in Features | 01 JAN 98
Featured in
Issue 38

Spin City

The Istanbul, Johannesburg and Kwangju Biennales

in Features | 01 JAN 98

spin: n. A fairly rapid ride or run; a brief drive in a motor vehicle, aircraft, etc., now esp. For pleasure.

As I write this I notice out of the corner of my eye a copy of USA Today I bought for the particularly compelling photos on the front page: faces of stockbrokers around the world in despair, panic and euphoria the day after the global stock market crash and recovery. Why debate the existence of globalisation, post-nationalism or hybridity when it's already here? When this global beast reveals its nature, feelings of nationalism are renewed, responding to the fear such a swing engenders. Likewise in professional sports, we all want our teams to win but not at the cost of too many foreign players and losing our sense of who we are. Such claims for cultural classification sometimes seem beyond our control: are you truly associating with a frontier cowboy spirit while inhaling a Marlboro? Or as the billows of smoke are liberated from your lungs do you taste the Indian born CEO of Philip Morris, the Swiss stockbroker who purchased the company's shares or the tobacco farmers from countries you've never visited? Where in fact did you purchase the pack and whence came the merchant who sold it? Thousands refuse to watch the Oscars in protest against a misguided sense of American hegemony, but Japanese, European and American money all produce Hollywood's cultural cotton candy, and for global audiences. While the idea of First World multinationals versus the rest of us would seem an appealing conflict, more often than not the ideology is subsumed by questions of power. If you could remake the world in your image who would end up with that power?

spin n. 9 Chiefly US Polit. A bias or slant on information, intended to create a favourable impression when it is presented to the public; an interpretation, a viewpoint.

'Frankly speaking, there is no such thing as a single curator. Even when one person is working, "a multiplicity of anonymous people" are constantly working together in him or her. Collaborators, interferers, opposers, memories, accidental happenings... infinitely numerous elements incessantly affect the work. Who can claim a single "I" in this circumstance?'

- Lee Young-chul, Artistic Director, 97 Kwangju Biennale

'Buildings grow, collapse and rise up again, more as a part of ongoing, anonymous process of do-it-yourself than as part of global, architectural and urban planning. Identities mix in synchronic, endless effervescence. Life develops with a forcefulness that defies difficulties.'

- Rosa Martínez, Artistic Director, 5th International Istanbul Biennial

'Ours is a fascinating world of plentiful material comfort and economic triumphs, yet many countries and their inhabitants are so beggared that their very existence makes mockery of the idea of sovereign national states and subjects. By what right then do people practice art under such clearly traumatic situations? Perhaps a more apt question ought to be: by what right must people cease to find critical expression in the troubling narratives and celebrations of their milieus? Might we also add that the boundary of modernity is not just a sight of translation but, more clearly, one of trauma?'

- Okwui Enwezor, Artistic Director, 2nd Johannesburg Biennale 1997

Biennales have existed as survey exhibitions of contemporary art for almost a century. Optimistically their first function has always been to educate and inform the local audience: more pessimistically, they facilitate schmoozing and plumage stroking for the art world. Cynically, especially in offbeat locales, they serve to foster a false impression of a freethinking democracy engaged with transnational ideas. While Venice, then Sao Paolo have been around the longest, over the last decade multitudinous events have been birthed around the world, most attempting the traditional structure of the national pavilion. Last year the Kwangju, Istanbul and Johannesburg Biennales all shed this format in favour of an arguably more cohesive, thematic exhibition.

Like the politician, the curator performs a delicate balancing act between governments, foundations, patrons, artists, critics and a general audience. While in many places freedom of expression can be taken for granted, in Kwangju, Istanbul and Johannesburg this freedom is, for varying reasons, precarious. The signs are there for all to see. In Kwangju, passengers from Brazil were warned that they may be subjected to Aids tests. Throughout the Istanbul exhibition, plaques read: 'Önemli Uyari: Yapitlara zarar verenler hakkinda yasal islem yapilacaktir.' (Legal action will be taken against those who violate the works of art.) In Johannesburg, barbed wire was the construction material of choice.

