The Republic of Korea’s pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale is a relative newcomer, built in 1996. The pavilion bears some resemblance to a tardis amidst the other international offerings due to it spaceship-like aesthetic. It has a curved roof and polished glass windows making it hard to establish what it would look like from the inside. The title of the pavilion is ‘History Has Failed Us But No Matter’, curated by Hyunjim Kim, and nods to a struggle against the social and geopolitical framework that a person is born into, yet simultaneously, understanding yourself in relation to this framework. Kim has worked with three female artists; a first in the pavilion’s history. Together the artists, Hwayeon Nam, siren eun young jung and Jane Jin Kaise, challenge ideas related to tradition and the canon of gender, mediating on the emancipatory potential of tradition (opposed to tradition being a barrier) for East Asian women. This narrative delineates from the androcentric (male-focused) history of Korea and the acts of violence embedded in the process of Western modernisation. While at risk of falling subject to an Orientalist vision of the East, Kim and these selected artists have presented a complex and layered exhibition, which directly fights against this reading.
In siren eun young jung’s two audio-visual works are rooted in the ‘yeoseong gukgeuk’, a form of traditional theatre that only features female actors, which has been the basis of her practice for the past ten years. In the exhibition she exhibits a new work, ‘A Performing by Flash, Afterimage, Velocity, and Noise’ (2019). Entering by drawing back a curtain, viewers will discover a moving image projected across three walls in a box-shaped room with loud electro music filling the space. The music and lighting echoes the atmosphere of a night-club, inspiring a certain freedom of bodily movement. For me though, this experience was jarred by being amongst an audience, though the viewer next to me danced for the entirety and asked me at the end why no one else was dancing? The work features a number of a people who have opened up the conversation about queer aesthetics: transgender electronic musician Kirara, lesbian actor Yii Lee, director and actor Seo Ji Won from the disabled women’s theatre group Dancing Waist, and drag king Azangman. Much like the way Kiara produces music by breaking down formal disciplines and re-assembling their parts, siren eun young deconstructs traditions and norms to create an assemblage that unearths queer methodologies. This piece is a sensory trap, which complies with and rebels against the components of video art by deliberately disregarding the balance of these elements. As flash, afterimage and velocity are questioned, siren eun young even uses her medium to challenge the oppressive nature of conventions.
Hwayeon Nam’s work ‘Dancer from the Peninsula’ (2019) is set within an impressive installation, a curved viewing platform with moving image works embedded into the woodwork and a generous amount of foliage arranged behind. This piece explores the legacy of twentieth-century, world-renowned Korean choreographer and dancer Choi Seung-hee (1911-1969), described by the curator as, “one of the most luminous, incomparable, mythical East Asian divas.” Nam has created a bricolage interpretation of Choi’s dancing style including, archive materials, showing visuals of her movements and inspirations. Nam has not focussed on the political affiliations of Choi, as someone who was forced to choose her identity and was defected to North Korea in 1946. Instead, Nam draws out Choi’s pursuit of East Asian dance; and her fascination particularly with the heritage of marginalised communities in Korea and Japan. Choi was not interested in emulating the West; instead she chose to create a new East Asian dance, making her a warrior against Orientalism. Here Choi emerges from the geopolitical conflict that was forced upon her as someone who strove “to freely trespass all modern borders and matrixes”.
Lastly, Jane Jin Kaisen’s two-channel video installation, ‘Community of Parting’ (2019), offers an insight into Korean shamanism via the ancient myth of the Abandoned Princess Bari, who was exiled from her community. Lasting 72 minutes, the video is comprised of aerial images, poetry, testimonies, interviews, and soundscapes of the sea and forest alongside Kaisen’s own readings of the story. In ‘Community of Parting’ a shaman comforts the bereaved artist and this taps into the artist’s personal experience of being a person of diaspora, imbued with loss and how this interrelates to various problems of East Asian modernisation.
These works, with their many nuances, assess the agency of tradition and gender by considering ways to defiantly disrupt systems of power. In the words of the curator, “Here, [the artists] murmur, sing, cry, pause, laugh, express, move, and dance, and finally speak out loud. “History has failed us, but no matter.””
Laura O’Leary is a writer and curator, based between Derby and Birmingham, UK. Laura’s research trip to the Venice Biennale was made possible with a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant from Art Fund.