Cheongju International Craft Biennale 2013

Cheongju International Craft Biennale 2013

Cheongju Former Tobacco Processing Plant

Former tobacco processing plant in Cheongju where Bienniale was held

Nowhere on Earth has there been a spectacle celebrating craft like the 2013 Cheongju International Craft Biennale in South Korea. Held biannually since 1999, this eighth international event was organized, operated, and funded by the city of Cheongju and staged this year at a mammoth, former tobacco processing plant built in 1946. Having begun on September 11, the biennial runs 40 days and hosts a multitude of exhibitions based on a variety of themes, an international craft competition, a craft-meets-market pavilion and forum, an academic symposium, and much more. 

On the evening before the opening, a full symphony orchestra played for an invited audience an outdoor concert featuring a lively classical pianist and a digital light show, culminating with fireworks. The following morning before the gates opened to the exhibitions, an orchestra accompanied softly colored and beautifully costumed Korean modern dance performances on stage along with a troupe of children giving a most enthusiastic twirling-flag performance. The mayor of Cheongju, Han Beum Deuk, who is also chair of the organizing committee of the Craft Biennale, gave an ebullient welcoming speech moments before Korean ritual white-masked performers dressed in black finally lured the crowds into the open halls and beautifully lit galleries on three floors. The sky was again filled with fireworks – a daytime version with colored powders and white confetti raining down.

The theme of this biennial was “Something OLD, Something NEW.” It was reiterated throughout the event and emphasized the idea of cherishing the familiar – the traditional and human values inherent in craft – while at the same time recognizing our desire for newness of expression in the global village. More than 3,000 artists from 60 countries showed work in ceramics, textiles, metals, wood, glass, and mixed media.

Of all the exhibitions held throughout the Biennale complex, the main exhibition, “Mother and Child,” was the featured show and certainly the most provocative. Curator Namhee Park invited 20 artists from South Korea, Japan, the United States, China, Portugal, United Kingdom, Denmark, and India to show work. Each artist was given a substantial gallery space and, working with the curator, created a solo exhibition or installation. Kate MccGwire from the United Kingdom created an exhibition of large- and small-scale works dominated by a sculpture made of mixed media with pigeon feathers titled Discharge (2010). In the catalogue, curator Park describes MccGwire’s work as “feathers turned into a mass in motion like a giant figure denoting a tertiary threatening creature dominating space, ingesting desire with the sentiment of surging vomits or erupting excretions. Her feather objects pound the hearts of the viewers with sentiment of aristocratic sophistication, overwhelming elegance, and explosive energy.” Other works include Cleave (2012, mixed media with dove feathers in an antique cabinet) and Splice (2012, mixed media with magpie feathers).

Lee Kang Hyo showed his masterful ceramic work made using a kick wheel and often employing a paddle to further shape his pots. His red and white clays come directly from his homeland of Korea, as does the pure liquid white slip he pours, brushes on, and applies using his fingers to make marks on the clay surface. Hyo’s work is powerful not only because of the quality of individual pots but also because of the way his work was presented as an installation. It is a timeless body of work that appears ancient and primitive as well as modern, all at the same time.

Born in rural Tennessee in 1969, Hunt Clark is a wood carver who says he “draws on the biomechanics of nature to create shapes that suggest motion.” As a result, his convoluted, thin-walled forms tend to have a functional and even corporeal feel, according to the catalogue, “mimicking forms which have evolved to facilitate movement.” Along with a series of sculptures related to BMS 511 (2011, wood), Hunt also showed a collaboration with artist Deborah McClary using Clark’s sculpture along with video projections, Polaroid lifts, and audio tracks.

Other especially compelling works included in the invitational exhibition were by Korean fiber and mixed media artist Oh Hwa-jin, Chinese ceramic artist and activist Lu Bin, and Japanese figurative ceramic sculptor Miwa Kyusetsu XII. Never sketching or planning in advance, Oh Hwa-jin constructs works by meticulously  “mating daily objects,” such as shoes and hula hoops, with each other through a the use of an intelligent and spontaneous hand. This is combined with what curator Nahmee Park calls a “dialectic imagination” and results in a work such as GPS Animal (2012). The work, including The Cross, Mother and Child, and The Fish of Desire, is shown in a dramatic red-hot environment that reinforces the already emotionally charged figures. Lu Bin’s work for the show is titled Creation and Extinction and, in a way, is an interrogation of his own ceramic work in the context of the complicated changing political, economic, and social landscape of China.

Miwa Kyusetsu XII is a renowned Japanese figurative artist working in clay, whose work, for the most part, is introspective and autobiographical. Often employing fragments of body parts as well as complex full figures, he has continuously worked with themes of life and death, desire and frustration, and, ultimately, of eros and thanatos.

A goal of the Cheongju Craft Biennale is to promote the future of international craft by offering an international competition and then showcasing that work as a featured exhibition. To attract applications from around the world, the prize money was increased this year to $47,250 for the grand prize, with lesser amounts for the gold, silver and bronze awards. The eighth competition received 1,490 applications coming from 55 countries. The first screening was conducted by 17 judges selecting 335 pieces of artwork. The final screening was conducted by five judges who chose the various prizes given. Everyone selected got at least an honorable mention, along with 25 special citations issued.

The overall quality of the work chosen was rather uneven, and the competition would have benefited from 25 percent fewer entries. However, there were a number of extraordinary works selected including the spectacular ash wood laminate and stitched copper wire sculpture that captured the grand prize. The maker, Heechan Kim, is a young Korean artist who lives in Brooklyn, New York. The thin-skinned sculpture titled #9 was remarkable in the way it drew the viewer from outside to a darkened interior of this curvilinear organic form and then on the other side, from inside out. The overall surface was filled with stitches of fine copper wire that acted as marks, reinforcing the movement of interwoven network and joining the thin narrow strips of laminate. The technical origin of this work was inspired by traditional bentwood boat and canoe making.

