Review of the 14th Gwangju Biennale: The Gwangju Spirit Embraces Democratic Movements and Planetary Perspective
Gwangju is a city with a special status in Korea because of the very important history that took place in May 1980. The May 18 Democratic Uprising was a strong resistance from the people against the military regime that took power through a coup d’état at the time. It also reflected a fervent desire for democratization. In response, the military regime imposed ruthless suppression with force. Innocent people were sacrificed. However, the blood-stained pro-democracy movement was not the end, and it has since become the strongest spirit that toppled the military regime. The so-called “Gwangju spirit” has become a strong agenda that supports Korean society and democratization.
The Gwangju spirit is at the heart of the Gwangju Biennale, which began in 1995 and has become Asia’s largest international art festival. Artistic director Sook-Kyung Lee, who supervised this year’s Gwangju Biennale, also emphasized the spirit of Gwangju. As a result, the theme of this year’s Gwangju Biennale was “soft and weak like water.” The theme was inspired by Lao-tzu’s “Dao De Jing, chap.78”, which reads, “There is nothing softer and weaker than water, and there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things.” The 14th Gwangju Biennale intended to reveal resistance, coexistence, solidarity, and care through artistic work, referring to the nature of water that embraces heterogeneity and flexibly permeates everything.
Water flows from the first exhibition. It is an installation artwork by South African-born artist Buhlebezwe Siwani, who works in Cape Town and Amsterdam. Two videos flow, and the performance of women appearing in the video is elegant and beautiful. The performance, which seemed to caress a painful wound, feels like a gesture of resistance, inclusion, and recovery. Maybe it’s because of the artist’s history. She is a spiritual healer, or sangoma, who connects the worlds of the dead and the living. Next to the installation work is a rope that comes down like a vine from the ceiling, and there is soil underneath, reminiscent of a primeval forest. It embodies the traditional healing method of South Africa through a rope, which represents the connection between the dead and the living. This also makes us think about the relationship between humans and nature now. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Post-Impressionist master Paul Gauguin also comes to mind.
I was curious. Where are we now? I followed the flow of the exhibition like running water. It was not long before I encountered the words of Virginia Woolf. She described life like this: “It’s not like a systematic side-by-side flash, but like a luminous halo, a translucent envelope that wraps around us from the time of our first awakening to the last moment.” The “Luminous Halo” exhibition hall recalled the Gwangju of 1980. A woodcut printing by the Malaysian art group Pangrock Sulap and artist Yoon Oh was placed at the front. The landscape they coordinated reflected on the past and reconstructed the present. The moments of solidarity and mourning through collective resistance have piled up. In particular, several works depicted the May 18 victims as roses. The old slogan about “bread and roses” also overlaps here. Roses are weaker than guns, but the emotional resonance that one person can change the world by holding roses reflects the social meaning of art.
The following thematic exhibition halls expanded and deepened the 14th Gwangju Biennale’s space and depth. The “Ancestral Voices” portion recounts the value of tradition hidden by Western modernity, honoring ancestors who were victimized by colonialism. This in turn leads the visitor to “Transient Sovereignty,” which deals with the discrimination and pain faced by Korean diaspora, migrants, and refugees under the influence of colonialism and neoliberalism. In particular, artist Chang Jia’s Beautiful Tools, which deals with the oppression of women caused by the patriarchy, strongly gives reasons to resist oppression and taboos. This artist extends compassion for beings who have to suffer hatred and discrimination in their daily lives. Economic and social alienation, discrimination, and exclusion, which have been exacerbated by pandemics and wars, exist in different cultural contexts. However, the problems remain too large and universal for individuals to suffer alone.
In the end, “Planetary Times” shows that global issues are connected. In this exhibition hall, there are works that make us think about the common problems of humanity. For example, it is a work such as Alan Michelson’s Middne. He projects a video that shows the stacking of oyster shells brought from Tongyeong, Korea’s major producer of oysters. The video was filmed along two waterways in New York (Newtown River and the Gowanus Canal), which have rapidly changed due to industrialization and pollution. It was previously presented at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This work shows that the environmental practices of the natives were in balance with nature, paying tribute to oysters, which were food for local residents in the former Lenape (Delaware) area, including New York today. The works placed here permeate the planetary perspective of recognizing that the planet Earth is a place where humans and non-humans live together.
The exhibition goes from the spirit of Gwangju to criticism of modernity, post-colonialism, ecology, and climate. It also shows that all of these things are connected. As artistic director Sook-Kyung Lee said, it is the aesthetics of “entanglement.” The connection between the subject and the object, which presents the universality of the entire planet in the specificity of a specific region, is also natural. Works that present the connection between the past and the present and the perspective toward the future resonate. In particular, it is notable that eco-friendly materials are used throughout the exhibition in consideration of the climate crisis.
However, there are also some criticisms of the 14th Gwangju Biennale’s identity, such as its unconventional nature, the production of discourse through innovation, and the lack of a new direction. In particular, the event controversially created the “Park Seo-bo Art Award,” which had no contact point with the Gwangju Biennale. The organizers abolished it within a month after receiving criticism. It is a clear stain that the Biennale, which put forward the spirit of Gwangju, praised an artist who served in the dictatorship. This is not an act of inclusion or recovery, but an act of defiance of water. It is also an insult to true artists who contain the world and planetary concerns in art.
Along with this regret, it was reported that the participating artist Bakhyt Bubikanova of Kazakhstan recently passed away due to a chronic disease. Her paintings, which reinterpreted traditional Central Asian art, reminded her of the 19th-century French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. They unintentionally became her last exhibition. I pray for the repose and mourning of the deceased.
The Gwangju Biennale runs through July 9, 2023. More information on the 14th Gwangju Biennale can be found on the event’s website.