“Burning Down the House:” Gwangju Biennale Artistic Director on Talking Heads, Emerging Artists, and Art to Discover in Seoul

Christine Kuan
Aug 27, 2014 6:38PM

The Gwangju Biennale is the oldest and most prestigious biennial in Asia, and has shaped contemporary art worldwide. Established in 1995 in memory of the 1980 repression of the Gwangju Democratization Movement, the Gwangju Biennale has dedicated itself to presenting cutting-edge artists and new perspectives by working with esteemed curators, such as Massimiliano Gioni, Kerry Brougher, Sukwon Chang, Okwui Enwezor, Charles Esche, Hou Hanru, and Harald Szeemann. Jessica Morgan, Daskalopoulos Curator of International Art at Tate Modern and newly appointed Director of the DIA Art Foundation, is the Artistic Director of the 10th Gwangju Biennale opening September 5th, 2014. Since joining Tate Modern in 2002, she has curated major exhibitions, including Gabriel Orozco, Martin Kippenberger, and John Baldessari, and several of the Turbine Hall’s “Unilever Series” commissions. I had the pleasure of speaking to her about why she chose to title this year’s Biennale after the 1983 Talking Head’s song “Burning Down the House,” emerging artists to watch, and to get her insider take on local art spaces (and food!) not to be missed while in Seoul.

Christine Kuan: The 10th Gwangju Biennale’s title, “Burning Down the House,” is a deliberate reference to former American Talking Heads’ 1983 hit song by the same name. How did this come to be the title of this Biennale?

Jessica Morgan: Rather than a simple reference to a leftfield pop anthem from the early 1980s, the title reflects the double significance of the proposed Biennale concept. By fusing physical movement with political engagement, it animates the concept for the decennial of the Gwangju Biennale. When the band Talking Heads were debating the title and chorus of “Burning Down the House,” their most recognized track, members of the band remembered being at a Funkadelic concert where George Clinton and the audience swapped calls to “Burn Down the House.” This hedonism by the P-Funk crowd on the dance floor was then turned into an anthem of bourgeois anxieties by the New York-based band. This dual meaning of pleasure and engagement serves as the defining spirit of the 10th Gwangju Biennale.

CK: This biennale examines the transformative process of destruction and renewal and its implications for artistic practice and political engagement. What did these themes enable you to do that is new to the biennale? Can you name a few specific examples of how the theme will be carried out?

JM: “Burning Down the House” also explores the process of burning and transformation, a cycle of obliteration and renewal witnessed throughout history. Evident in aesthetics, historical events, and an increasingly rapid course of redundancy and renewal in commercial culture, this theme carries through the Biennale, which reflects on this process of events of destruction or self-destruction—burning the home one occupies—followed by the promise of the new and the hope for change.

There are various artists whose practices are not rooted in historical retrieval so much as alerting the present time to past events that continue to resonate in very different ways—Minouk Lim, Jane Alexander, Andrea Bowers, and Ei Arakawa among others. They transform and resurrect the past rather than producing an archival documentation.

CK: How do you navigate between the cultural and historical specificities of the locale and the international outlook of the biennale program?

JM: I think the strength of art lies not in its documentary capacity but rather in the less literal and didactic approach of works that still—at the best of times—contain characteristics that are hard to quantify and even describe. Art is able to articulate something that cannot be expressed in any other form and this ‘something’ can be political but also lyrical and ambiguous. It should not be tasked with acting as a regulator. Good, meaningful art is trying to articulate something that is at the same time topical and abstract, that is taking a particular historical instance and developing from it a more general maxim or thought process, which might find a more universal application. This is also why art can bridge time and speak to us independent from being familiar with a historical instance.

CK: This year’s Biennale will bring together 105 artists from 39 countries, and will feature 35 new commissions. A staggering 90% of the participating artists are new to the Gwangju Biennale, and many have never exhibited in Korea. How did you go about selecting the artists, and what was your process for commissioning these new works?

JM: The selection of artists and structure developed very naturally from the theme, which was conceived in response to my research in Korea. Once the title was established it acted as a composite of various ideas (it was intentionally broad), the language of the title and the associations it carries allowed for subtly different concepts to emerge. Artists were very much the starting point for the Biennale so their approach, works, and input certainly helped form the exhibition.

The artists making new works include those I have worked with on previous occasions though the majority are artists I am working with for the first time. It was important to include some artists familiar to me that I admire enormously and with whom I am able to learn and communicate. These provide a curatorial anchor for the many developing conversations we are in the midst of. Fortunately the artists asked to participate were all keen to think about the many facets offered by the theme and context of the 10th Biennale and it has been an enlightening and gratifying experience to work with them all.

CK: Can you speak to the varying career levels of the artists included? Are there any emerging artists that our readers should have on their radar?

JM: Working at Tate Modern I am not often able to work with British artists (ironically) as these are the domain of Tate Britain, so it was a great pleasure to bring some of the emerging artists I had been drawn to in London including Prem Sahib and Celia Hempton. I think Stewart Uoo from the U.S. is also a really interesting artist. From Korea, Okin Collective are excellent and the dancer/choreographer Geumhyung Jeong is outstanding.

CK: The 2014 Biennale features performance works as transitional zones between exhibition spaces and architectural-scale installations such as Urs Fischer’s 1:1 scale replication of his New York apartment. How does the theme of “Burning Down the House” explore interventions on public space?

JM: Movement and dance, performance and interaction are quite vital to the Biennale in part to break the rhythm of viewing and bring the audience into a clear relationship to the here and now. Works will act as ‘greetings’ to new spaces but also as precise performances that will take place both inside the Biennale halls and in the customized spaces adjacent to it. A major part of Minouk Lim’s work will be positioned in front of the Biennale halls in the Biennale square—its just one element, albeit a very important one that will become part of the installation of her work that also exists in the Biennale halls. The majority of our ‘performers’ are in fact Gwangju citizens and we imagine that once the exhibition opens there will be more than 400 people involved in realizing the different works so perhaps the people of Gwangju will also help constitute our public sphere.

CK: What is the most thrilling aspect of this year’s Biennale?

JM: Undoubtedly the unexpected nature of the many new works but also the equally unknown manifestation of the entire exhibition once juxtapositions and dialogues are set in place between the works.

 CK: For first time visitors to the Gwangju Biennale, what should they look forward to and do you have any tips for navigating the art scene in Korea?

 JM: Great food in Gwangju!

It’s important to visit the many art spaces in Seoul of course. At this time of the Biennale, there are many other important exhibitions taking place including Media City Seoul, the new hangout, and commissions at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, ArtSonje, the new National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art that opened last year, the Real DMZ, Nam June Paik Art Center, project artist spaces such as Pool and of course the many great galleries such as PKM, Kukje, and new collector spaces such as that of Arario’s owner. The list is endless.


Visit Jessica Morgan’s suggested institutions and galleries including Media City Seoul at the Seoul Museum of Art, Leeum Samsung Museum of Art, ArtSonje Center, National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Real DMZ project, Nam June Paik Art Center, Pool, PKM Gallery, and Kukje Gallery.

Explore the Gwangju Biennale on Artsy.


Christine Kuan