Few other biennials are as firmly rooted in their location and historical context of the host country as the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea. Jessica Morgan, the artistic director of the tenth edition, brings together 104 artists from 36 countries, stressing that Gwangju “is not a tourist spot”. The biennial is there to “commemorate a specific political event”, a living memorial to the citizens, more than 200, who died in May 1980 when Gwangju’s population rose up against a hardline military dictatorship, thereby starting the democracy movement in Korea. “As a result, this history and context necessarily influences the exhibition,” says Morgan, who is the curator of international art at Tate Modern, London.
Her curatorial vision, conveyed in the title “Burning Down the House”, embraces the “radical spirit of ‘burning down’ the status quo”, she says. The process of annihilation, followed by renewal and regeneration, underpins the thematic framework. Works that reflect South Korea’s turbulent 20th-century past and emergence as an economic powerhouse are particularly potent.
The works explore subjects that challenge the status quo, including labor and gender issues as well as a loss of folkloric traditions in Asia’s contemporary commodity culture, according to artistic director Jessica Morgan. The theme is a nod to a song by U.S. art-rock group the Talking Heads.
The biannual event, now the biggest of its kind in South Korea, was founded in 1995 to commemorate the regional city’s pro-democracy movement of 1980, considered a turning point in the country’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy.
Ms. Morgan calls the bloody nine-day uprising “a loaded context…(that) gives you something to push against and play with.” Each staging of the biennale has included some reference to the movement.
The burning theme of the latest event has some literal interpretations. Five exhibition halls are plastered with smoke-motif wallpaper designs created by Spanish duo El Ultimo Grito. On
Early reviews have been mixed. While the main theme has garnered fans, critics like South Korea-based Lee Chung-woo, also locally known as Lim Geun-jun, say the works from more than a hundred artists break little new ground.
Last month, the event attracted negative publicity after a South Korean artist submitting for a side show to the biennale accused the organizers of censoring his work for its criticism of sitting President Park Geun-hye. Ms. Park’s late father Park Chung-hee took power in a coup in 1961 and ruled South Korea until his assassination in 1979.
While that show, commemorating the 20 years of the biennale, is curated separately from the main event, most press coverage for Gwangju Biennale has focused on the controversy. Ms. Morgan declined to comment on the debate.
Gwangju Biennale typically attracts about 500,000 visitors, equivalent to a third of the city’s population, over two months, making it one of the highest-attended art events in the world.
President and Founder of
Gwangju Biennale Resigns
by Mostafa Heddaya
Gwangju Biennale Foundation President Lee Yong-woo has resigned over the censorship of an artwork by the Korean government, the Korea Herald reported. At a Monday press conference, Lee, who co-founded the biennial in 1995, took “full responsibility” for the politically motivated removal of a painting by Hong Seong-dam that’s critical of Korean President Park Geun-hye. The Wall Street Journal describes the painting as follows:
A number of artists have withdrawn, in protest, from the group exhibition in which the work was to appear as part of the biennial, and Lee’s announced departure follows the resignation of the exhibition’s curator on August 10, according to a report in The Hankyoreh.
“From an art critic’s point of view, the painting should be on exhibit. I don’t think it is taboo to satirize a country’s president … Freedom of artistic expression should not be restricted by the government just because they have the exhibition budget under their control,” Lee said.
Hong and other artists have previously criticized the Korean president for her direct link to the country’s authoritarian past, the Wall Street Journal notes. Her father, Park Chung-hee, ruled the country from a 1961 coup through his assassination in 1979, and Park has drawn criticism for her recent appointment of Kim Ki-choon as her chief of staff. As a prosecutor during her father’s administration, the Journal explains, Kim helped rewrite the Korean constitution to keep the elder Park in power.
The exhibition containing the censored work, Sweet Dew at the Gwangju Museum of Art, is part of a “special project” of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation that opened August 8 to “initiate dialogue ahead of the open of the 10th Gwangju Biennale.” It was curated by a group of Korean scholars, writers, and curators and is intended to honor the twentieth anniversary of the creation of the Foundation. The Gwangju Biennial itself, this year titledBurning Down the House is curated by Jessica Morgan and her team, and opens in the Biennale Hall in Jungoui Park on September 5.