Busan Biennale 2022 Rises Upon Unexpected Waves
Left to right: Kam Min Kyung, A Song of Dongsook (2022). Charcoal on canvas, 193.9 x 259.1 cm; Zero o'clock (2022). Charcoal on paper. 220 x 150 cm. Exhibition view: Busan Biennale, We, on the Rising Wave (3 September–6 November 2022). Courtesy Busan Biennale Organizing Committee.
Once a tiny fishing village, Busan has become a major maritime industrial city in South Korea, with waves of people settling there, from the opening of the Port of Busan in 1876 to the Korean War in the early 1950s, and the industrialising 1980s.
Today's Busan is composed of multiple layers, with hillsides blocked by skyscrapers and intersecting highways and bridges crisscrossing the city to optimise the transportation of people and goods.
Reflecting this topography shaped by migration and industry, the 2022 edition of the Busan Biennale, We, on the Rising Wave (3 September–6 November 2022) explores how local communities are carried and transformed by historical and environmental waves.
Directed by Haeju Kim, works by 64 artists and art collectives, including PACK, Bassem Saad, and Megan Cope, navigate four thematic threads— 'migration', 'labour and women', 'the ecosystem of city', and 'technological change and placeness'—across four venues: Museum of Contemporary Art Busan (MOCA Busan), Pier 1 of Busan Port, a former factory in Yeongdo, and an abandoned house in Choryang.
Located on Eulsukdo island is MOCA Busan, the Biennale's main venue where the majority of works are anchored. Eulsukdo was a hotspot in Asia for migratory birds until Korea's urbanisation in the 1980s and 90s. In 2012, it was restored into Eulsukdo Island Ecological Park.
The area now appears untouched by industrial destruction. But to the birds that lost their eggs and nests, could the restored park ever feel the same?
At the basement level of MOCA Busan, 27 oil paintings by Oh U-Am made between 1993 and 2014 tap into these spectres of destruction. Orphaned during the Korean War, Oh conjures landscapes of Korea from childhood memories into eerily surreal scenes.
Returning Home (1993), for instance, depicts a disabled soldier on crutches, another man, and a woman with two children against a tawny-toned background. They stand in a line beside a leafless tree housing a magpie—in Korea, the bird symbolises happy news or a welcome guest.
Changes in Busan's ecosystem are also reflected in Oh's paintings. Untitled (2014), which the artist made after moving to Busan's old downtown area after living at a monastery for 25 years, depicts the city's current high-rises, with cars and people rendered almost the same size.
Hidden histories of loss and displacement from the Korean War become sharper in Sara Sejin Chang's (Sara van der Heide) Shamanistic film installation, Four Months, Four Million Light Years (2020), located on the same floor at MOCA Busan.
Four Months, Four Million Light Years refers to the mandated four-month stay in a Korean orphanage for a child to be eligible for adoption. The title references the profitable transracial adoption industry that flourished after the Korean War.
While Oh's paintings recall those left behind, Chang's video visualises those who were taken away in a whirlwind of transnational histories.
Surrounded by textile banners reading 'father', 'mother', 'Ancestors', 'Universe', and 'You're made of Stardust', all in Korean, Chan's video combines archival pictures, drawings, and a portrait of the artist—an adoptee from Korea who grew up in the Netherlands—to represent a journey of healing from conflict.
The film's narration points out that the Korean War has become an abstract image; mothers lost their babies through child trafficking, and falsified documents have been erased, while American soldiers are the fathers of orphans.
This history is juxtaposed with Dutch colonial history, with reference to Nicolaes Witsen's print Shaman or Devil's Priest from the Tungus (1692), a twisted depiction of a Siberian shaman captioned the 'devil priest'. Such representations incited racialised projections of Asian people, and fuelled Christian missionary efforts to convert shamanistic cultures.
Representing the journey of healing, a woman and man in traditional costume occasionally appear in the video singing Korean shamanic or folklore songs.
