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Over half of participating artists to present new works at 2023 Gwangju Biennale

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Betty Muffler's
Betty Muffler's "Healing Country" (2018) / Courtesy of Fondation Opale, Switzerland

Themed 'Soft and Weak Like Water,' Biennale invites some 80 multigenerational creators

By Park Han-sol

An official poster for the 14th edition of Gwangju Biennale, themed
An official poster for the 14th edition of Gwangju Biennale, themed "Soft and Weak Like Water" / Courtesy of Gwangju Biennale Foundation
The 59th edition of the Venice Biennale's International Art Exhibition, helmed by Cecilia Alemani, made global headlines earlier this year for filling approximately 90 percent of its roster with women and gender non-conforming artists ― for the first time in the event's 127-year history.

Lee Sook-kyung, the artistic director for the 2023 Gwangju Biennale, witnessed the long overdue women-dominated art event herself and came to a conclusion: There's still plenty of room for her to contribute to the scene.

"The Venice exhibition, while notable for its inclusive roster, was still focused largely on female creators from Europe and North America. There is still a great deal of other lesser-known artists whose oeuvre deserves our recognition just as much," she said at a recent press conference as she announced the preliminary list of participating artists for the upcoming edition of Asia's oldest biennial of contemporary art.

Slated for April 7, 2023, the 14th edition of Gwangju Biennale will be held for 94 days until July 9, making it the longest run in the event's history since its founding in 1995.

Its theme, "Soft and Weak Like Water," is inspired by the chapter of a classical Chinese Daoist text, which describes water's capacity to embrace contradictions and paradoxes. Accordingly, the Biennale aims to present an alternative mode of thinking in regards to planet Earth "as a (shared) site of resistance, coexistence, solidarity and care, by thinking through the transformative and restorative potential of water as a metaphor."

This commitment to steering away from previously hegemonic Western-centric discourse and instead examining postcolonial narratives through a transnational framework has been reflected in the list of participating creators.

Among an estimated 80 multigenerational artists and teams with wide-ranging cultural backgrounds and personal histories, over 40 will showcase new works and commissioned projects ― a high proportion, especially in the context of Biennales. Half of the invited creators are women.

Their practices fall under four subtopics, as the pieces strive to either suggest a model of collective resistance inspired by the Gwangju Spirit, a foundational mindset of Korea's southwestern city which witnessed the tragic 1980 Gwangju Uprising; reinterpret traditions to challenge modernist ideas; explore how postcolonial narratives have developed in relation to diasporic existence, or investigate the role of "planetary vision" in the field of environmental justice.

Christine Sun Kim's
Christine Sun Kim's "Every Life Signs" (2022) / Courtesy of the artist, Francois Ghebaly, Los Angeles and New York, and White Space, Beijing

Some of the notable participants include Emily Kame Kngwarreye and Betty Muffler, artists and community elders from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands, the latter of whom will bring in a piece that could be "interpreted as an abstract landscape or a conceptual reenactment of her country and her indigenous community's birth story," Lee said.

Korean American artist Christine Sun Kim's work comes from her interest in the cultural and political dimensions of sound, particularly as they are presented within the deaf community and their communicative systems, while Mexican-born Aliza Nisenbaum's newly commissioned project will consist of paintings based on her on-site collaboration with the Shinmyeong traditional theater group in Gwangju.

Lee viewed Seoul's ascent as a potential new art hub in Asia, most recently evidenced by the successful opening of Frieze Seoul early this month, as "the culmination of decades-long cultural efforts, networks and public infrastructure established by players like the Gwangju Biennale."

"The reason why a global art fair like Frieze has landed in Korea can also be found in the fact that the country has a throng of outstanding creators across different generations, in addition to a firm base of collectors and art institutions," the curator continued.

In fact, such a factor is what influenced her curatorial aim to bring in multigenerational, lesser-known Korean artists to the Biennale, who constitute approximately 17 percent of its roster ― including Oh Yoon, Chang Jia and Yu Ji-won.

Park Han-sol

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