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In a first, Busan's Sea Art Festival gets an Indian artistic director

The 6th edition of the unique Sea Art Festival in Busan is being curated by Kolkata’s Ritika Biswas, the first foreign and female artistic director of the exhibition

Rohini Devasher's ‘Glasshouse Deep’. Image: courtesy Busan Biennale Organizing Committee
Rohini Devasher's ‘Glasshouse Deep’. Image: courtesy Busan Biennale Organizing Committee

The team at the Sea Art Festival—a unique exhibition held biannually on the beaches of Busan in South Korea—would like to believe that their venues are rhizomatic as they portray different facets of marine ecologies and histories. As part of the sixth edition, to be held between 16 October and 14 November 2021, the artworks don’t just occupy the Ilgwang Beach, but also the lived spaces of shrines, abandoned buildings, windows of cafes and restaurants, fishing huts, the riverfront, and more. At sunset, a soundscape project plays on the public speakers, allowing the gurgles of the imagined deep sea to mingle with the electronica blasting from the beaches. At night, moving image works are projected onto high-rise buildings and onto the beach sands.

“These entanglements of water, light, urban communities and artistic interventions manifest the interconnections among them,” reads the curatorial note. It is these unique encounters that have been envisaged by artistic director for the sixth edition, Ritika Biswas, who is the first foreign and female artistic director—and also the youngest at 26 years of age—since the Sea Art Festival started in 1987 as a cultural event ahead of the Seoul Olympics.

Biswas, who hails from Kolkata, received her MPhil in film and screen studies from the University of Cambridge, and until recently was the curator at New Art Exchange in the UK. The current edition of the Sea Art Festival, titled Non-/Human Assemblages, celebrates flux, precarity and the unknown, by tracing the “liquid flows running across all human and non-human bodies that enmesh us in a complex assemblage of friction, resonance, and kinship”.

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The Sea Art Festival 2021 features 22-site specific projects by local and international artists such as Rohini Devasher, the Raqs Media Collective, Shezad Dawood and the Turner Prize 2019 winner Lawrence Abu Hamdan. Some of the themes that inform these works include deep-sea temporal journeys, geopolitics of interspecies activism, oceanic cyberpunk creatures, ancestral spirits in Gijang village, and more. It is this interaction with the spectral seascape that makes this festival so appealing to Biswas.

“My intellectual, critical and spiritual energies are aligned with the festival. In fact, in my thesis at Cambridge, the largest chapter was on water,” says Biswas, who shuttles between India, the UK and Korea.

The pandemic has brought out the significance of outdoor spaces like nothing before, and sixth edition of the festival celebrates exactly that. The artworks this year depart from the usual modes of public installation by incorporating video projection, digital media, textile, prints, texts, and photography to create multivalent portals across the venue.

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“We do have indoor spaces to house two to three textile and text works. But this year, we are looking at different kinds of sites beyond the beach. These spaces accumulate more significance beyond being just pretty postcard-like backdrops,” says Biswas.

Earlier the beach sites were different—larger, surrounded by hyper capitalist spaces. Ilgwang, on the other hand, is a quieter and more traditional space. It allows for more than just towering installations, which needed to be done in the past in response to bigger beaches.

“People have come to expect these massive installations. But when you give people what they expect, their eyes glaze over and they don’t really look. When they see the unexpected, people are more open to engaging with it,” she says.

The process of curating the festival started with Biswas having intense conversations with each artist. But as her visa got delayed—she got it only in July—her sense of the space was built on research rather than the actual look and feel of the site. “Once I got there, the site took a life of its own,” she says. In the meantime, artists researched both human and non-human ecologies.

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One of the remarkable works in the festival is Glasshouse Deep by Rohini Devasher, who lives and practices in Delhi. She has created a large projection of diatoms, or sub-microscopic oceanic algae from the East Sea, onto Ilgwang Beach. The interplay of the creatures, which almost look jewel-like in Devasher’s work, creates an awareness about such ecologies that usually elude human perception.

“These sub-microscopic algae account for 25 percent of the world’s oceanic oxygen. As they face peril, we are looking in the face of a huge ecological crisis and yet they remain invisible to human eyes,” says Biswas. She put Devasher in touch with marine scientists in Busan, who sent her electron microscope images of diatoms from the East Sea near Ilgwang Beach. Glasshouse Deep is a result of this scientific and cultural engagement.

The other work from India—a multimedia screen and see-saw installation—is by the Raqs Media Collective, which has been influenced by the pandemic in India. Titled O2, it features a spectrographic LED video of an underwater diver. Oxygens accumulate around the figure, densifying in different colours, and then they disperse suddenly. “At the end of the pier, one can see a seesaw, carrying an oxygen cylinder. It rolls to and fro, finally resulting in a disconcerting clanging noise as it falls. It refers to this mad scramble for oxygen in India during the second wave,” says Biswas.

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Then there is a large-scale installation of flags by the global nomadic art platform, Forest Curriculum. Titled An Itinerant Bestiary, it features “assemblages of non-/human agency across the Zomia, a zone of forested regions at altitudes above 300m connecting various regions in Asia, the homes of indigenous and nomadic communities, spirits, fugitive and guerilla groups, and other entities who reside in these political ‘non-states’,” says the curatorial note.

The Sea Art Festival will be held between 16 October and 14 November 2021 at Ilgwang Beach, Busan, South Korea.

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