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Busan Biennale scrambles to put on a show in pandemic times

Sept. 9, 2020 - 11:14 By Park Yuna
A virtual tour of the exhibition set up at a warehouse in Yeongdo Harbor, Busan (Busan Biennale YouTube channel)

When the second wave of COVID-19 infections hit South Korea in late August, forcing people to suspend many of their daily activities, the Busan Biennale‘s organizing committee went into crisis mode.

With the government announcing that strict social distancing rules would remain nationwide until Sept. 20, the Busan Biennale 2020 -- the international contemporary art show scheduled to open Sept. 5 in the southern port city of Busan -- had to quickly change its plans only a few days before the opening.

“The entire exhibition team was panicking and had to come up with a new plan. To make things worse, two typhoons had just hit the city ahead of the biennale,” said Lee Seol-hui, head of the exhibition team. “It was never going to be easy to host the biennale in these challenging times. It was really rewarding to see the exhibitions all set up in the end, including the five outdoor installation works.”

The opening of the biennale was streamed live through its YouTube channel on Saturday, running for nearly three hours. Busan Biennale Artistic Director Jacob Fabricius walked through every art piece at the three venues: Yeongdo Harbor, Old Town and The Museum of Contemporary Art Busan. Much of the opening ceremony was devoted to introducing the artists and explaining the implications of the works. 

Artistic Director Jacob Fabricius explains works of art in Old Town, Busan, during the livestreamed opening ceremony Saturday. (Busan Biennale YouTube channel)

Titled “Words at an Exhibition - an exhibition in ten chapters and five poems,” this year’s edition of the Busan Biennale portrays the city via three genres - literature, visual art and music. In fact, the biennale evolves around literary works by 10 fiction writers and one poet who were asked to write on the city of Busan.

The stories were passed on to visual artists and musicians who then created art pieces inspired by their selection of literary work. A total of 90 artists from 34 countries are participating in the biennale.

As the exhibition venues will remain closed to visitors until the end of September, the Busan Biennale Organizing Committee has created a 3D Viewing Room that will offer virtual tours of the three exhibition venues, Audio Books provides Busan citizens’ readings of the participating literary works and Sound Scape plays music pieces by the participating musicians.

The 3D Viewing Room currently shows only the exhibition venue in Yeongdo Harbor: A warehouse that has been turned into a space where literature, visual art and music come together. The two other virtual tours will be uploaded by Sept. 15, according to the organizing committee. The online exhibition can be accessed on its official website (

Established in 1981, this is the first time Busan Biennale is being held both online and offline, said Lee Sang-sub, managing director of the organizing committee.

“We are trying our best to present the artworks, but the limited budget and shortage of manpower have been problematic,” Lee said. The 10-person exhibition team had to install all the art works as the artists were unable to come to Korea to install them in person. Next year’s biennale will likely see some changes, such as enhanced online contents for the international participants who may not be able to travel to Korea, according to Lee.

Video artist Kim Hee-cheon, whose 42-minute-long video art “Deep in the Forking Tanks” is set up at Yeongdo Harbor venue, believes the Busan Biennale could become a good precedent in running an international art show during a challenging time for the art world.

“I was glad to see the committee’s strong determination to push ahead with the biennale despite all the challenges. The Busan Biennale is one of the few international art shows being held in the pandemic times,” Kim said. “I am expecting to see the artworks in person after the restrictions are lifted. It will be a good inspiration for me as an audience member and an artist.”

The Busan Biennale 2020 will run through Nov. 8, and the venues are expected to remain closed until Sept. 20, but that is subject to change depending on the pandemic situation.

By Park Yuna (