Perhaps these circumstances were why the artistic directors chose such amorphous themes. Kwangju's 'Unmapping the Earth' was broken down into five sections each with a correlative element and corresponding curator: 'Speed/Water' by Harald Szeeman, 'Becoming/Earth' by Bernard Marcadé, 'Hybrid/Wood' by Richard Kolashek, 'Power/Metal' by Sung Wan-kyung and 'Space/Fire' by Kyong Park. In Istanbul, the Biennale consisted of a single exhibition entitled 'On life, beauty, translations and other difficulties'. 'Trade Routes: History and Geography' in Johannesburg consisted of six exhibitions: 'Alternating Currents' curated by Enwezor and Octavio Zaya, 'Graft' by Colin Richards, 'Important and Exportant' by Gerardo Mosquera, 'Life's Little Necessities' by Kellie Jones, 'Hong Kong Etc.' by Hou Hanru and 'Transversions' by Yu Yeon Kim. Try to keep up. Perhaps the viscosity of the language can be attributed to the fear of constricting art through language, but it could also be interpreted as a signal that curators, like politicians, know that the only way to win votes and keep their constituencies pacified is to say nothing at all with as much passion as humanly possible. But like voters, the Biennale public occasionally saw this hollow language as an affront to their sensibilities. One longed for someone with the cojones to actually say something substantial.

spin v. II6b Of the brain or head: be dizzy, dazed, or confused through excitement, astonishment, etc.

Reacting to the multi-culti mess of the preceding Kwangju Biennale, Lee Young-chul 'distanc[ed] it from the interest in the "Other."' While in egalitarian terms this was meant to eradicate the subjectivity linked to identity theory, in practical terms this meant that there were four black artists in the show. 'Unmapping the Earth' was, in essence, an attempt to match the grander exhibits in Europe by presenting an unabashedly European show with perhaps a few more Korean artists than might otherwise be displayed, a strategy that, since 'Magiciens de la Terre', most European shows actively try to avoid. At one entrance hung a da Vinci - a rather drastic choice to illustrate historicity - at the other, Kyong Park's architectural photo exhibit depicting cities in a state of anguish, ennui or futuristic bliss. Installations such as Park's seem de rigeur at grand exhibitions lately, and while a counterpoint to touristic images of gleaming skyscrapers, lush hotels and precious vistas is a righteous cause, the salve invariably brings us pictures of 'the city in decay'. There's the physical decay of New York and the creative decay of Seoul's cookie cutter architecture; neither seem to have given Shanghai adequate warning as it rushes into the future head first, ignoring the signs of the spiritual void ahead.

The exhibition spaces of the Istanbul Biennale included the ethereal grace of the Hagia Eireni Museum, a former church rebuilt in the 5th Century, and the Yerebatan Cistern, a nine-hundred year old water storage facility now visited by hordes of tourists who sped their time getting wet from the ceiling's constant dripping. These loaded spaces occasionally worked in favour of the art, but more often against it. One artist to benefit was Soo Ja Kim, who filled the crevices of the Hagia Ereini's apse with multi-hued pieces of cloth, transforming the space into a Mondrian boogie-woogie. Although none of Istanbul's advertised performances - by Mariko Mori and Tracey Emin, amongst others - took place, and certain Johannesburg installations were either incomplete or missing entirely, the Biennales' settings more than compensated. South Africa's recent political history infused the proceedings with a sense of marvel, and the exhibitions' backdrops of Johannesburg, with its new found reputation as a crime capital, and Cape Town, still a global playground, contrasted beautifully.

With advs. In specialised senses: spin down (a) (Biol.) centrifuge so as to cause the separation of components.

The Utopian idea of the melting pot now seems a long way away. When once the phrase was used to suggest that different constituents would meld into a heterogenous whole, now our meting pots are more like mosaics: as much as we try, the components just don't merge. It's a similar story with Biennales, but this doesn't mean that interesting alliances and juxtapositions aren't made. For 'Hong Kong, Etc.', Zhu Jia twirled a video camera through 360 degrees, turning her surroundings into anystreet anywhere; similarly, Igor & Sveltana Kopystinsky's video in 'Alternating Currents' choreographed trash dancing on a gusty street. Louise Bourgeois was one of several artists to feature in two Biennales; in Korea she carved her harrowing space out of a white cube setting, and in Istanbul her work stood up to the overwhelming historicity of the Hagia Eireni. On a platform in the Yerebatan Cistern, the visitor came to an arch cradling a sheet of mist with a rainbow dancing on its surface, only to identify it as Olafur Eliasson's Beauty (1993). In Newtown, Johannesburg's art ghetto, one found a stream of running water, making the transition between sister exhibitions accessible only via a leap, lest your feet get wet. This aquatic intervention, also by Eliasson, was titled Erosion (1997). Like a child on an inquisition, one found oneself following the trail of water outside, past some picturesque houses and finally into a gutter.

