Looking for needle in Gwangju Biennale’s haystack

North Korean art pieces drew the curiosity of the general public.

North Korean art pieces drew the curiosity of the general public.

Gwangju Biennale explores border issues in scattergun approach

Under the theme “Imagined Borders,” derived from Benedict Anderson’s book “Imagined Communities,” the 2018 Gwangju Biennale deals with imminent issues such as refugees, migration, cold war, divisions and the digital divide. For this year’s Gwangju Biennale, 11 curators organized seven main exhibitions with some 300 works of art by 165 artists from 43 countries. “We selected multiple curators last November and the curators picked the artist in March,” Kim Sun-jung, president of Gwangju Biennale Foundation, said during press preview on Sept. 6.  Three of the main exhibitions are held in the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall and the remaining four at the Asia Culture Center (ACC). GB Commission is presented at the former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital and the Pavilion Project is held at three different venues throughout the city in collaboration with other international institutions. The 12th edition of Gwangju Biennale made the choice to encompass a wide range of themes by selecting 11 curators and providing them independence, but such diversity leaves visitors in a maze full of intriguing works of art. Some might get lost in a disorderly fashion, while others might find real gems from the pile of artworks.

Boundary reinterpreted

Tate Modern curator Clara Kim presents “Imagined Nations / Modern Utopias,” investigating modernism and architecture in the context of nation-building in the 20th century. “We examine the past from the perspective of today through architectural language. It is a really important time to look at the architectural monuments and history in the notion of borders,” Clara Kim said. One of the notable works from the section is Kuwaiti artist Ala Younis’ “Plan (fem.) for Greater Baghdad.” The installation piece examines urban planning of the Iraqi capital in the 1950s, as the city invited the world’s top architects such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright in its prosperity from its oil profit. Yunis’ project also traces female figures in architectural history. Gridthiya Gaweewong’s section “Facing Phantom Borders” centers on politics in Southeast Asia, relating narratives through various mediums. “History often does not often incorporate voices of individuals. I tried to explore the relationships between people and the nation-state. I am also interested in mass-immigration and the fluidity of politics,” Gaweewong said. The curator set the boundaries of Asia from the end of the Eurasian continent to Turkey and Poland and discusses refugee issues and sensibilities of rival cities. Christine Y. Kim and Rita Gonzalez co-curated “The Ends: The Politics of Participation in the Post-Internet Age” section. “Some of us use social media for consumption and display, while the internet is used for civilian control in other parts of the world. We wanted to generate discussions about the potential end of the internet as we know and politics in the post-Internet age,” Kim said. Miao Ying’s “Chinternet Plus: What Goes On” reflects the Chinese artist’s critical interest in censorship. In the form of a promotional booth that can be found at trade fairs, Ying promotes a counterfeit of the government’s big data project Internet Plus, satirizing censorship within the “Great Firewall” of China. David Teh created an archive lounge summarizing the 23-year history of the Gwangju Biennale. “Regarding the present, we had to look back to the origin and impact of the Gwangju Biennale over the past 23 years. The outlook on the biennale is not too optimistic these days, but the Gwangju Biennale has played an important role in the development of Asian contemporary art and we wanted to add a layer of history to the present show for reflection,” Teh said. The exhibition continues to the ACC, where “The Art of Survival: Assembly, Sustainability, Shift” organized by Kim Man-seok, Kim Sung-woo and Paek Chong-ok is presented. The curators brought in the history of the city to the exhibit, juxtaposing anti-biennale banners from 1995 with installations revisiting the activities of sex workers during the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement. Chung Yeon-shim and Yeewan Koon’s section “Faultlines” is headlined by Tara Donovan’s gigantic pyramid made of plastic tubes in questioning the principal concept of borders. “We explore different concepts of borders and their specificity in this image-saturated era,” Chung said.

