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A sense of curatorial rigor pervaded many of the compact exhibition spaces of this year’s biennale in Gwangju, a major city in southern Korea known for its rich cultural past and for the May 1980 democratic movement. For its sixth installment, this leading art biennale in East Asia adopted a self-conscious mode of re-examining its raison d’être and selected as its main theme an idea that had in fact existed all along: Asia. Such an inquiry was timely, as the stake to distinguish oneself from others has never been higher for each of the proliferating biennales in Asia—from Singapore to Shanghai to Pusan, to name just the ones concurrent with Gwangju this fall (on the larger phenomenon of Asian biennales and triennales, see John Clark’s recent two-part essay in caa.reviews). The overall sophistication of the 2006 Gwangju Biennale revealed the intellectual taste of artistic director Kim Hong-hee, widely acknowledged as one of the best curators of contemporary art in Korea. She is also renowned for her critical writings on contemporary video and performance art as well as for her able management of the thriving Ssamzie Space in Seoul.
“Asia” is at once a concrete reality and an open concept, and at Gwangju two theoretical approaches were proposed to survey this fluid topos. One trajectory unfolded in the exhibition “The First Chapter_Trace Root: Unfolding Asian Stories.” Its chief curator was Wu Hung, accompanied by Binghui Huangfu, Shaheen Merali, and Jacquelynn Baas. The biennale guide states that the purpose of this exhibition was to trace “in a diachronic manner the root of Asianess.” The second exhibition, in contrast, “takes a synchronic approach to the theme of the city” in re-mapping global routes that crisscross in and out of Asia. Entitled “The Last Chapter: Remapping Global Cities,” this component was co-curated by Cristina Ricupero, Beck Jee-suk, and Chris Gilbert and Cira Pascual Marquina. The first exhibition presented works by seventy-two artists; the second featured fifty-five artists and collectives. All together, the artists came from thirty-two nations. Both exhibitions eschewed the stale grouping of works by artist nationality in order to emphasize the “glocalism” that was not only intrinsic to many of the works but was also espoused as the ideology of the biennale itself.
The exhibitions took place in the Biennale Exhibition Hall, the main venue for the biennale since its inception in 1995. Compared to previous installments, the scale of this year’s biennale was rather modest, but the installation quality was excellent. The venue’s five large galleries were loosely partitioned into two or three areas, each showing several to a dozen works. The size and layout of these spaces varied to avoid the monotonous “white cube” look, and the works were placed spaciously under appropriate lighting. The labels provided sufficient information in Korean and English, but it would have been better if had they included more information regarding the work’s media.
“The First Chapter_Trace Root: Unfolding Asian Stories” was exceptional for its curatorial lucidity. It was also the more visually rewarding of the two exhibitions. It was organized into four sections: “Myth and Fantasy,” “Nature and Body,” “Trace of Mind,” and “Past in Present.” The visitor could recognize with relative ease the intention of the curatorial team in the selection and placement of works. This was an accomplishment that stands out in the context of international art biennales and triennales, the effects of which too often rely heavily on the individual strength of several outstanding works and less on the thematic coherence of the exhibition as a whole. The two artworks that jointly received this year’s biennale prize, Bodhi Obfuscatus (Gwangju) (2006) by Michael Joo (b. 1966) and Waste Not (2005) by Song Dong (b. 1966) and his mother Zhao Xiang Yuan, were both shown here.
In the first two sections, “Myth and Fantasy” and “Nature and Body,” visitors encountered a number of works dealing with two of the most familiar forms of Asian art: Buddhist icons and landscape painting. Joo’s Bodhi Obfuscatus fixed a spherical cluster of cameras around the head of a Buddha statue, each continuously recording a specific area of the statue’s surface. The legacy of the landscape tradition was invoked in the work of artists including Kim Jong-ku (b. 1963) and Whang In-kie (b. 1951). It was also the subject of the eye-catching Background Story II (2006) by Xu Bing (b. 1955). The installation projected a large shadow image of a landscape derived from work by the Gwangju-based modern literati painter Hur Baik-Ryun (1891–1977). Xu’s evocative shadow was actually made of construction debris, dried grass, and other rubbish. The authority of the literati painting tradition was thereby called into question, though not rejected. The ambivalent oscillation between criticism, parody, and homage made Xu’s work compelling, as was the case with Kim Jong-ku and Whang In-kie.
The third section, “Trace of Mind,” was perhaps the least convincing of the four sections. Here the visitor met a constellation of overused Asian imagery epitomized by Zen-inspired minimalist aesthetics. Multifaceted intentions of individual works notwithstanding, the general atmosphere of the section was an unproblematized celebration of the enduring influence of “Asian philosophy and Zen Buddhism” on contemporary art. Moreover, historical works from the Fluxus movement were featured in a special exhibition as precedents for the transcultural engagement of contemporary art with East Asian philosophy and aesthetics. While one could see the place of Fluxus in this trend, the absence of other postwar artworks from North America and Western Europe inspired by Asian ideas resulted in a curious overemphasis on this conceptual movement.