Also participating in these two Biennales was Shirin Neshat, whose transition into the moving image is stunning. While her photographs were, well, flat and two-dimensional, the body in motion expands her work tremendously. In Istanbul she appeared as an avatar in head to toe black veil, running around the markets of Istanbul, walking into a mosque, roaming a steppe hillside dotted with ruins or sprinting down a deserted alleyway. Each video was projected onto a wall surrounding the viewer and in turn bringing into question the viewer's central position. In Johannesburg we found the avatar again, this time set against a field of black so deep that only a face, hand or gun is visible. A split second after you see the weapon, she fires.

The politics of the body, while perhaps rather passé for the art world, is still the major point of contention for the powers that be. In Kwangju Uri Tzaig presented two videos on a bare wooden platform buffered by a staircase that descended into glass marbles. The first video, Piano (1997), showed someone's hands playing a fugue on a naked body; the second, Ahava - Soap Balls (1996), (Ahava is the hebrew word for desert and also the name of an Israeli scientific manufacturer), offered a faceless body washing itself with a new product, a pliable soap ball. Tzaig's work, even though placed opposite Paul McCarthy's Spaghetti Man (1993) and Bear and Rabbit (1991) sculptures, was too provocative for the Korean government censor, and had to be withdrawn.

Some old works changed dramatically in their new, Biennale locations. I had seen Pepon Osorio's Badge of Honor (1995) before, a video projection of a father's grey prison cell juxtaposed with a projection of his son's home bedroom, showing video letters being sent back and forth. In Johannesburg the installation attained fresh meaning from the fact that the country's president had lived in a cell that was not much larger than the father's. Similarly poignant was South African artist Kay Hassan's rendering of the township vibe, in contrast to fellow citizen Zwelethu Mthetwa's photos which distanced that same feeling with flat photos of residents in their homes. Bülent Sangar also showed photographs with local references - this time, to himself. On a window ledge, Sangar darts on and off the precipice holding various objects, such as a blanket or a gun. Delightfully bratty, the images turn a Rear Window paranoia into a dance of urban ennui.

In Istanbul a women came up to me in Pipilotti Rist's Shooting Divas (1996) installation and said: 'Do you know whether that woman is Turkish?' 'She looks Turkish', I said. 'She's singing in perfect Turkish but she's too dark skinned to be Turkish, she must be Arabic or Indian or something.' 'Hmm', I said. In Cape Town's 'Life's Little Necessities', two artists explored the theme of cultural plurality with deft grace. Fatimah Tuggar imploded the Africanistic cliche by juxtaposing traditional images with modern conveniences - a plug and wire, for example, were nonchalantly attached to a broom. Similarly in Call Waiting, Lorna Simpson posed a multilingual meditation on cross-wired communication, exposing a one world tangled by technology that doesn't hurt or heal but simply exposes human fallability, leaving it raw.

Institutional critique remains ever popular with institutions. Xu Bing's installation, Classroom Calligraphy (1995-96) was included in both Kwangju and Johannesburg. One was supposed to sit down an practice Chinese calligraphy in a classroom setting, but unbeknownst to those who didn't read Chinese, the participant was copying 'Mary Had a Little Lamb'. The joke came across as puerile. Over in Istanbul, New Slovenian Kunst's visual arts branch, IRWIN, tripped on the museum gaze by hanging kitschy oil paintings on the ceiling and then suspending themselves horizontally to look. Tracey Rose's contribution to Cape Town's 'Graft' was a diva stint in a vitrine, endlessly sewing a wig. In Kwangju, Mo Bahc's fragmentary U.N. Tower had all the inelegance of a Jason Rhoades installation but here his D.I.Y. amalgamation mocking the architecture of the famous site was also used to mirror the ineffectiveness of the mega-exhibit in general. Felix Gonzalez-Torres' work dealt with the logistics of viewing art and the institutions role in this process with a lightness and elegance that still leaves one breathless. His sheets of giveaways, in both Johannesburg and Istanbul, are as timeless as the pages are endless.

spin II3 v.i. Of blood etc.: issue in a rapid stream; gush, spurt. Freq. foll. By out.

