Early in the pandemic, novelist Arundhati Roy wrote about possible potentials inherent in quarantine conditions: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” Imagining dire circumstances as an opportunity to rethink what constitutes “normal” has proven a challenge for most, if not all institutions, opting to recalibrate the whole of daily life into computer screens over reimagining preexisting structures. Major art institutions have had a difficult time in this regard, attempting to translate the pandemic deficit in art experiences into virtual tours, faux white cube viewing rooms, VR initiatives and Zoom appointments.
With the art world’s difficulties regarding exhibition practice—pragmatically and in creative imagination—in mind, I discuss “Busan Biennale: Words at an Exhibition: The Chicago Chapter.” In 2020, South Korea’s Busan Biennale was largely undercut, like most things, by the pandemic. In an attempt to rectify the Biennale’s visibility, a series of participating artist and musician talks have been planned throughout 2021, in partnership with the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, the Center for East Asian Studies’ Committee on Korean Studies, and city music venue staple the Empty Bottle. All events are hosted on Zoom. The Biennale itself, was essentially a response project: eleven authors wrote fictional texts around and about Busan itself, a harbor city in South Korea, and sixty-seven visual artists and eleven musicians worldwide responded to these texts in a variety of media, which were then exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Busan. The description of the Biennale cites a conceptual indebtedness to composer Modest Mussorgsky, but at some point it becomes clear, whether advertent or not, that the overall theme is mediation and translation, a tricky thematic to embrace in our contemporary moment, when simply experiencing an artist talk requires multiple online platforms, emails and passwords.
The first iteration of “Words at an Exhibition” occurred Friday March 5 and featured two Biennale participants: artist Kim Heecheon along with, what was likely the main public attraction, artist and music icon Kim Gordon (Sonic Youth, Free Kitten, Body/Head). Gordon and Heecheon did their best to succinctly explain in a palatable way the concepts and processes behind their respective Biennale works, and of particular interest was the former’s outsourcing her filmmaking via remote instructions, raising interesting questions about collaboration and authorship in pandemic art making. Screening Gordon’s film was a wise idea but it put a more conventional maker like Heecheon at a disadvantage, the victim of yet another Zoom PowerPoint hiccup. As interesting as Gordon and Heecheon’s discussions were, I became increasingly unsure of what kind of event this was supposed to be. Was it a promotional for a Biennale that has ended? Was it an artist talk about works we couldn’t really see? Is it a new iteration of an extremely dense and massive response project that, despite its reaching for collaboration and translation, wound up in the same Zoom space as everything else? “Words at an Exhibition” was billed by organizers as a sound and art conversation, but there was little of that, despite Gordon’s presence. So what was this event?
To be clear, there was nothing inherently wrong with the event itself, the Biennale or its subsequent reimagining in Chicago. The issue seems to be in understanding the necessity of events like this, that make an inadvertent case for nostalgia in their seeming to suggest a “normal” mode of arts experience. This isn’t a Luddite argument suggesting that art’s occasion can only be felt in physical conditions, but rather a wondering of what it is that makes art an occasion for an experience in the time of COVID. Surely, with the number of organizations and people involved in this event, there is a way to make it unique among the throng of weekly Zoom art events. The moment I found myself enjoying most in this event, was Gordon’s difficulty getting her dog, Linus, to stop barking. This was one of the few moments in the entirety of the event that felt truly unexpected, a refreshing reminder that not everything has to be legible or mediated. (Chris Reeves)
For more information on the “Busan Biennale: Words at an Exhibition: The Chicago Chapter,” visit graycenter.uchicago.edu/projects/busan-biennale-the-chicago-chapter.
Chris Reeves is a creative researcher and artist who received his PhD in Art History from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2021. In 2020 he co-edited his first book, “The World’s Worst: A Guide to the Portsmouth Sinfonia” released on Soberscove Press.