Busan Skyline, South Korea. Photograph by rayhue
Arriving in Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, on the high-speed train from Seoul after dark, the city is ready to hit you in the eye with a large-scale light and water show in the large scale station plaza. A pattern of water jets shoot up and down to greater and lower heights from a flat base without walls, while the lights change colour in time with the water kinetics. I’m here with Ines Doujak to install a collaborative work at the city’s sixth Art Biennale, entitled “The Garden of Learning.” The city’s own slogan is ‘Dynamic Busan’. Sat on the South China Sea, the busiest sea for tankers and freighters, it is itself said to be the fifth busiest port in the world. In its environs 70% of the world’s large ships are made using a technique of building them in sections which no one else has mastered. Hyundai talk of a shipbuilding tradition by reference to the ‘Turtle ship’ of 1592 which defeated the Japanese invading navy and have a model of one, but there was no history of shipbuilding since then. It was Hyundai itself which started it off in the early 1970s helped by skilled Scottish shipbuilders and plans from its bankrupt shipyards, and Greek marine engine specialists. By 1993, as shown in a series of photographs by Alan Sekula which we will get to see during the setting up of the Biennale, it was in full swing and in the process destroyed the fishing port and business of Ulsan. Instead, in the midst of a heavy industrial landscape there is a golf course, more Scottish exporting.
What is perhaps missing in the photographs is that in August 1987 Hyundai workers had defeated the police on the streets in the course of bringing down the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship that had been praised to the skies by the President of the World Bank; but also the sheer self-confidence of this industrial development. Hyundai of course had a lot going for it: its engineering confidence and capital accumulation starting with contracts for the US military including whole bases in Vietnam; the very first ships also for the Americans; a very high level of government investment in technical education; its chaebol ability to diversify –- it owns the hotel and its phone network on Ulsan had built its elevators and the cars to get around as well as the Department store next door –- backed by the resources of a dictatorship with a policy of militarized labour; and access to the surplus capital being produced in conditions of what Alain Lipietz calls ‘Bloody Taylorism’ in the export textile industry which our own work at the Biennale focused on. Yes, lots of advantages, but driving to the Museum, that would house the Biennale. Across the city which, hemmed in by sea and mountains stretches a long way, we marvelled at the Gwangan Daero bridge that crosses the sea for some 7.4 kilometres to cut the cross-city journey, and lit is up at the night to stunning effect, best seen from the Gwangali beach. This was civic self-confidence though no doubt the chaebol had a hand in its construction. Or it is a necessary fearlessness given the geography, the country surrounded by Japan, Russia and China.
The people from Seoul who included most of the staff preparing the Exhibition, think Busan is vulgar, too showy in classic nouveaux-riche style. The location of the exhibition space, the Busan Museum of Art, in the Haeundae area that had once housed a huge American base, and with its own famous constructed beach was guaranteed to validate the opinion. The Museum itself was dwarfed by the Bexco Conference Centre and not far away beyond the Trump World towers, another high high-rise boasted itself as the biggest Department store in the world. The Lonely Planet guide we’d found on the train advised, in typical paranoid style –- not to drink water from taps under any circumstances. Bexco however was hosting an International Conference on Drinking Water and Conservation in the time we began to set up our work. Another conference followed soon after and the Haeundae area hotels were full of men on what looked like generous expense accounts. This does not extend to artists and if there was envy, it was directed at those who were going to be entertained at the Busan Film festival that was opening just as we were due to leave. A film critic friend, a friend who can hold his drink, said he had dreaded the event, the sheer amount of free alcohol one was expected to consume, but what we saw was lavish spending that was going to turn the whole beach into a fantasy world for drinking, dancing and flirting, and that this was just an addition to the flying saucer cinema designed by Coop Himmelblau that is in use for just 14 days in the year. Art Biennale are a far more sober business and in Busan was kept that way by anxious accountancy. Nominally this was to prevent corruption in the public sector, but it felt like elite fearlessness stood heavily over a fearful bureaucracy.