Gwangju Biennale explores wide spectrum of art touching the communal mind - The Korea Times
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Gwangju Biennale explores wide spectrum of art touching the communal mind

The 13th Gwangju Biennale exhibition shows Outi Pieski's
The 13th Gwangju Biennale exhibition shows Outi Pieski's "Beavvit II/ Rising Together II," left, and Min Joung-ki's landscape painting, "Poetical Circles' Pavilions in Mudeung Mountain," Buk-gu, Gwangju, April 1. Yonhap

By Lee Gyu-lee

GWANGJU ― The coronavirus pandemic has changed so much of people's lives and the ways things are done. The Gwangju Biennale is no exception.

The Biennale, one of the largest art events in Asia, has had its fair share of challenges in bringing the much-anticipated show to art lovers.

The exhibition got pushed back twice ― from last September to this February, and then to this April ― and the organizers had to arrange and install most of the artworks without having the international artists present in Korea.

However, such limitations caused by the pandemic did not stop the 13th Gwangju Biennale from expanding its theme beyond existing boundaries, and from exploring the wide-ranging spectrum of the mind under the title, "Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning."

Helmed by co-artistic directors Defne Ayas, a curator-at-large of the V-A-C Foundation in Moscow, and Natasha Ginwala, an associate curator at the Gropius Bau in Berlin, the exhibition presents 450 artworks by 69 artists and groups from 40 countries, from April 1 to May 9 in Gwangju. The works are displayed in four venues throughout Korea's sixth-largest city: the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall, Gwangju National Museum, Gwangju Theater, and Horanggasy Artpolygon.

"'Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning' delves into a broad set of cosmologies, activating planetary life-systems, queer technologies, and modes of communal survival," the directors described the exhibition in their curatorial statement.

"It is a collaborative initiative to harness and channel the modes of spherical thinking toward a socially and ecologically desirable world ethic, striving for a deeper understanding of the intrinsic relationship between healing, dissent, and renewal."

John Gerrard's
John Gerrard's "Corn Work (Corrib)" on display / Courtesy of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation

Exploring different forms of intelligence

The Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall, the biggest venue of the four, hosts five galleries, of which, the ground floor one is open to the public for free for the first time in the Biennale's history.

When visitors walk in, set along a black wall, they are greeted by photographer Lee Gap-chul's "Conflict and Reaction Series," which delves into Korea's spiritual life and shamanism, with a series of black-and-white photos.

Korean painter Min Joung-ki, a pioneer of the pro-democracy Minjung art movement, presents the map-style landscape paintings, "Byeokgye Nine Banded Stream" and "Four Seasons in Seohoori," which show hidden parts of the country's geography through a sociopolitical lens.

Kim Sang-don's work,
Kim Sang-don's work, "Carts" / Korea Times photo by Lee Gyu-lee

Irish artist John Gerrard's media artwork, "Corn Work (Corrib)," utilizes motion matching and neural networks to portray the changing seasons of the Corrib River. With the river as the backdrop, four folk figures, dressed in straw suits, dance in a circle.

"When there was no scientific knowledge, people relied on shamanism and rituals," Park Bo-na, the exhibition coordinator, said. "So this piece demonstrates what it is like to combine modern-day science, or technology, with something of the old ritual."

The exhibition also explores matriarchal systems, with one gallery entirely dedicated to them. German artist Angela Melitopoulos' essay film and New Zealand artist Vivian Lynn's installation acknowledge female power.

Dutch artist Femke Herregraven's newly commissioned work, "Twenty Birds Inside Her Chest," takes visitors underwater in the perspectives of Haenyeo ― the traditional profession of female free divers ― in Jeju. The multi-sensory installation includes larynx-shaped sculptures and sound recordings of Haenyeo taking breaths when they come up from a long dive.

Theo Eshetu's video installation,
Theo Eshetu's video installation, "Ghostdance" / Courtesy of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation

Artist Kim Sang-don encompasses death and living with his work, "Carts," in which he used shopping carts to build boats symbolizing the journey to the afterlife. The art piece was originally planned to be presented with a performance by samulnori and dancers, but the performance will be substituted with a video online, instead.