The last section, “Past in Present,” contained a number of powerful pieces. Less interested in a grand questioning of what “Asianess” might mean, works such as Waste Not by Song Dong and Border (2006) by Gwangju-based Son Bong Chae (b. 1967) created narratives out of personal and local history. Waste Not was an extraordinary storehouse of everyday items in China—such as shoes, neatly folded plastic bags, discarded medicine bottles, etc.—that the artist’s frugal mother amassed over three decades. Border invited the visitor to walk among a series of tall, horizontal transparent panels. The initially nondescript photographic landscape printed on these panels acquired progressively more details until it became a recognizable view of the Jeonnam Provincial Office in downtown Gwangju. As such, the installation commemorated the receding, yet still persistent, memory of the May 1980 democratic movement, as this building remains a primary symbol of collective courage and sacrifices.
Compared with the first exhibition, “The Last Chapter: Remapping Global Cities” was more typical of current biennales and triennales in that it consisted of various works loosely assembled under a rather broadly defined subject. Its three sections appeared to have been organized independently of one another and were divided into “Europe: Berlin-Paris-Amsterdam / Rotterdam-Copenhagen-Vilnius,” “Central Balkan-Middle-Asia-North America,” and “Latin America: Buenos Aires-El Alto / La Paz-Caracas.” According to the biennale guide, the aim of the exhibition was to set the idea of the city in motion through “tracing the route of change, mapping global simultaneities, and bringing momentary focus to a shifting and changing Asia.” To be sure, many works on display dealt with one or more of these questions in their own ways, but exactly how they were meant to function as an ensemble remained open-ended. The last, small section on Latin America sat uneasily with the rest of the exhibition. Rather than artworks, it presented proselytizing posters denouncing the evil nature of U.S. imperialism.
The theme of immigration and global trade recurred throughout “The Last Chapter.” RETURN and Road of Re-migration documented the reality of Bangladeshi, Nepali, and other migrant workers in Korea, a social issue not well-known outside the country. They were produced by mixrice (established in 2002), a group that supports these workers through cultural activities. The impact of global trade was explored in the engaging mixed-media installation Honey Banana (2006) by the Korean artist Ham Kyungah (b. 1966). By tracing in a series of DVD interviews the route of the banana trade, it visualized the cacophonous meanings attached to this fruit depending on one’s geopolitical location. The perennial problem of “glocalism” surfaced in some of the works, however. Their particular context was too specific for the majority of visitors to relate to, although this was partially to be expected since one essential function of the biennale is indeed to expand the cultural horizons of the local visitor and to offer the opportunity to learn about hitherto unknown issues from unfamiliar regions of the world.
Separate from the two main exhibitions, “The Third Sector_Citizen Program: 1.4 Million Torches” consisted of works and events staged by local citizens and artists in Jungoei Park. In the biennial guide, program coordinators Ann Yee Young-ro and Rhee Cheong-yong declared that its purpose was to “connect the Biennale with the citizens of Gwangju and the general public.” Such local participation has been on the rise at Gwangju. The theme for this year’s public component was the voices and fragments of everyday life in Gwangju. Unfortunately, visitors were able to see only some of this section during the opening week of the biennale, as the works were not displayed all at once. The part that was shown presented a series of installations that gave a glimpse into the personal life and memory of the local citizen/artist. They collectively gave off a sweet, nostalgic impression. Yet by the end of the first week, a few of these non-professionally-made works built with paper, photographs, string, and other ephemeral materials were beginning to break apart as a result of being left unattended outside. Other events included performances, concerts, and art markets. Information in English regarding this section of the biennale was unfortunately minimal, which made it difficult for the non-Korean-speaking visitor to understand the exact schedule and nature of these events.
The organizers’ decision to put “Asia” on center stage at this year’s biennale resonated with the increasing economic, political, cultural, and demographic importance of this region in the world and the growing self-confidence it has generated. Perhaps for the first time in modern history, it is seen as cool to be “Asian.” The phenomenon of Hallyu (“Korean Wave”), for example, has transformed Korea into one of the epicenters of transnational popular culture. Given that what currently makes Asia “hot” is derived in large part from its speculated future economic growth and market potential, visitors might have expected to find works explicitly addressing the ambiguous status of “art” as cultural commodity in today’s age of global capitalism. This was not the case. But then, one did not necessarily miss their absence, either. As a matter of fact, it was refreshing to see a substantial body of contemporary artworks made in or about Asia that did not reference the cultural industry of “Asian pop,” whether J-pop or K-pop, that one otherwise sees everywhere as the hyped emblem of contemporary Asia. Despite the title “Fever Variations,” the tenor of this year’s biennale was cool, intellectual, even somber. The antithesis of feverish frenzy, the space of the exhibition hall was carefully designed to offer an orderly visit. The compact size, clear layout, and above all the polished quality of many of the works and the finesse with which they were displayed made a visit to the 2006 Gwangju Biennale manageable and satisfying.
Associate Professor, Faculty of Liberal Arts, Sophia University
Visiting Assistant Professor, International Research Center for Japanese Studies, Kyoto
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