The year 2020 was unusual, it shook our daily existence to the core. The aftermath is still our daily reality. In the midst of those uncertainties numerous artistic exhibitions have been postponed (and some eventually cancelled). During the ongoing global confusion of the future, Busan Biennale was one of the very few international artistic productions that went ahead last year, consciously deciding not to postpone or cancel the 2020 edition. I joined the Busan Biennale 2020 team in the capacity of the exhibition coordinator in the exhibition team, having returned home from Europe with the onset of the global pandemic.
The literary organism, newly created by commissioned writers and poet for the Busan Biennale 2020, served as a base for 89 visual artists from 34 different countries, to translate the media of artistic expression from literature into visual and sound art. This metamorphosis possessed an essential key concept for the Busan Biennale and was translated into the title of the Biennial – Words at an exhibition – an exhibition in ten chapters and five poems.
As a native of Seoul, for me Busan has a gripping history and identity evident through its urban layout. Once a temporary capital during the Korean war, today Busan is a renowned sea resort venue and the second most populous city in Korea. Busan Biennale 2020 was thematically an homage to the host city, perceived through the lens of literature. For me the Busan Biennale was an extraordinary point in history, as one of the rare large art exhibitions that unfolded when life appeared to pause.
Along with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Busan, Yeongdo and the old city centre were chosen as the exhibition venues for 2020 Busan Biennale. Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Busan became my office. Three out of five of my other colleagues, Pooluna, Ji Yeon and Hyesu were assigned to MOCA with me, then Jihyun to Yeongdo and Yoojin to the old city centre.
Yeongdo is an island located within Busan and the entire island is one borough. It is not difficult at all to find shipbuilding (captured below) facilities in Busan, a renowned port city, and Yeongdo boasts the location of the very first modern shipyard in the city.
An abandoned warehouse (captured below, pre-installation views) on the island was turned into one of the exhibition spaces, proudly showing its rusty, industrial vestige of the past. This unexpected location created the stage for eight different artists – Dave Hullfish Bailey, Daiga Grantina, Kim Heecheon, Kwon Yongju, Lee Yona, Charles Lim Yi Yong, Amalie Smith, Robert Zhao Renhui – to present their works.
There were additional smaller exhibition spaces spread across the old town area, tied together through the novel Daily Walking Rehearsals by Bak Solmay. The old city centre is a testimony of the rich Busan history, yet is simultaneously an incredibly modern place with surrounding shops and office buildings. Aziz Hazara, Heo Chanmi, Jang Minseung, Nho Wonhee, Emeka Ogboh, Erkan Özgen, Vandy Rattana and Francesc Ruiz presented their works in this area that still carries evidence of the tough time that the refugees had as a result of the Korean War. Busan Biennale 2020 centralised walking as an essential component of this large scale art show that led people to explore the old town, alley by alley, in search of exhibition venues. For me wandering around the old city centre generated an overlapping exhibition experience of the fictional layer around the area and the physical space.
Prior to my joining the exhibition department, each of the coordinators had ventured to different places in Busan to collect random bits of rubbish on the street for Lasse Krogh Møller’s installation, Meanwhile in Busan – a journey at the desk. JL’s expedition to Gwangan Bridge, 2020. Then JiYeon, one of the coordinators, took videos and sent the footage to Kim Gordon enabling the artist to produce her final piece, July 24, with the forwarded material. Pooluna spent days re-creating flooring work using latex for Mandy El-Sayegh’s piece, What’s it called? Nothing, I just collect stuff, I’m a yard man, 2020.
Installation of the Busan Biennale 2020 was conducted through video calls with various artists, where for me the most memorable remains my call with artist Barbara Kasten for her work Crossover, 2020. One of the calls with the artist and her technician was in the evening of the 3rd September 2020 interrupted by the approaching typhoon coming towards the museum. MOCA is located remotely on the island of Eulsukdo, so venturing outside could have been dangerous as the typhoon was passing by. I decided to stay in the museum and ended up spending the most unforgettable night there.
Setting up the exhibition was very challenging, and the exhibition team were enabling the remote work for artists unable to travel to Busan. I visited the Healing Forest to collect soil for the artist Dineo Seshee Bopape. She used it for the background of her mud drawing series, Convoluted Story, 2020. Jihyun helped Robert Zhao Renhui make the video piece, Evidence of Things Not Seen, II, 2020, by shooting a tree growing in Young-do on his behalf and sending the still images to him. As artists were physically scattered across the globe, we transitioned into the role of mediator between artist and their site-specific work, conducting site-specific research.
Time on both ends was limited and additionally affected by the time difference and if we missed a chance during each installation day to talk, the installation was halted until the next day. Our entire communication was internet-dependent and artists had the possibility to track the developments of the installation through email or video call.
On top of producing and installing the artworks, our effort to present the show under the social distancing measure continued. Instead of holding an opening reception with artists and other VIPs, the opening was live streamed on YouTube having only a few people from the biennale team watching it happening in the museum’s foyer. My team watched it on YouTube, working in the office upstairs. It wasn’t quite like those conventional ways of having opening receptions back in the ‘normal’ days. After a month from the opening, the exhibition was finally open to the public. For this period of time online exhibition was provided on the website.
An online exhibition brings a much simpler dimension of experience, yet lacks in-person communication as people were not able explore the exhibition space in person, it actually required many more complicated pre-stages to provide an online show. The 3D shooting of the entire exhibition spaces from all three venues, and video shooting for the online guide which introduced each artist’s piece in short video clips, had to be completed before the opening of the exhibition. In the end, several different types of online content were up on the website. In addition to the 3D exhibition, video guides and audio book, there was also the video series ‘Detective Jacob. 051’(051 is the area code of Busan) in which the artistic director of Busan Biennale 2020, Jacob Fabricius gives tours around the exhibition to the viewers and so on.
Although the Busan Biennale 2020 has come to an end, it keeps resonating by stretching further afield to Aarhus in Denmark and Chicago in the U.S. in the form of an exhibition or research project.
I’ve seen many different faces of sea while staying in Busan. Now I’m headed back to Seoul with the long history and rich stories of Busan which embraces the sea as its background. It was a priceless COVID – 19 experience that I got to know a city by the language of art.