British video artist Theo Eshetu's "Ghostdance," displayed in the Gwangju National Museum, also ushers visitors through an audiovisual journey of metaphorical death and life. In the video, two choreographers dance around an empty museum space that housed Asian and African collections. As they resonate with the spirituality of the space, the artist taps into the ongoing debate around the possession of goods taken from colonized territories.

Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuna's radiant painting, "Camilo Torres," which portrays Colombian revolutionary fighter Camilo Torres Restrepo, is displayed alongside paintings by Gwangju-based artist and activist Lee Sang-ho.

The two artists' works displayed at an angle adjacent to each other express parallel resilience to authoritarianism and yearnings for democracy, in two different countries across the globe.

Vicuna's contribution also includes the sound installation, "Rain Dreamed by Sound," located in a park by the Gwangju National Museum. With the composer, Ricardo Gallo, the artist recorded a poem commemorating the late Korean American writer, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, who was raped and murdered in New York in 1982 at the age of 31.

Liliane Lijn's kinetic work,
Liliane Lijn's kinetic work, "Gravity's Dance" / Yonhap

Walking through the exhibition hall, observing artworks that jump from topic to topic, one might wonder about the relevance of the pieces and how they come under the umbrella of the central theme, "Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning." The Biennale's overenthusiasm to incorporate "dynamic aspects of the communal mind" ― from shamanism and postcolonial oppression to queer identities ― can get overwhelming, leaving the viewers occasionally mystified.

However, the exhibition still manages itself to keep the visitors busy with visually intriguing installations that consist of video, sculpture and even LED structures.

The UK-based American artist, Liliane Lijn's kinetic work, "Gravity's Dance," put together a textile skirt and LED lighting whirling in a circle to invoke a metaphor of the feminine archetype.

Finnish visual artist Outi Pieski's hanging thread work makes reference to the indigenous life practices of the Sami community.

Korakrit Arunanondchai's
Korakrit Arunanondchai's "Songs for Dying" / Courtesy of Gwangju Biennale Foundation

This year's biennale welcomes the new venue, Horanggasy Artpolygon, located by sacred Yangnim Mountain, a multi-layered symbol ― of anti-colonial resistance during the Japanese colonial era and Christian evangelization in Korea, among other histories.

New York-based Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai's "Songs for Dying" uses a whole cabin there to display single-channel video, large-scale painting, and props in serene resonance. His work sheds light on the recent demonstrations in Bangkok, connecting them to the pro-democratic uprising suppressed during Jeju's April 3 incident, where government forces killed an estimated 30,000 people in 1948.

Across from the cabin, Berlin-based Norwegian artist and chemist Sissel Tolaas presents a unique piece called, "_EQ_IQ_EQ_." The work walks through the violence and suppression of Jeju on April 3 with personal journals from a victim's family and 37 scented pumice stones, the smells of which were developed to match each journal entry.

This artwork is one of the many that were installed by the exhibition team in communication with the artist, as many artists couldn't travel from abroad due to the pandemic.

Sissel Tolaas's
Sissel Tolaas's "_EQ_IQ_EQ_," displayed at Horanggasy Artpolygon / Courtesy of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation

Lim Ji-in, the exhibition coordinator of Horanggasy Artpolygon, explained that she had to communicate with the artist via phone and video chat to assist her in everything from conducting additional interviews with the victim's family to selecting the stones.

"It was pretty difficult and strange to work remotely with the artist," Lim said, adding that she did feel overwhelmed at one point when arranging the artworks. "But once they were all put together, I felt like it was worth it."

Remembering the founding of the Gwangju Biennale

The original date of the 13th Gwangju Biennale marks the 40th anniversary of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, also known as the Gwangju Uprising. In remembrance of the tragic event and in the spirit of the biennale itself, founded in memory of the 1980 event, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation organized the special exhibition, "MaytoDay," to highlight Gwangju citizens' resistance and struggles for democracy.

Moon Seon-hee's
Moon Seon-hee's "Un/asked ― Voice," which is part of the special exhibition, "MaytoDay" / Hankook Ilbo photo by Chae Ji-sun

The exhibition takes place in the former Armed Forces Gwangju Hospital and invites 12 Gwanju-based artists who lived through the tragedy or indirectly experienced it due to the legacy of its history.

"The artworks incorporate various artistic perspectives of the things that we witnessed but could not tell, and that we have heard about but could not see," exhibition co-curator Lee Sun said.

