Keeping tabs on the Gwangju Biennale

Published Wed, Mar 31, 2021 · 05:50 AM

Gwangju, South Korea

ONE warm February morning, curator Defne Ayas bounded up a steep, sylvan path toward a cemetery in this city of 1.5 million as she discussed shamanic practices, resistance movements and other aspects of the area's history that are themes in the art exhibition she was finalising nearby.

"It's been a long journey," Ayas said as she caught her breath. Factoring in coronavirus-induced postponements, she and her co-artistic director, Natasha Ginwala, have been developing their edition of the Gwangju Biennale for more than two years.

Originally scheduled to open last September, and then in February, Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning is now on tap for April 1. The most closely watched art biennial in Asia, the exhibition has been integral to South Korea's efforts to boost its contemporary art scene. Its curators will be back in Berlin this week, where they are based. (Ginwala is an associate curator at the Gropius Bau museum; Ayas, a curator-at-large for the V-A-C Foundation of Moscow and Venice, Italy.)

Each spent two weeks in quarantine after flying into South Korea to prep the show. It will close after a mere 39 days, on May 9 - about half its intended duration. The Venice Biennale, in contrast, runs for seven luxurious months.

But, as other international exhibitions have opted for longer delays, Ginwala and Ayas have plowed ahead, buoyed by South Korea's comparatively successful management of the pandemic, which has allowed art fairs and exhibitions to open during periods of eased social distancing.

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Setting an example

The curators wanted "to set an example of doing things in a way that sustains and responds to this moment," Ginwala said, sitting behind a plastic barrier in a biennial office.

Over the past few decades, biennials have been arenas for networking, as curators, collectors, dealers and artists descended on far-flung cities to share information and cut deals. Gwangju's show now attracts a fraction of the 1.6 million who attended the first one, in 1995, but "it has become one of the more prominent destinations on the biennale circuit," said Joan Kee, an art history professor at the University of Michigan.

Over the years, the biennial has hired top-flight curators such as Massimiliano Gioni, the New Museum's artistic director, and Okwui Enwezor, who died in 2019. The show has "played a role in the appreciation by the global art world of what Korea has to offer in terms of artists, galleries, non-profits and institutions," said Pat Lee, a director at Gallery Hyundai in Seoul.

The 2021 outing will, inevitably, be a more low-key affair.

Of the 69 artists and groups selected to fill four venues, only three braved the quarantine to install on site. (Eight are based in Korea.) It is a wildly eclectic bunch. Ayas said that she and Ginwala looked for art that embodies forms of intelligence, "from the heart, from streams of consciousness that are ancestral, that are cosmological" - and that takes up issues like artificial intelligence and "collective modes of solidarity that you might find in Indigenous contexts or in matriarchal cultures".

One team that made the trek was the Paris-based vanguard choreography duo known as EightOS, Dmitry Paranyushkin and Koo Des. EightOS - a "body-mind operating system" - involves performers wearing headsets that vibrate to indicate if they are moving in a way that suggests the fractal geometry found in many organic forms. "It's a way to reconnect to nature."

The curators planned for EightOS to help organise a dance at the biennial's sprawling exhibition hall with local children, samul nori drummers, sculptures that artist Sangdon Kim built atop shopping carts and a sutra reading from Jeong Kwan, a renowned Buddhist nun and chef whose monastery is in the region.

"The biennale is almost set up now as a television studio where the procession is being recorded," Ayas said. The reality was that most viewers - and most of the artists - will only experience the exhibition online.

Poetic audio-visual installation

Some participants, at least, were able to visit Gwangju with the curators to research their works before intercontinental journeys became difficult.

Sylbee Kim, who works between Berlin and Seoul, filmed scenes for a poetic audio-visual installation that follows a sci-fi band of wanderers before heading back to Germany. Kim returned to South Korea this month. She was a student in Seoul when she first went to the biennial, which was founded as a response to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising - "what is sometimes referred to as Korea's Tiananmen", Kee said. Demonstrators rose up against a military dictatorship, which killed many of them. The events are still fiercely contested. Political liberalisation starting in the late 1980s gradually led to greater awareness of the censored incident. But "it took decades until the democratic movement gained importance through revised historical views," Kim said.

"The biennial is really a way to reconcile with this traumatic past, when the government" attacked its own citizens, Ayas said. "Every two years there's that remembrance moment." That mission, commemorating a failed fight against martial law, has a bracing resonance amid the Myanmar military's recent shooting of protesters and Thailand's crackdown on pro-democracy activists.

"The first edition of the Biennale invited artists whose work (both literary and artistic) was candidly in opposition to the military regime," Korean painter Min Joung-ki, who participated in 1995, said in an email. This time, Min's contributions include tranquil, radiant landscape paintings, rich with historical allusions.

The show's oppositional spirit endures in the unsparing paintings of Sangho Lee, a South Korean artist imprisoned because of his art during the waning days of the dictatorship. In one work in the biennial, Lee has depicted supporters of the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 through World War II, their hands tied, awaiting trials that did not occur.

Scattered around the world, the artists of Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning may never actually get to meet, but in Gwangju their work has formed a layered, and action-packed, show. As it was nearing completion, artists and organisers convened in a snaking line for the big dance that Ayas had mentioned. The procession moved, percussionists loudly sounding their instruments, children in uniforms swaying their arms and EightOS dancers manoeuvering around them. Videographers swooped about, capturing it all.

After a break, about 20 people involved in the show assembled on pillows for a tea ceremony presided over by Kwan, the Buddhist nun, in the cavernous, silent exhibition hall. She said that she wanted those listening to be able to relax after their work and difficulties.

Through a translator, Kwan said she hoped her audience would think about "How am I going to live in the future?" That could be a motto for this hard-won biennial, which is now awaiting viewers who might be grappling with just that question. NYTIMES

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