A radical experiment in curating in Gwangju

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A radical experiment in curating in Gwangju

If the curatorial method at the fifth Gwangju Biennale succeeds, it might be seen as a redemption of the world of contemporary art. If it fails, it will leave an indelible stain on the history of the Biennale, which has already received mixed criticism.
“A Grain of Dust, a Drop of Water” is the title given to one of Asia’s largest contemporary art exhibits, ambitiously aimed at “redefining” the relationship between artists and the public by incorporating an unusual method of selecting artists, never before tried in Biennale history.
For the main exhibit, the Biennale put members of the public in the shoes of professional curators by gathering a task force of “viewer participants,” as Biennale organizers call it.
This team was mostly composed of people without artistic backgrounds, who were randomly selected based on government statistics on age, citizenship status and economic class.
In January, the members got together in Gwangju, from as far away as Moscow and Hanoi, people who held jobs ranging from farmer to corporate executive, and reviewed the works of artists they would like to see.
Once the artists were selected, each was partnered with a member of the task force, who then offered a direction for the exhibit, along with their aesthetic expectations for the artwork.
The point of this was to promote a democratic ideal in a contemporary art exhibit. Gwangju was notorious for showing works that artists and professional curators, but not the general public, wanted to see. The system has already succeeded in a certain sense, by forcing the two groups into intense discussions.
The Biennale, which begins next Friday and runs for 65 days, is sub-divided into shows that have been arranged thematically.
The section titled “Dust” will feature works that deal with the dilemmas of contemporary environment, specifically the clashes between industrial society and the isolated life of individuals that comprise it. “Water” will visually express the concept of a water drop, concentrating on the idea as a metaphor for cleansing, curing, rebirth and so on. “Dust and Water” aims to redefine our living environment by capturing the order of nature. “Club” invites the public to participate in a collection of interactive artworks.
Since it first began in 1995, one of the most interesting sections of the Gwangju Biennale has always been its site-specific works at the May 18 Liberty Park, a public monument built to commemorate the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in May 1980.
This year, the exhibition at the park will feature works by 35 artists that deal with the area’s faded history. Artists exhibiting in this section will use the space to explore the park’s neglected meanings, and how they could be represented in a contemporary context. As reflected in the title, “And Others,” the show focuses on how the uprising has been marginalized in contemporary Korean history.
One project involves a series of portraits of students and teachers from the time of the uprising, and current photographs of survivors. A separate project features “a minority report” by disabled people, foreign workers and senior citizens from Gwangju.


by Park Soo-mee

“Grain of Dust, A Drop of Water,” the fifth Gwangju Biennale goes September 10 to November 13. For more information call (062) 608-4260.
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