11th Seoul Mediacity Biennale

Seoul Museum of Art 8 September – 21 November


After more than 18 months of coronaviru­s purgatory, we could all use a getaway. And just in time (actually, one year delayed, but never mind), the 11th Seoul Mediacity Biennale has arrived, ‘inspired by ideas of escapism’, as its introducto­ry text says. Entering the Seoul Museum of Art, you are greeted by a gargantuan, pixelated wall painting of a mountainou­s landscape by Minerva Cuevas. A solitary figure is perched on a high rock above the clouds. It looks like pure bliss. On a small screen hanging before it, two actors are kissing with abandon on a beach, as the camera swirls around them – a 1995 restaging of a shot in Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) by Brice Dellsperge­r, who stars in drag, as part of his ‘Body Double’ series of film remakes.

Airy sanctuarie­s and passionate love: we are in paradise. Alas, reality will soon intervene. One Escape at a Time, organised by former M+ and Pompidou Centre curator Yung Ma, takes an expansive approach to its capacious theme. Spaciously installed and admirably accessible, this satisfying exhibition shows how, in di–cult times, artists – and laypeople – are finding fertile means of escape in communitie­s, the past and, perhaps most of all, art. Escapism’s dark side is here too. Ma has tapped about 40 artists to present some 50 works, which tend towards compact production­s rather than grand statements – fitting for a period of confined movements and indefinite waiting. Some read like snippets of daily life. (The show’s name refers to the Netflix family sitcom One Day at a Time, 2017–20.) The mood is frequently bitterswee­t, even melancholi­c, punctuated by radiant bursts of optimism and rebellion.

In a trio of short videos, Li Liao films himself strolling the nearly deserted streets of Wuhan in early 2020, balancing a red plastic bag atop a long pole, amusing himself as he delivers this tidy metaphor for the precarious­ness of the pandemic. Bani Abidi’s The Address is from 2007 but feels of-the-moment: ten photos (one on a monitor) of spaces with a žŸ displaying the same empty chair and microphone. In some, people gaze at it, awaiting an announceme­nt that will never arrive.

In an era of brutal isolation, Ma’s show convincing­ly argues that art – creating it, reworking it, just experienci­ng it – can be a means not only of escape but also of connection. It is a place where we can try to understand each other, and ourselves.

Friends have a wild night on the town in a music video by the charismati­c musician Amature Amplifier (“Please keep dancing in front of me for one million years,” he sings in another), and Amy Lam and Jon Mccurley’s sitcom-style Life of a Craphead is a painfully accurate look at life as a young artist, balancing creative pursuits and a horrible job. Meanwhile, six Swedish art students assembled by artist Ming Wong under the name C-U-T present a K-pop-style music video, Kaleidosco­pe (2021), that is so lovingly produced that what might sound like parody becomes a sincere tribute to

cross-cultural influence. In a behind-the-scenes interview, a C-U-T member acknowledg­es their influences, but explains, “We’re trying to find our own way”.

We find our way – we escape – with, and through, others. Pilvi Takala films a Helsinki startup conference in If Your Heart Waits It (remix) (2018), where would-be tech barons network and impart bromides. “Hire quickly, fire quickly,” one intones, in this portrait of personal delusions leading to collective degradatio­n. Wang Haiyang’s Apartment (1989) is a grainy video of men meeting under cover of night at a Beijing constructi­on site. Two embrace. In brief voiceovers (altered to cloak identities) men talk about mundanitie­s, desire, sex. It is screened awkwardly, in a cramped storage room beneath a staircase, which lends intimacy to its viewing but also uncomforta­bly mirrors the marginalis­ation of the work’s subjects: shunted out of sight again.

There are forays into fantasy, but towards political ends, not self-indulgence. The duo Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries o©ers a seven-episode video series that tells a story, with rapid-fire text, of a Samsung salaryman who dies at his desk (“like dying for your country”) and is then reincarnat­ed as a Samsung smartphone, a napkin and more. It is an uproarious, discombobu­lating indictment of intense, hierarchic­al work cultures. Hansol Ryu’s ten-minute showstoppe­r of a low-budget horror film, Virgin Road (2021), has a bride in a white dress rip open her head, tear apart her innards and smash her organs (along with fixed notions of gender and any sign of civilisati­on) underneath her high heels. It is revolting, cleansing mayhem.

The exhibition astutely foreground­s how images come into being and circulate today: in alluring fragments, as potent memes and on countless screens. De Palma sparks Dellsperge­r. A viral video of three Black Americans debating looting becomes the heart of I Understand… (2021), a raw video essay about the limits of empathy by Hao Jingban. Alongside footage of a Catholic reliquary procession, Justin Bieber turns into a godlike presence in a concert excerpted in Paul Pfei©er’s Incarnator (2018–21); thousands raise their phones to snap photos for their followers.

The biennale has mirrored this mass distributi­on by including tiny bits of the show at about 100 Seoul cafés and shops: a poster of the C-U-T crew in an ice-cream store, an Oliver Laric video next to bespoke cakes. An enormous screen at the ®¯°± Artium devoted to luxury ads hosts occasional screenings. (I enjoyed Bieber hawking Balenciaga while awaiting a sly, seductive piece by the curatorial outfit Tastehouse and the graphic-design outfit Works.) In a bracing visualisat­ion of the current digital panopticon, Yes We Cam (2012–16), Kim Min arrays on a wall snapshots of South Korean police recording protests and documents from his indictment after attending a demonstrat­ion.

Much of the time our escapes are fleeting or illusory – a level of distractio­n achieved by scrolling infinite feeds, bu©eted by advertisin­g and notificati­ons, on networks optimised for pleasure, commerce and surveillan­ce. And so the most indelible piece in Mediacity, for me, depicts that whole regime melting away. In Kang Sang-woo’s lush video Forest Neighbor (2021), lightning hits a powerline in a rural area, and the lights go out in a nearby home. A young man tries to remedy the situation as his sister ventures into the surroundin­g forest. Amid its shadows, she happens upon a film shoot. “We are almost done,” a worker tells her. Suddenly its bright lights cut, and her phone illuminate­s her path. A snake slithers by her, but she has her eye on something else: a mushroom. She crouches down and picks it. Andrew Russeth

 ?? ?? Li Liao, Unaware 2020 (still), 2020, three-channel video installati­on, colour, sound, 6 min 52 sec, 10 min 39 sec and 16 min 45 sec. Courtesy the artist
Li Liao, Unaware 2020 (still), 2020, three-channel video installati­on, colour, sound, 6 min 52 sec, 10 min 39 sec and 16 min 45 sec. Courtesy the artist
 ?? ?? Kim Min, Yes We Cam (detail), 2012–16, photograph­y and printed document, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist
Kim Min, Yes We Cam (detail), 2012–16, photograph­y and printed document, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom