Biennial Contemporary art News Korea

A little too much democracy at Gwangju Biennale

Six curators create "Round Table" exhibition with contontations of debate but a blurry message

Agung Kurniawan’s work, in the “Round Table” show, includes the installation and performance The Shoes Diary: Adidas Tragedy series, 2009-2012 (Photo: courtesy the artist)

The Gwangju Biennale is special among biennials. It is actually a living memorial to the 200 or so citizens (it may have been many more) who died in May 1980 when Gwangju rose up against a hardline military dictatorship, thereby starting the democracy movement in Korea.

Yongwoo Lee, the president of the biennial, says: “I was the arts correspondent of the Donga Daily newspaper. One day the mayor of the city rang me up and said: ‘I want you to help me do a biennial to revitalise the memory of the events in 1980’. He didn’t blench when I said that he would need at least $2m and so the first biennial was born in 1995.”

It has continued to be well funded. This year’s budget was $9m, and it has an endowment fund now of $29m, donated by leading Korean companies, and gets money from central and municipal government.

It has huge support from people and politicians. At the opening last month all three presidential candidates turned up to show their respect for the town and the event, and crowds flocked into the building, which was broadcasting a film about the Chinese activist artist Ai Weiwei on the wall outside, and had polished steel and glass ping pong tables outside on which families were playing. The visitor breakdown is 49% local, 39% from Seoul and other Korean towns, and 12% foreigners.

Lee has an Oxford doctorate in the history of media art (Nam June Paik, one of the first media artists, was, after all, a Korean) and from the first he saw to it that the biennial was international (the great Swiss curator Harald Szeemann was one its curators), and, in view of its founding mission, that it engaged with the public. “Art is not something for art’s sake; it includes everything: daily life, memory, social practice,” Lee says. When he was the curator of one of the biennials himself, in 2004, he got 20 members of the public, 20 cultural producers, such as artists and composers, and 20 art critics, media activists and cultural commentators, teamed them up in different countries and got them discussing what a biennial should be. One English farmer who had lost his herd to Mad Cow Disease wanted Damien Hirst’s bisected cow to be included, “but Hirst was too busy to come”, Lee says.

Biennials in general tend to be more or less socialised, but Gwangju is more so than most because of the tradition that lies behind it. This year’s has no fewer than six curators, all women. This came about because the biennial’s foundation wanted it to have an Asian curator this year, and Lee chose ones from East and West Asia, and then the board recommended him to include one from the Middle East. The line-up is Nancy Adajania (India), Wassan Al-Khudhairi (Middle East), Mami Kataoka (Japan), Sunjung Kim (South Korea), Carol Yinghua Lu (China), and Alia Swastika (Indonesia). Of course, to each of their countries of origin you need to add the experience they have had working in the contemporary art world of the West, learning the internationalism that is part of the job today.

This is not an exhibition at which to get an overview of what is going on in Asia—for that you have to go to the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane (8 December–14 April 2013), although 18 of the 94 artists do come from South Korea. Rather, in the broadest sense it seems to be an exploration of the affinities between philosophical standpoints, preoccupations and incongruities between different cultures.

Lee admits that despite much discussion, the six ladies could not agree on a common approach, which explains why the exhibition is called “Round Table” (until 11 November), with its connotation of continuing debate as well as equality between all members.

Nancy Adajania and Carol Yinghua Lu, however, wanted their own exhibition spaces, and they are markedly more coherent and therefore enjoyable, demonstrating that a semi-collaborative approach does not help the hapless member of the public understand what is going on. Perhaps another step the biennial could take towards democracy in future would be to insist that curators avoid gnomic curator-to-curator labels and write for the public. I challenge anyone to understand what this means (especially when translated into Korean), of a huge cache of photos of Asia taken and collected by the French diplomat, Alexandre Kojève, presented by the philosopher and critic Boris Groys: “In the journey to Asia, in particular Japan, Kojève discovered the possibility of the subject in opposition to the object in the name of pure form, and that commitment to pure form could save post-historical linearity from falling into pure animality now that history has come to an end.”

Gwangju Biennial, until 11 November, 111 Biennale-ro, yongbong-dong, Buk-gu, Gwangju, 500-845, Republic of Korea, www.gwangjubiennale.org

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