Geumgang Nature Art Pre-Biennale 2013: Horizontal Growing Trees

1 August – 30 November 2013

By Tiffany Chae 

Local 'guest artists' prepare to distribute cold soybean noodle soup to visitors

Organised by the YATOO Korean Nature Art Association, the YATOO Artist-in-Residence Program forms part of the greater Geumgang Nature Art Pre-Biennale 2013. Titled Horizontal Growing Trees and running until 30 November, the pre-biennale focuses on 'Nature Art' and seeks to establish horizontal connections between related art practices in Korea and overseas. The ideas presented in the pre-biennale serve as a teaser for the actual 6th biennale planned for September 2014 and will be updated to reflect developing concepts as well as the inclusion of more artists and artworks.

The ceremony for entering into 'first degree relationships'

On a rainy August afternoon, a group of people in the small and remote town of Wongol, South Korea, served cold homemade soybean noodle soup to Seoul and international visitors outside YATOO Nature Art House. The hosts, elderly local townspeople, were playing the part of guest artists contributing to the YATOO Artist-in-Residence Program, making works in collaboration with other artists. The scene of strenuous distribution of noodles to foreign artists, curators and locals, appeared to be just another piece of relational art practice, reminiscent of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s well-known pad thai (1990) performance. The main difference with Tiravanija’s piece, however, was that this was an autonomous performance driven by the town’s seniors.

Ceramics created by local residents in collaboration with artist-in-residence Sua Lee

By implementing their unique configuration of 'first degree relationships' between artists and local residents, the Wongol community also created ceramic cups and plates in collaboration with artist-in-residence Sua Lee, adding some of their very own design patterns. Lee and three other foreign artists taking part in the programme gained hands-on experience of local life as they worked closely with Wongol residents, sharing the land’s natural resources during the length of the residency. As such, the programme’s mission to develop connections between artists and locals as well as providing art education to the Wongol townspeople, was accomplished.

Seung Hyun Ko, installation view of Kayageum: Sound of Hundred Years

The main parallel exhibitions, Kayageum: The Sound of Hundred Years and Video Persiart, were held in the International Geumgang Nature Art Center in the nearby city of Gonju from 3 August - 17 September. Following these two special shows, Horizontally Growing Trees, a documentation exhibition sharing the pre-biennale's own name, was held in the same venue from 1-31 October.

Kayageum: The Sound of Hundred Years is Seung Hyun Ko’s solo show and comprises wood sculptures of kayageums (Korean zither-like string instruments) and photographs and video documenting musical performances carried out by Ko together with local residents. Video Persiart, the group exhibition of Iranian video artists, showcases video and photographic works depicting elements of nature. Horizontally Growing Trees includes the presentation of 130 entries for next year’s biennale, books and YATOO catalogues as well as recorded material of 34 international organisations focusing on ‘Nature Art’.

Koter Vilmos, This Strange Feeling of Being, 2013

The particular selection of works on display at the pre-biennale makes it clear that long-held preconceptions dividing regions and/or cultures - the East seeing humans as a small part of nature versus the West perceiving humans as masters of nature, are no longer valid. For instance, the Iran-based Open 5 Group’s Carpet (2008) reflects humanist aesthetics by taking advantage of local nature whereas Romanian artist Koter Vilmos presents the human form covered in local nature in a manner that makes humans just another element of nature. These and other works arguably reflect globalisation, which evidently promotes communication between different nations and races thanks to increasing movements of people, labour and capital.

Following the residency and exhibitions, the organisation hosted a symposium. If the three aforementioned exhibitions revealed the character of the artworks considered for the biennale proper, the International Nature Art conference of curators, held at the Gongju National University and Gongju City Hall from 3-4 October, was an altogether different affair. It was more about establishing networking opportunities between various international organisations with a common interest in ‘Nature Art’. The themes of ‘Sharing the Spirit of Nature Art’, ‘Moving Nature & Art’ and ‘The Curators’ Meeting for Global Nomadic Project’ were covered and the book Worldwide Sites of Nature Art was published as a result of the conference.