Cultural exchange is simultaneously a myth, ideal and reality. Quentin Tarantino's 'Le Big Mac' dialogue from Pulp Fiction was an enquiry into this arena at its most banal extreme - of course McDonald's is everywhere. (As the corporation abandoned South Africa in the apartheid era, homegrown versions took hold. When McDonald's finally did return, after sampling this taste of democracy, many muttered: 'Gee, these things are small'.) The myth is that this is an example of cultural exchange; the ideal province of intercultural colloquy would be a state where equals can reformulate ideas. This almost happens with popular music: in Korea, for example, Puff Daddy boomed from car speakers while hipsters in expensive labels cruised overcrowded streets; in Istanbul, Puff Daddy thumped from bars in Taksim while hipsters in designer jeans searched for a light from potential companions; in South Africa, Puff Daddy pulsed and people danced. Usually, however, these questions of cultural provenance are riddled with subtexts that deal with the acquisition of power.

Coco Fusco's performance at Johannesburg's Electric Workshop, Rights of Passage (1997), entailed that in the opening days of the exhibition visitors were issued a passbook (photo included - 5 rand) and required that they state to the uniformed Fusco and assistants the purpose of their visit, ethnicity and occupation. This time-consuming process ended up bottlenecking people at the entrance, and of course this was the point. Interestingly, white people were the most vocal in expressing their distaste with the inconvenience. Blacks, while annoyed, enjoyed the joke. But so soon into a post-apartheid era, does South Africa need Fusco to reiterate the terms of apartheid to them? Not to mention the fact that like most performances at these events, the intervention is pointed at the elite who attend openings and therefore becomes an elitist gesture in and of itself. In a similar vein, Hans Haacke's contribution, originally an apartheid era flag tied in a knot with an ANC flag unfurled above it, now includes a post-apartheid flag placed above that. While a crisp and surprisingly beautiful installation, the argument is fairly reductive, and one wonders whether the contemporary history of South Africa was simply grist for the artist's mill. Similar activities were underfoot in Istanbul, where at the Marmara Hotel, a five-star establishment in the tourist centre, Richard Hoeck presented a video installation in the rooftop bar. A belly dancer dances against a blue backdrop. That's it. While that banality is normally part of Hoeck's appeal, in this context it simply reduced a rich and vast culture into a cheap touristic cliché. Of course this was the point, but manifestos of abjection and kitsch appeal aside, many people who these events are supposed to be for don't need a simple reduction of a culture regurgitated in the guise of art.

For art is a sly enough creature to both critique and propel culture. Take for example 'Buy One Get One: this offer will self destruct in 5 seconds' by Shu Lea Cheang with Lawrence Chua. Originally a project for the NTT Biennial in Tokyo, Cheang created a website for which she creates content on the go during her travels through 12 countries over a three month period, from Johannesburg back to Tokyo. The performance I saw had Cheang situated in the middle of 'Alternating Currents' at a card table with a suitcase containing a laptop, phone and rice. Several children came up and started to play with the digital camera and were thus added to the content. Those visiting the NCC Biennial in Tokyo could monitor Cheang's site on the web utilising the same suitcase setup she had in Johannesburg. It is one thing to say the possibilities are endless, but sometimes, art has the capacity to prove it.

One should note that there is no continuous ongoing survey of contemporary art in either Kwangju, Istanbul or Johannesburg. While in Europe, Brazil and the States each mega-exhibit is greeted with collective griping and with massive attendance, the fresher Biennales are still greeted with a spectre of hope. The effects of having so many enormous shows will inevitably produce a discourse of its own; for example one can already see, in addition to the gallery/museum structure, a 'Biennale art' developing, with its own artists and work which only seem to surface at such events. While it is not a requirement that Biennales challenge the structures within which art and ideas are traditionally circulated, their existence inevitably modifies them. The next couple of years will see Biennales in Berlin, China and a theatre near you. This ubiquity may simply affirm a hunch we already had: that art is happening elsewhere and ideas are happening everywhere.