Ceramic artist and industrial designer Ann Van Hoey from Belgium won the silver prize for her earthenware vessels made of .15-inch-thin slabs of clay. Simple overlapping planes fold over like origami to create an asymmetrical bowl, which has been painted to perfection with glossy red and yellow Ferrari automobile paint. Though she breaks all the rules of traditionally glazed ceramic vessels, Van Hoey has arrived at a fresh and seductive object because of its simple shape, razor’s edge, and beautifully reflective surface.

Afterimage Console is what Korean artist Bomi Park titled her table of welded wire. Bomi won the bronze prize with what appeared to be a blurred image of a stylized Queen Anne side table, in which the layers of gridded steel wire appear almost unreal, like a pixilated computer-generated afterimage.

This year Germany was the fourth guest country to be chosen for the Cheongju International Craft Biennale. It is interesting to note that this is the 50th anniversary of the time of an agreement when 10,000 miners and nurses came to Germany to contribute to its rebuilding after World War II. For the exhibition, about 129 artists were chosen to share their vision of modern craft trends in four different sections: jewelry, fashion design, at home and sculptural craft objects. 

Although there were a number of metalsmiths producing jewelry of stunning quality and design (for example, Peter Bauhuis, Georg Dobler), the folded paper necklace made by Elisabeth Krampe of Nuremberg titled Necklace was exceptional. Made of densely folded and layered black elefantenhaut [elephant skin] and old dictionary paper threaded on a spiral spring, this elegant neck piece with its rich and highly articulate paper texture was an especially fresh approach to jewelry making. The piece was energized by co-joined rings of layered black and pepper white paper pushing softly grained textures in opposite directions. In the sculptural craft objects division were several modeled female clay figures by Nathalie Schnider-Lang. Low-fire salt fuming was used to achieve the rather delicate surface of these works, which seemed highly personal and introspective. Margarete Palz showed several multifaceted, full-scale “dance sculptures,” created from cut and stitched photographic papers. Shown in the catalogue on the human body rather than on mannequins, these highly theatrical works appear to be cubist sculpture coming alive on the body. Textile designer and felt maker Beatriz Schaaf-Giesser has combined her own unique process of printing digitally on handmade felt surfaces where the imagery seems to emerge from deep within. She also very effectively felted bits and pieces of lace and fabric onto the garmented figures, which gave even more life to the digital imagery printed on the felt. Schaaf-Giesser used her parents’ emigration to Uruguay after the World War II as a theme. 

Although much of the work coming from Germany was quiet and more reserved, the quality of design and craftsmanship was unparalleled.

The most recent addition to the Cheongju Biennale was the introduction of the international pavilion, a place where “craft meets market.” Its main focus, according to a catalogue essay, was an “experimental showcase that reflects the popular appeal and trends of craft in light of the characteristic of visitors and present crafts in association with its potential for industry and profitability.” The idea is that now and in the future, this aspect of the Biennale will act to effectively create global craft networks.

Fourteen diverse organizations from 11 countries, including Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Korea were invited, along with about 100 artists belonging to those organizations. For example, from Estonia a group of 17 artists came from the Tallinn Applied Art Triennial Society. Most of the work was functional, with great focus on being sustainable, green, and appealing to a wide audience. The Japan Craft Design Association, founded in 1956, showed the work of 42 selected members of their organization, which is dedicated to promoting the proliferation of craft design and contributing to the “industry development of craft media.”

On the Friday after the Biennale opening there was an academic symposium, which included multiple sessions. Professor Lee Inbeom was the main speaker in the morning. He made a valiant attempt to place global craft in a new perspective by differentiating the way the history of craft has evolved in the East and the West. Inbeom emphasized what he believes concerning the need to “liberate the craft that has been marginalized by modern categories and set up a new order for the craft world.” Other lectures included one on Korean modernity and the meaning behind the historic Haeju White Porcelain of the late 19th century. The invited ceramic artist Lu Bin from China spoke on his work as it relates to the title of his exhibition: “Creation and Extinction.”  Since the host country for this Biennale was Germany, the afternoon was taken up by various talks about German contemporary arts and crafts.

Over the past decade Korea has been developing an international reputation for its support of all of the arts through its regular sponsoring of exhibitions and symposia throughout the country. The Cheongju International Craft Biennale is by far the largest event of its kind. The 2011 Biennale in Cheongju attracted more than 500,000 visitors, with even more predicted for 2013. The work and resources to make this project a reality are staggering to consider. For example, consider the special installation called the Patchwork Project. This involved about 100 citizens of Cheongju who volunteered their time to design and sew the thousands of small banners that cover two sides of the old tobacco building near the entrance. The raw materials were cut-up and recycled banners discarded throughout the country, and the method of construction was based on a historic Korean patchwork technique called pojagi. The beautifully colored composition of smaller banners, which read as a holistic quilt, was brilliantly executed and as exciting to see from a mile away as it was up close.

Finally, throngs of visitors came throughout the first week of the show. In attendance during the days after the opening were hundreds of Korean schoolchildren, who expressed great enthusiasm for all that they were experiencing. The city of Cheongju and the country of Korea must be swelling with pride for having created such an amazing event.

Warren Seelig is a professor at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and a 2001 inductee to the American Craft Council College of Fellows.