Consequently, 19 international curators established the Global Nomadic Project. “Nature connects everything and the artists who practice in nature will become one whilst travelling in nature together,” Won-gil Jeon, the project director said. The plan is to leave Korea and travel all five continents for four years, with participants from cross-disciplinary fields – including artists, ecologists, and journalists – sharing their results at the end of the project. The association will also hold exhibitions, seminars, symposia, workshops and residencies. Curators who also happen to be directors of Nature Art-related international organisations will also attend regular meetings. The goal is to promote environmentally sustainable artistic practices and appreciate the beauty of nature.

YATOO, the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale and the Challenges that Lie Ahead

Artists involved in ‘Nature Art’ tend to establish a passive intervention of nature. For instance, Ko does not cut healthy trees as material for his kayageums. He instead finds tree trunks that decay naturally and thereby present beautiful cracks – a process he refers to as "a prayer". After the wood’s natural transformation, Ko cuts and adjusts the tree trunk to make a sculpture in the form of a musical instrument. Hence, the completed kayageum does not look like a conventional instrument, but rather stands as an object with an autonomous identity. Also, as site-specific installations, Ko’s kayageums rarely move location, typically remaining still in the deep forest. Their longevity is of no interest to the artist. This natural or even abandoning aspect of Ko’s works can be viewed negatively – like a passive stance towards art – but this precisely shows Ko's intent: to obey his own creator (God) and coexist with nature by no complete transformation, development or invention. 

Seung Hyun Ko, Sachsenberg Kayageum, 2005

Sharing the same strategy, Ko’s YATOO colleagues have been continuously pursuing the friendly coexistence of nature and humans for over three deacades. YATOO’s role within the Korean contemporary art scene strengthened through the establishment of the Geumgang International Nature Art exhibition in 1991, later developing into the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale. YATOO and the biennale’s joint efforts have also brought about positive results for the local community - securing the Yeonmi mountain nature art park and the opening of the International Nature Art Center.

Although YATOO has been able to share some of its achievements with the rest of the world, it still has a long way to go. Firstly, it is not easy for artworks to have a sense of co-existence with nature. If they do not blend well with the surrounding environment, they can appear alien, thus weakening the purpose of exhibiting outdoors. The question arises: how can the pieces communicate with the public if viewers cannot recognise them as artworks?

Secondly, low accessibility to the artworks is an issue. Because of their site-specificity, not only can few people see the works in real life but they also tend to decay in nature. Some of Robert Smithson’s mega-scale installations that no longer exist come to mind. Furthermore, the fact that the works exist in nature also prevents their sale and collection by national and international institutions. 

Last of all, artists involved in ‘Nature Art’ also draw attention to the generation gap within the contemporary art scene. YATOO group members tend to be in their 50s and over. For ‘Nature Art’ to continue being relevant in the years to come, a new generation of artists keen to engage with or even broaden YATOO’s frameworks must also take shape. 

Jinal Patel's I Don't Smell Same Anymore is made of cow dung

In other words, it is essential that YATOO and the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale must network harder than ever before. As they plan to launch the travelling project, they also make connections with nomadism and the globalised art world. Their international networking efforts should therefore not be limited to one-off events. They need to evolve through the establishment of further meetings and collaborations and if they find talented artists or curators outside Korea, they need to accept their ideas and different ways of doing things. 

Ultimately, YATOO and the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale need to expand their spectrum and re-configure themselves within the global contemporary art world. This can be achieved through further creative practices in collaboration with foreign ‘strangers’. To develop further, the organisations will have to metamorphose and even face being a bit self-destructive in order to leave some of their old ways behind. I hope YATOO applies this strategy and is able to achieve some meaningful results from the Global Nomadic Project. If this happens, both YATOO and the Geumgang Nature Art Biennale will grow in strength and international stature.