One of the notable works from the exhibition is Moon Seon-hee's "Un/asked ― Voice." The installation decorates an incline to the second floor intensive care unit of the hospital with white daisies.

The artist collected testimonies from 80 people who went through the uprising as a child. The interviews were then recorded with the voices of children, which can only be heard from the top of the incline.

The field of daisies, blanketed with the sunshine from the large windows and the children's voices, echoing innocence, offers a different perspective on such a brutal event.

One of the GB Commission's work, "The 49th Hexagram," by Singapore artist Ho Tzu Nyen, also spotlights the significance of Gwangju's democracy movement.

Using clips and stills that depicted the uprising, Ho assembled a set of storyboards and sent it to an animation company based in the so-called "Nation of Morning Calm" for production. The name of the country remains anonymous to the viewers.

The figures in the animation are depicted wearing costumes and masks, and the background is completely blacked out. The blackout is because the animation team was reportedly restricted from directly referencing Korean history.

The two-channel animation work uses what the artist calls, "digital occult," to mesh two tracks of low-pitched vocal renditions, recreating frightening scenes of the democracy protests.

A total of nine artists took part in the GB Commission, including Mike Nelson's and Kader Attia's works restaged from the 2018 biennale. The works are spread across three venues: the former Armed Forces Gwangju Hospital, the Asia Culture Center, and the Gwangju Cultural Foundation.

Korean artist Kim Sung-hwan's "Hair is a piece of head" is a single-channel film that explores the Korean immigrants in Hawaii. As the artist tries to study if those immigrants find the Gwangju Uprising to be relevant to their lives, the film also reflects the feelings of isolation and anti-Asian discrimination that they experienced, which resonate with the current atmosphere in the United States.

Bridging Korean and international art networks

Video substitute for the performance of Swiss and Korean dancers, led by the Swiss choreographer, Anna Anderegg, for the Swiss Pavilion,
Video substitute for the performance of Swiss and Korean dancers, led by the Swiss choreographer, Anna Anderegg, for the Swiss Pavilion, "ALONE TOGETHER" / Korea Times photo by Lee Gyu-lee

For this year's biennale, the Swiss and Taiwan pavilions take on dramatically different themes in cooperation with Korean artists.

The Swiss Pavilion, co-organized by Kunsthaus Pasquart and the Eunam Museum of Art in Gwangju, presents "ALONE TOGETHER," a video installation of a performance by the Swiss choreographer, Anna Anderegg, with a team of Swiss and Korean dancers.

The work captures humans' dependence on technology and electronic devices to the degree that we lose autonomy in our actions.

"Anna expresses, 'What does it mean for people and for a society to be constantly in a fragmented state of consciousness,'" said Francoise Gardies, a senior cultural program officer from the Embassy of Switzerland in the Republic of Korea.

The Taiwan Pavilion, co-organized by Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab, the National Human Rights Museum, and the Taipei Performing Arts Center, connects Taiwan and South Korea by exploring the two countries' democratic developments and pursuit of human rights, freedom, and other universal values.

"The Monument Made of the Body ― The White Scars and Repercussions during the Cold War," by the Taiwanese group, The Libera Work-Gang, part of the Taiwan Pavilion project. Korea Times photo by Lee Gyu-lee

"Double Echoing," consisting of artworks by 14 Taiwanese and Korean artists, reinterprets the collective consciousness in pursuit of human rights and freedom.

Taiwanese artist Teng Chao-ming's "After All These Years" takes as its subject matter, Taiwan's popular song, "Rainy Night Flowers," which symbolizes the rebellion against martial law from 1949 to 1987, in Taiwan. The work breathes new life into the song, giving it a different perspective on how Taiwan survived such repression.

Korean artist Jung Yeon-doo's four-channel video installation, "Noise Quartet," is another notable work of the pavilion. Each screen follows a day in the life of two people who have been unfairly treated by the government, from four different places: Kaohsiung, Ginowan, Gwangju, and Hong Kong.

The four concurrently playing documentaries come out as noise, but at the same time, they harmonize as a collective voice against injustice.

The Biennale runs through May 9 with on-site entry open to only 300 visitors per hour. The exhibition will also be shared via videos on the
Biennale Foundation's YouTube channel.

Lee Gyu-lee


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