Picture Imperfect

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Picture Imperfect

GWANGJU - Artists were fixing, drawing and drilling holes on the wall last Thursday only a day before the opening of the Gwangju Biennale 2002. Even on Friday morning, the exhibition hall was still bustling with artists and their assistants, running around the hallways and looking for the tools they needed for their installations.

It was an unusually unsettling opening to the biennale, which kicked off its three-month run on Friday under the theme of "Pause." Labels for many artworks were missing. In the main exhibition hall in Yongbong-dong, the interior construction wasn't fully completed until the very last moment, and the first guests often had to endure the loud noise of a chainsaw during the tour.

"If there was a hammer lying around the floor, we had to grab it first," said Michael Shaowanasai, a Thai artist. "Otherwise you never knew when you would see it next." A shortage of basic supplies was only one of the many concerns raised by the participating artists. One video artist from France who arrived two days before the opening found her space had been wrongly assigned, and ended up installing her work under a portable stairway that is used as a staff work station.

"It seems very disorganized," said one foreign guest.

Despite the disorder, many guests on the opening day agreed that the works on display were far more compelling and evocative than those at the show two years ago. The main theme, "Pause," suggests a momentary halt (both physical and philosophical) from the speed-obsessed culture of the last decade, and a reflection on alternative views of the social trends of our times.

This year's show is divided into four "projects:" "Pause," a reflection on the state of contemporary art and society; "There," a look at the works of the Korean diaspora in Osaka, Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Almaty in Kazakhstan and Yangji in China; "Stay of Execution," a re-examination of the 1980 Gwangju uprising, held in May 18 Liberty Park; and "Connection," a disused railway area turned into an art park.

The works on display, more than in previous years, particularly stressed audience interaction. Reflecting on the notion of slowness, many works involved taking off the shoes, sitting down or walking on an artist's space to give the viewer a genuine awareness of the time passing.

"Stay of Execution," an installation by a group of Korean artists, held at a memorial where the military was based during the democratic uprising, led many people to reflect critically on the past. Many visitors seemed drawn to these installations, spending two to five minutes at each work.

The most notable controversy of the opening occurred during the press conference Thursday. Charles Esche, director of Sweden's Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art and one of the five curators for the Biennale, said during an unscheduled speech that he had deliberately avoided selecting American-born artists whose art is limited to the American art scene. His choice was, he said, a sign of resistance toward the American superpower and a means of stressing the three main concepts of the Biennale: "difference," "possibility" and "community."

Min Young-soon, a Korean-American artist and a curator for the "There" project then came to the stage and candidly expressed her discomfort with Esche's comments, taking offense at American artists being defined so broadly.

The debate continued to the dinner table. "It was such a naive vision on globalism," said Brian Mertens, a contributing writer to ART AsiaPacific, referring to Esche's speech. "You can be 'globalistic' wherever you are. To say that American artists who are working in the United States don't have any right to comment on these issues simply because their country is a superpower lacks certain persuasion."

Kim Tae-soo, a cultural editor of the Gooday Newspaper, said, "I understand the curators attempted to embrace marginalized artists who weren't covered in major biennales like Venice. But how he said it was a slip."

The exhibition overall received a favorable response from the residents of Gwangju. "It's entertaining," said Oh Young-mi. "I don't have many insights on the works, but I think you can forget about that and just have fun."

by Park Soo-mee

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