Is talking to North Korea through an art form easier than other topics?
I think each medium has the capacity to communicate when there is a difficult situation. I think sport is the easiest one as it has simple rules and doesn’t involve the language too much. Whereas, literature is a very challenging case as each word has a direct meaning, implications and deviations that came out of the division time.
The South Korean poet, and previous candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, Ko Un, was one of the very few to encounter meetings on both sides. They share a common dictionary, with a unique alphabet invented five or six hundred years ago. Almost like identical twins sharing the same genes for over 5,000 years. And, then all of a sudden separating and meeting again. Although, I expect architecture would be very different. It doesn’t directly deal with language, but it does engage with every aspect of human civilization.
It was quite a far and wide reaching team. How did you go about putting it together?
It was a fascinating process. When we are at the podium, I just brought everyone on stage. Initially, the directors asked for only the curators but I thought ‘to hell with it,’ I’ll just bring everyone up as they were a lot more involved than just the curatorial.
It looked good when you were all on stage and added to the overall message about unity.
Yes, we felt North Korean about it, you know, everybody on the stage. A sort of, there’s no one architect standing on his own, no super hero construction worker. It was a very intuitive. It’s not about architects; it’s about architecture, right?
Sure, and a picture says a thousand words, right?
Actually, at the end of our catalogue Crow’s Eye View: The Korean Peninsula. Is an Open Letter to Architects of North Korea. It says, ‘A piece of architecture is worth a thousand pictures.’ So, in the calculation, a piece of architecture then equals one million words!
How involved was Rem throughout the research?
Even when we had our first meeting (in a Venetian water taxi), he was really excited and said that if I did get to go to North Korea then he would come with and support me. And then of course Stephan Petermann, OMA, was the curator directly working with him on the entire Biennale, and he was very supportive too. For example, when we first sent a letter to the North Korea Architect Institute they came back asking for letters from a higher level, so I notched up to the President of Arts Council in Korea, but had to go higher again and had to go all the way to Minister of Reunification, that’s just one below presidents level.
Tell us a bit about curatorship in the Mass Studies office.
Mass Studies is about 20 people in the office right now, plus another seven in a brilliant curatorial team. They are a mix of full-time, part-time, architects and interns. I chose this year to be ‘exhibition madness’, and in late November we are having a gallery show in Seoul, this time all about ourselves. Finally, some me, me, me time, he says graciously laughing.
How useful do you think curatorial work is for an architecture practice?
This is my second one, and I have been curated more than a curator, but I think that’s how I learnt. Even when younger, living and working in New York, I was often involved with curating for contemporary dance production.
For me, I’m 90 percent architect, but I don’t see this other ten percent as a hobby either, it’s very serious and they actually compliment each other. A Biennale, takes 15 months, whereas when you do one building it takes five or six years. You know, architecture is almost an anti-climatic profession. In the beginning it’s about dreaming, then you bring it down to the world, and once the building is open there is a little celebration followed by complaints of a leaking roof or something, and you can see a sort of decline. Performance is different. Performers live and work for the standing ovation. They shoot the rocket to the moon, and then it’s over. It’s a lot less about compromising.
So I think, they enforce each other. Curating helps my practice, as it really excites me and gets me going when you hit a dead end. Sounds cliché but it’s like a kind of therapy.
But for me, this Korean Pavilion didn’t end, that’s what I consider the most meaningful thing.