The Busan Biennale forces us to make our way through the toy city, South Korea’s second most-populated and a historical, thriving port. Through the stream, high-rise buildings and skyscrapers float on hills as round peaks emerge, the traffic gently hidden, discrete among tides. Waves hit the seawalls, but the noise of cars, cranes, ships and blacksmiths is too loud for them to be heard. Tides and concrete seem to be synchronised. Busan is liquid as the sea is liquid (as cities, in general, are liquid), their unified body a dreamland of darned clouds.
Yet the sea-city is also dust, trade, data, territory, supermarket, mine, highway, money, plastic, cave, flag, factory, pipe, warehouse, farm, dump, flame, asbestos, vacation, scrap. Water is space yet to be covered, an urbanistic element where the map of the city is to be laid upon. Busan is a threshold of dreams and trash. And the Biennale also seems to lean more towards this threshold, taking the city not only as a starting point but also as a stage, a mirror where the sea is only seen in the background, below the surface.
Overall, there is a feeling of being immersed. Not in a romantic tribute to liquidity, but rather in an environment whose problems are growingly more visible from the surface. The tone oscillates between the feeling of floating in a lyrical landscape and taking part in a critique of territory, a tension that normally comes up when one thinks of the sea. Organised around four axes - “migration”, “women and women labourers”, “the ecosystem of the city”, and “technological change and locality” -, the various exhibitions focus on the threshold of landscape and territory. Space is not conceived as a mere idea nor water as a mere element: one must see how those two dimensions clash as part of the same ecosystem.
Some works seem to encompass both forces of that tension, such as Hira Nabi’s All That Perishes at the Edge of Land (2019), a documentary about a graveyard for ships at Gadani, Pakistan. Swinging between visual lyricism and a depiction of toxicity, the half-hourlong film follows workers as they dismantle a giant Korean- built ship by a beach while a voice-over describes their laboral concerns. In a limbo of sand and scrap, hammers and saws seem to open wounds on the rusty skin of the ship, clouds of dust dancing as asbestos alights.
Historically, the sense of the unknown that western visions of the sea have attributed to it has placed it closer to an idea of a future than a past: a sort of ground yet to be covered, a vast field with new spaces to conquer. This vision, mostly masked by a sense of boldness and determination, has been shared by colonisers, companies, fishermen, even poets, and led ultimately to the notion that water is not only a resource, but a potential commodity. Nowadays, it is clear that such fascination has resulted in destruction, although oil rigs continue to sprawl and cruise ships keep dumping grey waters while tourists sunbathe in the middle of the ocean.
In the end, what comes out of the clash between idealisation and materiality is unknown. We are all aware that sea levels and temperatures are rising, yet some consequences are difficult to foresee. For instance, what kind of biota may develop in future ecosystems? What kind of political structure will be most prominent in a couple of centuries, pushed by inevitable responses? What kind of imagery should we expect? This may open the possibility of new mythologies. Mire Lee’s Landscape with Many Holes: Skins of Yeongdo Sea (2022), a huge scaffolding structure in an abandoned warehouse, might be a good example. Here, water is nothing but a trace, a form of rot. The massive body, both visceral and nameless, presents itself as a ruin under construction, growing as it decays.
PACK Collective also has an important word in this framing. With two works presented in different venues, both quite central in each room, it is difficult to miss them. At Pier 1, Hinterland (2022) presents a fictional universe in the form of a virtual guided tour. A mix of literary sci-fi, 3d modelling and sound-work, Hinterland gives a guided tour of a possible future where societies and political structures have changed due to the rise of sea levels. There, privilege is not the possibility of staying but the possibility of fleeing, as walls separate water from land. We can hear references to Ediacaran biota and data buildings. This provides an interesting contrast with a collection of figurative drawings and floor plans of ships produced by the same collective, which are presented at the Contemporary Art Museum of Busan. There, they work more as a kind of archive of a decadent fleet, as though just an image of a memory rather than a dystopian vision of the future.
Although in an entirely different way, Tabita Rezaire’s Deep Down Tidal (2017) follows along this subtle satire. A single-channel video, focusing on the role of oceans as communication lanes and how that has turned into a form of electronic colonialism. Her work is a balanced mix of humour and violence. As Rezaire puts it, “internet is not on the clouds. It lies on the seafloor”. Indeed, about 88000 km of cables are sunken in the sea at the moment, working as I type. The wires map resembles past ones, as the hardware follows the matrix of colonial routes.
It is essential to underline that the balance between critique and lyricism starts with the venues themselves. Apart from the Museum of Contemporary Art, the exhibitions take place in spaces not originally designed for hosting such happenings, from an old warehouse at Pier 1 of Busan Port to an abandoned factory in Yeongdo, following the trend of other recent biennales. Moving between them, visitors get to have an immersive experience of the city, almost as though these spaces were unfolding, being brought to the surface. Movement becomes an illustration of how continental sprawl may be fostered by a port, and how water has sustained a whole history of economic growth, migration, poverty and violence. The works are rather a reflection of what surrounds them; only there to enhance it.
As one leaves, one may think of Mika Rottenberg’s Spaghetti Blockchain (2019), an extravagant, mechanical video work that mixes Mongolian singing, latex cutting, spraying and melting, all around a circular, spinning structure. A closed universe of colours and repetition activated through sound and light, the bodily movements on the screen twist the spectator's perspective, turning it into an element in the chain too, as painted scalps become hair. Rottenberg intends to stress the circularity of the process of producing joy which consists of turning it into a commodity and adding more value by reproducing it again. She mixes fictional and factual narratives, emphasising the material relation between work, labour and entertainment. Ultimately, one may feel that this is pointing at reckless industrial landscapes and hubs of consumption, not at the vast open ocean. But again, what the Busan Biennale seems to prove is that those two dimensions are not that far apart.
We, on the Rising Wave
03/09 - 06/11/2022
1191 Nakdongnam-ro, Hadan-dong, Saha-gu
Museum of Contemporary Art Busan, Yeongdo, Old Town in Busan City
Republic of Korea