The billboard is part of New York-based artist Lee Chang-jin's "Comfort Women Wanted" mixed media installation at Incheon Art Platform, as part of the Incheon Women Artists' Biennale. / Courtesy of the artist
By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Incheon is already known for its international airport, its seaport, Chinatown and the Pentaport rock festival, but the port city also wants to become a contemporary art and cultural hub of Korea.
For the entire month of August, Incheon is the site for a unique contemporary art biennale that shines the spotlight on women artists. Nearly 300 artists from 40 countries are participating in the second Incheon Women Artists' Biennale (IWAB), which opens Saturday.
It is only timely and relevant to have a contemporary art biennale focusing on women artists. The international art world has always been criticized for being sexist and male-dominated, and Korea is no exception.
Yang Eun-hee, commissioner of the Main Exhibition at the biennale, said there is a big disparity between the number of male and female artists shown in art institutions and museums in Korea.
``In the Korean art world, the museums' major collections have less than 20 percent, or even 10 percent, of artworks by female artists,'' Yang told The Korea Times. ``I also did some research at the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon. For their new acquisitions in 2007, only 11 percent were women artists. It's very low.''
Even major contemporary art biennales around the world are traditionally seen as male-dominated events. This is one of the reasons that spurred the creation of the Incheon Women Artists Biennale.
``Other biennales in the world tend to be led by male artists. Our uniqueness is we focus on women artists and their works. It's a challenge for us. We want to overcome the male dominated art world, and that's one of the reasons why we created the biennale,'' said Kwon Kyung-ae, president of the biennale organizing committee.
While the IWAB also invites male artists to participate, the biennale is focused on promoting women artists' works and acting as a bridge between the local and international art communities.
The biennale's roots can be traced to the Incheon Women Artists Association, which held annual exhibitions for its members since the 1980s. The first biennale opened in 2004, and its success led to its first-ever international version in 2007. It was established ``out of the belief that femininity could be a catalyst for communication between different genders which would bring about a more accelerated parity in an equally-beneficial society.''
Since it is fairly new compared to the biennales in Gwangju and Busan, organizers admitted their budget is significantly smaller. ``Our budget is only 10 percent of the Gwangju Biennale's budget. We're definitely comparable to those biennales in terms of ideas, but not with the budget,'' Yang said.
This year's biennale is divided into three sections, each dealing with various issues confronting the art world, particularly women artists, today. The Main Exhibition and Participation Exhibition both feature only women artists, although the latter only includes Korean artists.
With the theme ``So Close Yet So Far Away,'' the Main Exhibition explores women artists' ``understanding and perception of space, where they reside, struggle and strive to realize their dreams.''
The Main Exhibition features works by 101 artists from 26 countries, including feminist artists Judy Chicago and Faith Ringgold. Chicago will be showing drawings of her controversial ``Dinner Party'' installation, which featured place settings for famous historical and mythical women like Sappho and Virginia Woolf.
``Somehow the biennale needs to be connected to the global audience and other feminist artists in the world. I think the goal of feminism is still being reached. … I would call this biennale as the first cooperative effort to build a sustainable institution in terms of women's art. To sustain this community in Korea, you need to build a network with the other areas,'' Yang said.
21st Century for Women
Women will lead the future. The title of the Tuning Exhibition says it all ``The 21st Century, The Feminine Century, and the Century of Diversity and Hope.''
Han Heng-gil, chairman of the operating committee of the exhibition, says the project envisions the 21st century as ``feminine, diverse and free of any political, racial or sexual oppression.''
``We are living in a time when there is no need to talk about improvement of women's status or equality. We are already there. Back in '60s and '70s, women perhaps struggled to gain independence and political and social power. During the past 40 years, that has shifted and Hillary Clinton came close to the U.S. presidency. The question now is not whether or not women's status has to be improved but the question is now that you are empowered, what are you going to do,'' Han told The Korea Times.
Both male and female artists will tackle these questions through their art. There are paintings, installations, multimedia pieces, animation, catalogs, text, films, performances and discussions, as well as ceramics and calligraphy, which are both often overlooked by the contemporary art scene.
Various performances will be staged on opening day, such as the hilarious critical satire by an all-female band of artists called DISBAND (1-5 p.m.) and Hong-kai Wang's ``Accept Me for What I Am If You Want Me'' (10-11 a.m.).
While it may seem counterproductive to invite male artists to a women artists' biennale, organizers believe that bringing together artists of both gender will produce a vibrant artistic dialogue.
New York-based artist Ma Jong-il, who created a huge bamboo installation at the Incheon Art Platform, says there should be no distinction between male and female artists.
``When we had a press meeting in New York, one of the artists said, `there are no female or male artists here.' Basically I don't care. Males and females, when they concentrate on developing their own way, eventually there is going to be harmony,'' he said.
Diverse Art on Display
The biennale art works will not just be seen at the main venue Incheon Art Platform, but also at historical landmarks like Incheon Korean-Chinese Cultural Center, Freedom Park, Incheon Weather Station, Incheon City Historical Data Office, Jemulpo Club, Incheon Educational and Cultural Center for Students, and the Paradise and Harbor Park Hotels.
``We are putting art in the public realm. We wanted to bring art to the daily life of people. As you know, Korean people don't care much about art, especially contemporary art. So if they don't come, you should go out to them and engage them,'' Han said.
One of the attention-grabbing works is New York-based artist Lee Chang-jin's indoor and outdoor mixed media installation ``Comfort Women Wanted.'' It references the thousands of young women forced into sex slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II.
One billboard shows a photograph of a young Taiwanese comfort woman at the comfort station by a Japanese soldier, surrounded with gold leaf, usually used in honoring saints. It is flanked by two billboards showing just a silhouette of an old woman standing inside her house.
``Korea is where the `comfort women' movement started, and this Biennale is the perfect site to present an artwork which acknowledges these outspoken and courageous women survivors. By creating international awareness of these women and their place in history I hope we can prevent this kind of unspeakable crime against humanity ever happening again anywhere,'' Lee said.
Kim Eun-hyung, who is also based in New York, made a large-scale wall drawing ``Storyteller'' inside the Incheon Art Platform building. He gathered images from his everyday life, memories and pop culture to show how simple but bizarre life is.
Kim said his works delve into questions of personal identity, which can be expanded to male and female identity. ``The women artists' biennale is not only about feminism. I think for our part, we can show some harmony between man and woman. I want this to transcend sexuality, but be something that relates to human beings,'' Kim said.
Japanese artist ON Megumi Akiyoshi painted a colorful cloud of flowers on the glass facade of a building at the Incheon Art Platform. Aside from her painting, she will also wear a brightly colored costume for her ``ON Flower Gallery'' performance on Saturday.
Akiyoshi said she was intrigued when she first read about the IWAB, even though she's not crazy about the feminist movement.
``But I believe in yin and yang. Yin is female, yang is male. The relationship is always moving and changing. Like in Japan, right now only males can be emperors, but a long time ago, there was female emperor. So when I heard about this women's biennale, I thought yes, it is changing. I'm not trying to be more powerful than males, but it is just a natural movement. I'm very happy there's a women's biennale confidently talking about it, and I'm a part of it,'' she said.
To get to Incheon Art Platform, get off Incheon Station Subway Line 1. Cross the street, and you'll see signs for Jung-gu District Office. Walk for 5 minutes, and you'll find the Incheon Art Platform, located opposite the Jungbu Police Station.
One day pass is 7,000 won for adults, 5,000 won for students (13-18 years old) and 2,000 won for children (4-12 years old).
The biennale is open everyday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Daily docent tours are held at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.
Visit www.iwabiennale.org (Korean, English).