with local legends of a ghost widow who kills any man who enters her lair. Weerasethakul creates a magic realism situated in a deathly rural reality.
Shilpa Gupta’s Singing Cloud (2008–9) is one of the more sculptural – and compelling – presences in the exhibition. The work is a culmination of data gathered from a research process the artist undertook in collaboration with Mahzarin Banaji, a psychology professor at Harvard University. Gupta collated a body of data on the cognitive processes of perceiving images that underlie individual and collective consciousness. Gilpa has translated the information, artistically speaking, into a large floating cloud sculpture constructed from thousands of microphones whose functions she has reversed to create speakers, individually emitting the sound of singing. Visually weightless yet brooding, the installation, along with its polyphonic soundscape, generates the dual sensations of seduction and dissonance using the language of media imagery.
Video and photography, highly prevalent in biennial culture over the last decade, are also prominent in Media City Seoul, which, given the ambition of mass media reflexivity, they are bound to be. Yet their abundance demonstrates the broad spectrum of possibilities within the parameters of such formats for describing an imaginary cultural media. For the most part, the political or ideological partialities of the works and the curatorial agenda – both of which are palpable – are never heavy-handed or overplayed, allowing the exhibition to possess the clearer critical edge it seeks. Experientially, too, it is heartening to visit a biennial that doesn’t feel quantitatively like overkill, sitting somewhere between a mega-exhibition and a museum’s thematic group exhibition. Accidental or not, this actually seems like another humanistic gesture in contrast to the effects of mass media.