While Oh's paintings recall those left behind, Chang's video visualises those who were taken away in a whirlwind of transnational histories that Yusuke Kamata's installation on the second floor at MOCA Busan extends, connecting Japanese and Korean histories using architectural elements.
Along the walls, Kamata documented Japanese fortresses built in Korea during 16th-century invasions with what appears to be black-and-white photographs of each site, connected by a topographical drawing mapping their locations.
Mostly concentrated in Busan and South Gyeongsang province, these fortresses are linked with ones in Japan, such as Nagoya Castle, which was built in 1952 as a dispatch base to invade Korea, and remains inside stone walls and in ruins in Karatsu, Saga prefecture.
Installed in front of the wall piece are the two frames that form the second part of Japanese Houses, Stone Garden of Imperialism (2022). These elements of traditional Japanese wooden houses have been built in the shape of a base with two photographic works installed inside, and two monitors outside.
One photographic work combines three side-by-side blueprints of Japanese houses, the first two made for American incendiary-bomb tests and anti-incendiary bomb-burning tests in Utah and Tokyo, respectively. The third is designed by Antonin Raymond, who would conceive a Japanese house for a U.S.-led incendiary test in 1943.
On the other side of the frame, the monitor shows a short video. An old man tunes a piano as subtitles tell the story of an American architect called 'A', who was assigned to design a Japanese village to test the power of incendiary bombs developed by the U.S. Air Force in 1943. We learn that 'A' worked on the Yamaha Ginza building project in 1951 by designing pianos.
Hira Nabi's All That Perishes at the Edge of Land (2019), a single-channel video located in the old warehouse at Pier 1 of Busan Port, summons another witness to history. Nabi's film centres around Ocean Master, a huge container ship built in 1995 and shattered at the Gadani ship-breaking yards in Pakistan.
Over long-take portrayals of the ship and ocean, the vessel speaks of its abandoned dreams like travelling the world and swimming with fish, implying its life was deeply affected by globalisation. Migrant workers describe inhospitable living conditions, fighting against death and dangerous working conditions for meagre wages. They reveal the structural violence within the ship-breaking industry, which has also harmed the local environment.
Reflecting similar flows of labour and human connection, Song Min Jung's video installation Custom (2022) is screened across two locations: an old warehouse on the pier, and a small house in Choryang, presenting a non-linear narrative across six mobile phones.
Custom narrates the fictional story of two female factory workers: Haruko, meaning 'born in spring' in Japanese, and Chunja, 'child of spring' in Korean, who seem to reflect each other's inner selves.
In the old warehouse, one phone screen displays images of the sea, the other shows a narration video of Chunja sending vlog messages to Haruko reading, 'like last night's dreams, we might as well be dead to each other from long ago'.
This fragmented story becomes further abstracted in Choryang, where one screen shows a hand holding a mobile phone with the background of the sea, as the same vlog plays on the phone screen.
The subject of women, women labourers, and migration extends to Yeongdo, which housed refugees during the Korean War, as well as shipyard women workers and relocated haenyeo—Jeju Island female divers in the 1980s, who harvested a variety of shellfish.
Yeongdo, meaning shadow island, was also the battleground for workers amid mass layoffs, including that of Kim Jin Suk, Korea's first female welder. Kim was unfairly laid off by Hanjin Heavy Industries in 1986, and was only reinstated with honorary retirement this year after a 37-year-long protest that saw Kim climbing up the No. 85 crane at Yeongdo shipyard in 2011 and remaining there for 309 days.
At Yeongdo, the abandoned Song Kang Heavy Industrial factory, which had its roof and walls blown away during a typhoon in 2020, acts like a skeletal body hosting Mire Lee's monumental installation, Landscape with Many Holes: Skins of Yeongdo Sea (2022).
Lee's installation combines scaffolding, which appears as an extension of the building's frame, and fence fabric besmeared with waste oil, to produce a sensory experience. Surrounded by porous, shell-like fabrics, Lee's Landscape appears to be swallowed by the factory—as if it were the wave on which the 'we' in this show are positioned to rise. —[O]