|Visitors to the Korean Pavilion take photos of artist Kim Yun-chul's kinetic installation, "Chroma V" (2022), on display for the exhibition titled "Gyre" at the pre-opening of the 59th Venice Biennale in Italy, Wednesday. Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol
Satellite exhibition near Venice's cemetery island highlights Gwangju's spirit of resistance
By Park Han-sol
VENICE, Italy ― Reaching the cylindrical steel building of "Corea" in the Giardini, Venice's public parkland that is home to 29 national pavilions, required patience at the pre-opening of the 59th Venice Biennale on Wednesday (local time).
After the world's longest-running international exhibition of contemporary art was postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, its return was met with overwhelming enthusiasm from art lovers flocking back to Italy's floating city en masse.
A total of 80 national pavilions represented by each country's curator and artists ― either located inside the Giardini or throughout Venice's city center ― are participating this year to showcase a wide range of works in dialogue with the biennale's eager audience.
Waiting in front of the park's entrance as early as an hour before the scheduled opening at 10 a.m. were a crowd of art collectors, gallery and museum directors, journalists and families with young children. Some were browsing through the biennale's brochure to strategize their routes or simply kill time, while others gazed in awe at the line of people behind them growing with each passing second.
It was a glimpse of the pre-pandemic life that so many have been pining for ― especially with the outdoor face mask mandate lifted throughout the country since February.
Dozens of the national pavilions sprawled across the green parkland soon became busy greeting visitors for the first time in three years. The door to the Russian Pavilion, however, remained firmly closed as its curator and team of artists resigned just two months before the biennale's opening following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
|A facade of the Korean Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale / Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol
After hastening past the silent building and venturing further into the Giardini, visitors could turn to the right to face the Korean Pavilion, a white structure tucked away at the far end.
Once inside, viewers immediately locked eyes with a 50-meter-long kaleidoscopic installation, tied in a special knot to resemble a distorted whale backbone. It writhes and twists as if alive on its own.
"Chroma V" is the centerpiece among five kinetic installations and a wall drawing on display at the Korean Pavilion's exhibition this year, "Gyre," under the vision of artist Kim Yun-chul. It's another ambitious step taken forward by the creator known for his transdisciplinary practices spanning art, literature, mythology, philosophy and science. The show is curated by Lee Young-chul and commissioned by the Arts Council of Korea.
Inspired by the Irish poet William Butler Yeat's "The Second Coming," where he used the concept of the gyre as an intense, chaotic force that brings irreversible changes to human history and ushers in a new era, Kim likened the present to another moment of gyre.
"I believe we are experiencing that motion of the gyre at this very moment, marked by the postponed Venice Biennale following the global pandemic and war in Ukraine," Kim said at the pavilion's preview show.
Some of the works themselves explicitly visualize a swirling vortex ― notably, "Chroma V."
|Artist Kim Yun-chul, left, and curator Lee Young-chul at the Korean pavilion / Korea Times photo by Park Han-sol
Inside the fish scale-like cells that make up 382 joints of the writhing body is a substance specially designed by the artist's studio ― near-transparent laminate polymers. As the entire piece continues to wriggle, the polymer layers inside are subject to deformation and friction. To the human eye, they are what causes the gleaming changes in color and brightness.
"Whereas other artists use dyes and pigments to express color, I use optics ― creating iridescent hues born from the light as it gets distorted while passing through a certain substance," he said, adding that one viewer commented that the piece looks like, "a cosmic painting."
Its appearance alone is certainly more than enough to mesmerize the audience, with some standing for minutes in silence staring at the resplendent cells that twist and turn. But how can "Chroma V" be moving and behaving like an organic body?
The answer lies in another spectacular work next door: "Argos ― The Swollen Suns."
|Kim Yun-chul's "Argos ― The Swollen Suns" (2022) / Courtesy of Arts Council Korea
Emitting an eerie, pulsating sound and flashing light, the installation consists of 246 Geiger-Muller tubes capable of detecting invisible particles around us ― what are known as muons.
Muons are created when high-energy particles called cosmic rays enter and collide with the Earth's atmosphere.
"As soon as Argo's hundreds of tubes detect muons that are originally from space, they then send signals based on these particle's movements to other kinetic installations, like 'Chroma V' and 'Impulse,' triggering their movements," the artist said.
"It's like receiving a direct message from a certain cosmological event. The reason why I chose to solely detect muons, and not other invisible particles around us on Earth, was because I wanted to expand the worldview offered by the piece ― extending beyond the world of humans and their art to outer space."
|Installation view of the special exhibition, "To Where the Flowers are Blooming," curated by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, at the Spazio Berlendis in Venice, Italy / Courtesy of Gwangju Biennale Foundation
Revisiting 'Gwangju Spirit' in Italy's floating city
A 30-minute walk from the Giardini across Venice's city center will take visitors to the Spazio Berlendis, an art space located in the neighborhood of Cannaregio, where a special exhibition dedicated to the 1980 Gwangju pro-democracy movement is being held.
Curated by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, "To Where the Flowers are Blooming" invites the works of 11 artists that either speak directly to the civil uprising carried out in protest of dictator Chun Doo-hwan's declaration of martial law or serve as metaphors for a larger historical narrative of resistance.
While the show has toured around the cities of Seoul, Gwangju, Cologne and Taipei since 2020, what makes the Venice edition particularly intriguing is none other than the location of its venue.
Straight across the nearest stretch of water from the exhibition hall lies San Michele, also known as the "Isle of the Dead" ― a burial ground for many Venetians since the early 1800s. And just around the corner from the venue stand casket-making workshops.
Being close to the commemorative site for the deceased creates an unexpected, yet befitting atmosphere for the special exhibition, according to the foundation's project manager Park Bo-na, as the Gwangju Uprising was brutally suppressed by the government and left nearly 200 dead.
Among the works on display is Choi Sun's "Butterflies," part of an ongoing project the artist has been engaged in since 2014. What looks like flying blue butterflies or petals from afar are, in fact, traces of human breaths blown into the wet ink.
Traveling to different cities and countries, he captures and records the breaths of people from a wide range of ages and different nationalities, genders and religions on canvas.
"We saw the artist's piece as a metaphor for the collective power of breath and the sacrifices made by nameless individuals," Park said.
|Choi Sun's "Butterflies" (2014-present) / Courtesy of Gwangju Biennale Foundation
The 2022 edition of the Venice Biennale runs until Nov. 27 mainly at the two sites ― the Giardini and the Arsenale, a former shipyard ― with numerous collateral exhibitions and events taking place throughout the Italian city's winding maze of alleyways, piazzas and bridges.
Its chief show ― the International Art Exhibition ― is curated by Cecilia Alemani under the theme of "The Milk of Dreams," inviting 213 creators from 58 countries.