Lee Yong-woo interview: The Biennial phenomenon (2014)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 19 April 2015
This interview was previously published in Sculpture magazine, December 2014, 33(9), pp. 20-2. The Q&A portion of the interview took place in December 2013.

What are we to make of the biennial phenomenon, with its rapid expansion across the globe since the 1990s? How are biennials developing, and what are the key issues they face? And why the formation of an International Biennial Association [IBA] in March 2013?

To learn about these and related issues, I spoke with Lee Yong-woo [in December 2013]. I met him around the time that he began his post as founding artistic director of the Gwangju Biennale in 1995. Before this, he was a professor of art history and visual culture at Korea University in Seoul and the curator of numerous exhibitions, including Tigers Tail at the 1995 Venice Biennale. In [2008, Lee became the Gwangju Biennale Foundation President], and in 2013, he was named the first director of the new IBA.

On August [18], 2014, after a politically motivated censorship controversy, Lee [announced his resignation] as president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation. The offending painting by Hong Seong-dam, which was selected for a Gwangju Museum of Art exhibition celebrating the biennial’s 20th anniversary, makes a blatant reference to the April 2014 MV Sewal ferry tragedy, depicting Korean President Park Geun-hye as a maniacal scarecrow facing off against the angry parents of the children who died. After the work’s exclusion— a decision prompted by the city of Gwangju, which contributed $2.4 million to this year’s show— curator Yun Beom-mo also resigned and several artists withdrew their works [in protest.]

[In this regard, the following interview below, 9 months earlier, is particularly interesting as the issues and concerns were already stated within a general biennial context.]

R.J. Preece: What are the main practical things that you’ve learned over the years concerning biennial development?

Lee Yong-woo: According to the data, in 2012, more than 300 art fairs and 150 biennials were held across the world. These two phenomena have developed explosively over the past 20 years; their origins are said to be closely tied to the global economy, global capitalism, and the culture of global tourism. If the established biennial art market can be said to have developed primarily in North America and Europe, the changes of the past 20 years have been concentrated in Asia. Furthermore, there is a significant chance that this phenomenon will continue to develop in the future.

Biennials, from their previous concentration in Europe to their multi-directional expansion today, can be said to be approaching a certain leveling. In Asia alone, there are more than 50 biennials. Beginning with the [emergence of Asian biennales in the 1990s— in particular the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea and the Shanghai Biennale in China in the ’90s— up to the first Setouchi Triennial (2013) in Japan, Asian biennials have steadily risen in number. The most remarkable feature, in contrast to Europe, is the growth of specialized biennials— such as those for ceramics and photography— and of triennials; five triennials were established in Japan within 10 years.

No longer special events, biennials and triennials are becoming an institution. There is an irony in the fact that radical, experimental, and discourse-focused biennials are themselves turning into, and expanding as, institutions. It is thus difficult to predict whether or not biennials— arenas of discourse that focus on the discussion of cultural politics, critical theory, and aesthetic analysis— are becoming generalized institutions like art museums.

R.J. Preece: How do biennials differ from art fairs?

Lee Yong-woo: Commercial art fairs have moved on from acting only as marketplaces for artworks to adopt service gestures as devices for culture production and consumption; similarly, biennials need to break away from seeing themselves as global, large-scale exhibitions and present themselves as spaces for cultural activities that elicit participation. Today, one can sense the context of biennials even in art museums, and at art fairs, one finds lectures, seminars, and other programs that have been fixtures of biennials, but not a part of art fairs, in the past.

I’m coming to think of this as a beautiful phenomenon. Whether at a biennial, art museum, or art fair, one always finds platforms for audience participation. Artists and galleries therefore participate in biennials as collaborators, and biennials offer a powerful public space of communication that brings together a large number of people. At art markets, the artists appear together with their galleries, but in biennials, only the names of the artists are shown. The galleries that have participated and supported the biennial in a variety of ways are set aside in an “acknowledgement” section.

R.J. Preece: How did the decision to form the IBA come about?

Lee Yong-woo: We began to discuss the need for the IBA some time ago. In 2000, representatives of the major biennials attended a meeting, hosted by Documenta and sponsored by the German Institute für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa), where we discussed such an association. The time was not ripe, however, and we did not move forward. The Gwangju Biennale Foundation, with this previous attempt in mind, accepted the Biennial Foundation’s proposal for a World Biennial Forum, the first session of which was held in October 2012 in Gwangju. At this gathering, we hosted a meeting with representatives from 61 biennials and established our motivation for founding the IBA. Afterwards, there was a meeting of representatives from the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, the Biennial Foundation, and ifa, which had sponsored the meeting in 2000. There, we selected 21 biennials, representing each continent, to serve as the board. The IBA was inaugurated in March 2013 in Sharjah, UAE. The organization established a routine assembly, as well as an interim board and director.

At a meeting of the interim board, I was chosen as the organization’s president; Bige Örer, director of the Istanbul Biennial, and Marieke van Hal of the Biennial Foundation were chosen as vice presidents. The 21-member board was split into four working committees, and we will discuss appointments at the next assembly.

R.J. Preece: What are the key issues facing biennial sustainability and development?

Lee Yong-woo: Due to the challenging aesthetics that biennials pursue, there are a number of urgent problems to address. For example, though the experimentalism, aggressiveness, and liberal politics of biennials can on the one hand be restrictive, some biennials are experiencing problems with free expression and censorship. There are also cases of biennials losing funds due to friction between [the hosting or] sponsoring institutions and municipal and central governments, and there have been cases of unwarranted administrative interference. Though biennials are partially in the service of the host city’s branding and marketing strategies, I believe that the key to securing the future of biennials lies in strategizing and differentiating their unique language and philosophy.

R.J. Preece: Will there be case studies of best practices for biennial development taking into account curatorial issues, as well as business practicalities, logistics, organization, and leadership issues [that we see in industry]?

Lee Yong-woo: The IBA is establishing four divisions for scholarship, research, finance, and organizational affairs. Many believe that biennials, compared to art museums and other systematized institutions, provide a greater degree of freedom in practice and action. There are also many who, considering the potential of biennials to create global-scale blockbuster exhibitions, believe that biennials should sustain visitors’ engagement and make it easy to mobilize audiences. But competition is competition. The only difference is that biennials are very fluid and emphasize branding strategies more than any institution. On a related note, there is a high potential for regional partnerships and financial collaboration.

R.J. Preece: I understand that personally you’d like to see some biennial organizations expand beyond visual arts exhibitions to become platforms for discussions of broader social, economic, and political issues. How do you see this working in practice?

Lee Yong-woo: Social life is always in need of large and small uprisings. Uprisings of consciousness— “uprising” here being used in a social, not military, sense— serve to vitalize tired systems and values. This is the reason that biennials have been called on to step beyond the confined mindset of art exhibitions and take on the role of social mediator. I believe that biennials are more than simply large-scale or blockbuster exhibitions; they should also become sites of educational debate, for proposing and critiquing strategies of consciousness, and for focusing on good questions rather than just answers.