“Art Thinking Is How to Navigate the Future”. An Interview with Daehyung Lee

by Claudia Malfitano
June 11, 2019
Claudia Malfitano

Claudia Malfitano: You curated the Korean Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale. What was the main challenge of such a role? What does it mean to curate a national pavilion?

Daehyung Lee: Curating a national pavilion is very challenging, especially in Korea where the cultural proposal has to pass through the jury members. The jury usually consists of 6 curators and artists who have themselves experienced the Venice Biennale, so their expectations are usually centered on national identity and how to best present Korea. But at the same time, we have to either reflect or go against the artistic direction of the main exhibition. In 2017, Christine Macel was the curator, so I tried to analyse her curatorial practice not so as to emulate it, but to distance my curatorial methodology from hers; I implied Foucault’s pendulum. The pendulum would swing back to the more artistic expressions from that of Okwui Enwezor’s political narratives. In her exhibition “Viva Arte Viva”, Macel encouraged more diverse engagement with the audience; she invited sound artists and performance artists. So that was her taste and that was her curatorial direction. When I chose my Korean artists, I had to respect her curatorial direction, but the world in 2017 was divided by many forces such as transnational conflict, minority issues, and right wing movements (like Brexit, for example), so I tried to focus not just on the artistic forms but also on political, social and economic narratives. Then I realised that Korean problems or other Asian countries’ problems were all linked to global problems, so I conceived my curatorial direction as transnational and transgenerational. I then approached 3 artists: the first a fictitious artist I called Mr. K., representing our grandfather’s generation; the second, Cody Choi for our father’s generation and the third, Lee Wan for our son’s generation. Those generations are different universes: the grandfather’s generation depicted by Mr. K. is dominated by the conflict between Japan and Korea, because he experienced the Japanese colonial period; my father’s generation experienced the Korean war, when Communism was a big issue: Korea and America; Korea and the US Army. His dilemma is squeezed in between generations. But my generation—the son’s generation—we don’t care about Japan, we don’t care about America, and that’s our situation.
I discovered that our perception is increasingly infiltrated by multiple landscapes: we begin with the natural landscape, and then incorporate the social and political landscape, as well as the technological landscape. Since we are all connected 24/7 through our mobile phones and SNS (social networking services), so technological literacy is a key issue. Technological literacy among my grandfather’s generation is lower than among my father’s generation, so his universe is in some ways limited. America symbolises Western culture and our generation, we’re connected and we’ve got all the information. Like, you know BTS?

CM: Yes, they are huge! Not just in Korea.

DL: You see?! That’s because we are surrounded by the same technological landscape, so our path to understanding the world is different; that’s why yesterday we were talking about how the transnational situation, conditions and conflicts impact curatorial issues in many countries, but tomorrow we’ll talk more about transgenerational issues because technology is fast erasing all the boundaries. Then I discovered some similarities between art and technology, because technology also can transcend all the boundaries.

CM: So your analysis of the present and the recent past kind of led me to the second question I wanted to ask you which is, where do you think Korean contemporary art is now?

DL: Ok, that’s a good question…Back in 1980 to early 2000, many of my friends outside Korea described Korean contemporary art by saying “you guys are really good at making things, the fabrication technology is really good.” I think it’s a bit of a derogatory description, because fabrication without philosophy is just the final part of a process. When they said that, I heard “Conceptually weak but the fabrication is good.”
After 2010, we were all talking about the experience economy, and I think that Korean contemporary art is there. Artists are entering that phase and that opportunity because creating is more important that the physical entity; Korean artists have to collaborate sometimes with archaeologists, sometimes with sound artists or programmers, sometimes with environmental activists. So we do more than the fabrication: we ask questions and develop new narratives—really interesting narratives arise from this duality of fabrication. We cannot plan the visual: it is totally open-ended, that’s why Korean artists are very good at making, and really good at collaborating with different people.

CM: During every Venice Biennale there are many exhibitions of Korean art and artists. What is the connection between Korea and Venice, if there is one, or why is the Venice Biennale so appealing for Korean institutions and galleries?

DL: I don’t think there is a connection between Venice and Korea specifically, but the Venice Biennale is an international opportunity. It’s a place to visit, like a pilgrimage: we imagine thousands of curators, journalists and museum directors from all around the world so we really appreciate this opportunity because in Korea, Seoul is not a global city like London, New York or Berlin: it is economically strong but you rarely see any foreign curators.

