Global Finance. From the super yachts that lined the laguna during the opening weekend to the international collectors loudly talking over the film you’re watching as they attempt to buy it, it’s a real struggle to hide from it at the 57th Venice Biennale. It’s not too surprising when you think of the very framework that the Biennale sits upon; the Pavilions organised by country, their position and size established, seemingly, in direct correlation with their GDP. While the curatorial text might insist this year’s Biennale is “...designed with artists, by artists and for artists,” it’s hard to ignore the other, more financially motivated agendas at play.
One pavilion which tackles the flows of global capital and the role of artist head-on is the Republic of Korea Pavilion. In ‘Counterbalance: The Stone & The Mountain’ curated by Lee Daehyung, artists Cody Choi and Lee Wan use the individual to explore the contradictions of life within the global capitalist system.
Before even entering the pavilion, you’re confronted by Cody Choi’s ‘Venetian Rhapsody - The Power of Bluff’ (2016-2017.) This garish collection of neon signs evokes the aesthetic of Las Vegas and Macao’s Cotai Strip. With signage offering visitors everything from ‘Free Orgasms’ to ‘Free Video TV’ and being clear to note that it also accepts all major credit cards, the work functions as a reflection of what Choi refers to as the “spectacle of global capitalism.” Inside, Choi continues to focus on the objects of our desires, this time turning to the canon of western art history. A number of works such as Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ are parodied by the artist and recreated either in the artist’s image or in the case of ‘The Scream’, simply with the word ‘shit’ written underneath. For Choi, this body of work enabled him to work through his own culture shock of being an Asian man attending art school in the US in the 1990s while also alluding to the political and economic power relations between Korea and the US. All three works are presented as if recently purchased, on crates or casually propped against a wall; perhaps the artist’s way of acknowledging his own role within the global art market and a nod to the fact that the art world loves an irreverent critique of itself and will pay through the nose for it.
While Choi is focused on what we desire and give power to, elsewhere in the pavilion Lee Wan is focused on those objects we have discarded. The main focus is an archive of 1,400 photographs belonging to a now deceased journalist, Mr K, which were bought by the artist at an antique market in Korea for $50. Mixed in with the photographs are documents and objects from Korea’s history which take the viewer from Japanese imperialism all the way through to Korea’s rapid economic transformation, each item lovingly annotated by Wan. With Mr K’s life story available for the artist to purchase for $50, it gives way to how easily the flows of global capitalism continue uninterrupted, turning the subject into the object and our lives, experiences and desires into products themselves.
While openly critiquing the art market and global capitalism in general, Choi and Wan’s work frequently return to the role of the individual within these larger systems and as a result the exhibition serves as a timely reminder of how life pushes on amongst political change, prosperity and chaos.