The Giardini is a strange kind of city. During the Biennale, it is a bustling garden city of small museums. Otherwise, during long periods of inactivity, it feels like a luscious necropolis of large mausoleums. In this city, there is a pavilion that eludes both of these designations. The Korean Pavilion is more like a house. Secluded behind the Russian, Japanese, and German pavilions, undetected along the sub-axis of the Giardini, it has the scale and privacy of a home. From the exterior, the different elements—a pre-existing brick shed, a tiered cylinder, a light steel-framed entrance—seem to designate the different functions of a house. It has a front garden, a back yard, and a roof terrace. We enter through a porch into a spacious rectangular hall. It is a bright “living room” with a skylight and ample glass walls that filter light through wooden screens. Fold up the wooden screens and hang them on cantilevered canopies, as you would in a hanok (the traditional Korean house), and the living room opens up to the gardens and the waters of the San Marco Canal. There are even back porches that look out to the canal. An undulating wood panel wall unexpectedly runs along one side of the hall; on the other side, a skylight slants down to a lower ceiling area. This, then, is the dining and kitchen area, with doors that lead to the back of the house and the existing shed. The square brick shed, once used as an office and toilet, seems almost private, like a bedroom chamber. A circular stair at the center of the cylinder once led up to an upper floor that still houses a toilet and storage space.
Rather than regular, neutral, white spaces, the architects Seok Chul Kim and Franco Mancuso have provided a differentiated space of diverse materials, shapes, and colors. They built one of the few pavilions in the Giardini in which painting was not the focus of its program. With its use of light materials assembled on site, with its many indentations, protrusions, additions, and curves, the pavilion has the feel of a modern vacation home. At the same time, like many of the pavilions in the Giardini, it is over-burdened with architectural metaphors and obligations to national identity. Alternately a Korean house, a UFO, a sailboat anchored in a Venetian canal, it boasted nautical posts and wires that pretend to be part of a tensile structure. In 2005, with Jeong Hwa Choi’s terrace installation, the cables were taken out and have not been reinstalled since. It is a house that wants to be too many things. Unable to decide what to forget, it dwells on too much.
Notwithstanding its confusing paraphernalia, the question still arises, “Why a house?” In the West, art and its exhibition spaces are irrevocably intertwined in a particular historical trajectory. The picture gallery, the white cube, warehouses, and urban spaces; each type of space evolved with fundamental shifts in the nature of art. This trajectory, though very relevant to Korea, does not apply. Because Korea has a short, disjointed history of painting, I would argue that “modernist painting” never existed there. If so, then there is also no white cube to speak of. In the obligatory search for a “Korean” space for exhibition and performance, one must recall the munbang, the private study where the Confucian literati practiced calligraphy and painting, and the madang, the outdoor spaces of multiple performances. Though the Korean architect Seok Chul Kim is better known for his aggressive, sculptural forms, in his engagement with the Korean house, he has produced an accommodating space. It is a space that allows itself to be adapted and changed, all within the scale of the house. It is a kind of hospitality that distinguishes it from most of the heavy monuments in the Giardini. We may contrast it, for example, with the German Pavilion next door, whose history and forms have provoked strong responses. We will certainly not forget Hans Haacke’s entry as a self-made vandal, smashing the marble floors furbished under the direction of Hitler.
In the short life of the Korean Pavilion, its exhibitions have reacted to the building and transformed it in different ways. Because of the sheer scale and locality of the pavilion, the Korean exhibitions have absorbed and performed this peculiar domestic setting. Most recently, it housed Yongbaek Lee’s mannequin scenes of violence and lamentation, inevitably read as domestic. In 2010, Jung Goo Cho fit a hanok into the interior of the pavilion. In 2005, Choi’s walls of red plastic baskets made a comfortable addition to the house. With the household utensils and bedroom mirrors installed by the artists, the architecture of the Korean Pavilion raises the basic question of what it means to be at home and what it means to be away. Being at home is an elemental but vulnerable condition. As the last pavilion in the Giardini, its very place, both spatially and temporally, evokes this vulnerability. From the viewpoint of the Giardini axis, one could take it away, and it would seem that nothing had changed. If the Western aesthetic is about selective forgetfulness, home is one of the things most often forgotten. Western culture frequently acts as if it has no home. But architecture cannot totally forget the house and the life of the home. As Adolf Loos argued a century ago, this is perhaps where architecture operates, along the different boundaries between art and the everyday. The architecture of the pavilion, like all the other national pavilions in the Giardini, sets up a particular datum in relation to the changing exhibitions and discourses that co-habit the spaces. The question it raises is as much about power, and the connections between the strong and the weak, as it is about what is acknowledged and what is forgotten. Hence, the belated immersion of this house in this strange garden of museums, in a city with traditions at the polar opposite of those of an older Korea, enables a productive engagement between different mechanisms of memory. Between wanting to be at home and wishing to be something else, the Korean Pavilion is a frustrating yet open space, a space that continues to dwell on what it wants to be.