CM: Why do you think that is?

DL: Korea is still a very homogeneous society. Universities need to hire more international professors like they do in Hong Kong or Singapore; even in Beijing and Shanghai they keep hiring international faculty members, but in Korea we are not. Or we are hiring but the numbers are small.

CM: Is it because of bureaucracy or is there another reason?

DL: It’s controversial. Before the current director of MMCA we had the first international director, Bartomeu Mari. I respected his new vision very much, but our society was not ready or patient enough to wait for his achievements.

CM: I kind of sensed this in Korea when I was there, but I also felt that people want to open up towards the rest of the world and be more international, and be seen as more international.

DL: I hope that in the next 5-10 years our society and culture will be more open to foreigners. Culture is not a product to export but a sharable creative experience that requires borderless collaboration between many different ideas.

CM: What’s in the future of Hyundai’s art initiatives?

DL: We started our programme based on 3 major museum partnerships with TATE, LACMA and MMCA, and we extended the programme to Bloomberg, do you know why?

CM: No, why?

DL: I think there are three phases or stages of contact between money and art, companies and cultural institutions: the first stage is collection, the second stage is commission, the third stage is perception; this is my analysis. We don’t support collection at the moment. We support commissions because we are not buying the final beautiful outcome, but we support really interesting ideas, either physical or experiential. At Hyundai Motor, we define art and culture not as a collector’s item for a small number of people but as a sharable experience for many people. Then we realised that Tate’s visitor numbers—somewhere between 5 and 6 million per year. It’s a big number but not big enough compared to the number of people that are actually travelling to London. We wanted to share really good ideas through virtual space so that you don’t have to travel to access them. That’s why Bloomberg filmed 75 international artists for 3 years, chosen based on a range of geographical locations and genders, then we asked the artists to find the right person to describe them—it could be a philosopher, a psychologist, or an art historian, for example, and they described the artist with their own voice. So that’s a phase.
Then we switched gears from contemporary art to art and technology; that’s a shift from the question within the art ecosystem to questions outside it. During the first three years we tried to support the art ecology, and now we are raising some bigger questions about what the role of art will be in our society; what will be its role in the future? We revealed this plan to our museum partners, and I had a talk with Hans Ulrich Obrist and Yana Peel at the Serpentine Galleries in London. They agreed because art is such a valuable experience, an asset, so we have to get the art out of the white cube space and bring it to society, to the city. That’s been our new role and that’s why we started the Blue Prize—a curatorial award programme for young Chinese curators. In many countries, when you ask international art curators “what do you think of Chinese contemporary art?” they all talk about the market, the auction houses, the art fairs but they don’t see what’s going on; their understanding of Chinese art is very flat and superficial, so I thought China needed a strong discourse-generating platform. China’s young curators are really, really talented so every year we select two young Chinese curators and we give them prompts. The first year the prompt was “social mobility.” The second year it was “future humanity;” and this year it’s “social intelligence.”

CM: What do you mean by “social intelligence”?

DL: The world is divided by different ideologies, different economic systems, and different political agendas. It’s a fight between humanities. Since 2016, we have all been talking about the fear of a robotised world dominated by AI (artificial intelligence). So we have to think about this from the perspective of the anthropocene; we have to consider what human feature can keep humanity human in the future. Empathy is a big part of it, emotion is a big part of it, but social intelligence is too—we have forgotten how to communicate properly with people, though we are really good at communicating with a digital gadget. Technology and robots and AI, yes…but we keep forgetting, especially younger generations with stronger technological literacy, how to communicate with real people with a different skin colour, background, or culture, because our default world is bigger than our real world and our relationship with technology is dominating our everyday life. So developing social intelligence is crucial for us to regain our real sensorium.
Now we need “art thinking”—everybody is talking about design thinking and finding solutions—art thinking is question-finding because our society and technology are changing so fast that design thinking is not timely enough to provide the real solution. We have to find the right questions, and that is the role of art. This is how we navigate the future.

CM: What are the exhibitions you want to see in Venice?

DL: I didn’t have much time, but my favourite National Pavilions so far, apart from the Korean Pavilion, are India, Ghana, France, Chile, and the Chinese pavilion’s AI augmented cityscape is very interesting.

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