North Korean art in South Korea

One of the sections that drew attention even ahead of the opening is “North Korea Art: Paradoxical Realism.” BG Muhn, art professor at Georgetown University and son-in-law of the late artist Chun Kyung-ja, brought contemporary North Korean paintings to South Korea, providing a glimpse to the art scene of the communist state. “Whether you live in North (Korea) or South, you cannot live without the ideological issues and that has been hitting me very hard,” Muhn said. “This is the very first opportunity for South Koreans and others to see North Korean art in full spectrum, the only country in the world that still creates Socialist Realism paintings.” The “Chosonhwa,” or North Korean painting, refers to traditional ink and wash painting on absorbent rice paper. “It is an art form that only exists in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. North Korean artists developed unique characteristics in political, cultural and historical context. These highly representative images are the vehicles to depict everyday life and Chosunhwa is the most revered form of art in North Korea through support of the state,” Muhn said. “Other Asian countries also have similar ink and wash methods, but Chosonhwa has vibrant colors and three-dimensional rendering that contributes considerably to the North Koreanness.” The professor said Chosonhwa is largely propagandist art, but propaganda is not all it is.  “It is propagandist and has uniformity, but also has individuality and diversity. This is a historic project giving a glimpse to the intriguing North Korean art and culture,” Muhn said. The North Korean paintings are divided into four genres ― ideological painting, landscape painting, literati painting and animal painting.  “North Korean art is often criticized for being generic and monotonous, but when you look at each piece, you can find even North Korean artists do their best visually,” Muhn said. The paintings on view are borrowed from the Mansudae Art Studio in Beijing and the Yedo Arts Foundation in the U.S.

Outside the box

This year, Gwangju Biennale commissioned four artists to explore and take inspiration from historic sites in Gwangju and create site-specific works, bringing the city’s history and art together.  For the first-ever GB Commission, the artists researched the former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital, a pivotal place of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement and has been abandoned for about a decade since the hospital moved and the building closed down in 2007. British artist Mike Nelson transformed the hospital church located at the end of a forest trail into a place of reflection. Nelson installed small and large mirrors found in the old hospital building in the annex church for “Mirror reverb,” shedding light on the sense of absence in the derelict structure. French artist Kader Attia placed metal staples on cracked wooden beams as if attempting to heal them in “Eternal Now.” The beams are installed here and there in the abandoned hospital building, bleak and dreary. Thai experimental film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Constellations” combines film and installation, gathering remnants of memory from the former hospital. Last but not least, Adrian Villar Rojas made the film “The War of the Stars,” which is on view at the ACC, portraying historical, socio-political, cultural and geographical layers of Gwangju and the hospital. Viewing of the former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital is available only through guided tours from 3 to 6 p.m. every day.

Poetic invitation

“Today Will Happen,” co-produced by Palais de Tokyo from Paris and the ACC’s Asia Culture Institute, is the most poetic exhibition of the 2018 Gwangju Biennale.  The exhibition, held at the Gwangju Civic Center, is literally based on French writer Michel Houellebecq’s poem “The Art of Struggle” and 11 participating artists explore the potential for translation in various forms. Houellebecq himself also contributed two visual artworks ― “Inscription #012” and “Inscription #013.” The Gwangju Civic Center is another ruin in the city, built some 50 years ago as a cultural space for Gwangju citizens, but now almost in a state of disuse, artists unraveled their imagination at the site.  Tarik Kiswanson’s performance “The Other Side of the Lip” features 11-year-old twin brothers who move around the venue and recite lines about self-revelation and coming-of-age.  Sound artist Jang Young-gyu’s “Phantom of Sound” trails traces of phantoms throughout the past and into the present.  Lee Mi-re’s “Hysteria, Elegance, Catharsis; words were never enough” is ever-changing as the plastic sculpture is powered by motor and also flutters in the wind constantly.  Leonard Martin’s whimsical kinetic sculpture is inspired by writings of Irish novelist James Joyce and interprets the narrative in an architectural way.  The Helsinki International Artist Program (HIAP) presents “Fictional Frictions” at the Mugaksa Temple’s Lotus Gallery.  The Philippine Contemporary Art Network presents Houthouse at the Leekangha Art Museum and Hothouse.  This year’s biennale runs through Nov. 11. For more information, visit www.gwangjubiennale.org or call 062-608-4114.

By Kwon Mee-yoo

(Korea Times)

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