Radical idea, mixed results

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Radical idea, mixed results

Curatorially speaking, this year’s Gwangju Biennale was one of the most dynamic contemporary art exhibits in years. It directly tackled the issue of democratic ideals in art, inviting members of the public ― people with little or no artistic background ― to participate in selecting the art to be exhibited.
In that sense, “A Grain of Dust, A Drop of Water,” the fifth Gwangju Biennale, which opened Friday and runs through Nov. 13, was partially successful. Hundreds of foreign journalists and curators from major biennales from around the world showed up at Thursday’s press opening to see the results of this radical experiment, a first in the history of major contemporary art exhibits.
Last January, the Biennale announced the names of its “viewer participants,” a task force of people selected from 42 nations ― randomly, to some extent ―based on age, citizenship and economic status.
The viewer participants included a farmer and a psychoanalyst, a priest and a flight attendant. Professional curators were assigned as mediators to each region, to help these amateur curators select the artists with whom they would work.
Once the selections were made ―with viewer participants, generally, being paired with artists from the same country ― the task force members were asked to discuss their expectations with the artists through face-to-face discussions, phone calls and e-mails.
This radical methodology created discord at first, according to the Biennale director, Lee Yong-woo. One viewer participant, for instance, wanted to see the works of Leonardo Da Vinci exhibited.
“We refuse to let the audience see this Biennale as ‘an art exhibit,’” Mr. Lee said. “In the end, our ultimate motive was to exhibit art, but we also wanted to show the process of imbalances, the conflicts and problems that exist between contemporary audiences and artists. The question of ‘artistic level’ was what we struggled with most.”
The results were moderately successful, at least in the sense of narrowing the gap between audience and artists.
Jeong Hee-jung, a visitor from Mokpo, who has been to the previous Biennales in Gwangju, found “A Grain of Dust, A Drop of Water” to be one of the most “comprehensible” exhibits she’s seen in years. “Somehow, it communicated most effectively for me,” Ms. Jeong said. “It was clear to me what the artists were trying to say.”
For Josip Rastko Mocnik, a Slovenian sociologist and a viewer participant who partnered with artist Marjetica Potric, the experience was much more intense. “The works talk to you much closer,” Mr. Mocnik says. “It will bring other responses as time passes.”
Response from critics, however, was mixed.
Skeptics criticized the Biennale as “naive” for relying on this populist method. Others, however, considered it a daring experiment that raised serious questions about contemporary art, which is notorious for being self-indulgent.
And while it may have been unavoidable, given that this year’s Biennale was explicitly questioning the social role of art, many of this year’s works deal directly with contemporary world issues, such as violence, war, destruction and Western hegemony. Some seem didactic and one-dimensional.
The artist Jeon Jun-ho’s “In God We Trust” satirizes the violent power of capitalism under U.S. hegemony, using a video loop of a Korean man wandering around a landscape that’s been scanned from an American dollar bill. “Horizons,” by Momoyo Kengo of Japan, presents miniature human robots in suits crawling on “an abstract world map,” as the artist calls it, made up of mountains, oil fields and construction sites.
U.S. artist Jim Sanborn criticizes the development of nuclear weapons with an installation mimicking the Manhattan Project laboratories as they appeared in 1943. Malam, an installation artist from Cameroon, protests the horrors of violence and modern technology in his work, which alludes to the destruction of the World Trade Center.
The sense of political didacticism that was prevalent at the opening may have resulted from the Bienalle organizers’ deliberate attempt to revive the militant spirit of Gwangju, the city that suffered devastating bloodshed in the historic May 1980 uprising against the military government. (Indeed, the actual site of the martial court and military prison used during the uprising has been converted into an artistic space for the Biennale, in an exhibition titled “And Others ― Minority.”) Or perhaps the political atmosphere had more to do with the crowd; some spectators wore anti-Bush T-shirts, and some artists held performances that directly commented on current world issues.

There was also, however, an element of tasteless bureaucratism to the Biennale that completely contradicted the spirit of the event.
The salute to the national flag during Friday’s opening ceremony at the Gwangju Citizen’s Center stood in ironic counterpoint to some of the Biennale’s key ideas, such as the fragility of nationalism. In the ensuing speeches by the mayor of Gwangju and the Biennale chairman, there was scarcely a mention of the content of the exhibition, other than to thank President Roh Moo-hyun for supporting the city as “a cultural capital.” Given that Gwangju was a city practically unknown to international visitors before the first Biennale was held 10 years ago, one might have expected the energy it has brought to the regional economy, and to the city’s reputation, to leave a more vivid impression on the city’s officials.
Yet the opening ceremony was a painful reminder of the event’s lack of cultural sophistication and its senseless bureaucratism, which seem to have become Biennale trademarks.
For one thing, Biennale organizers continue to pay scant attention to formal details. At the 2000 Biennale, foreign journalists were astonished by the female guides in miniskirts and high heels who stood throughout the halls, giving 90-degree bows. Those models are gone this year, but obvious discord remains between the artistic staff and the government administrators.
This year, a group of local artists and museum directors who arrived at the VIP opening at 5 p.m. on Friday complained loudly when they discovered that the Biennale was scheduled to close only an hour later.
During the guided tour for the foreign press, the lack of English interpreters caused hundreds of foreign guests and reporters in attendance to question whether the Biennale staff had made any real attempt to consider a global audience. And the gift shop in the lobby, full of regional souvenirs and a few keychains and T-shirts bearing the Biennale logo, seemed in questionable taste.

The most pressing concern to arise from the Biennale, however, is whether its organizers have sufficiently elaborated upon the key to the whole exhibition: process of dialogue that took place between artists and the “viewer participants.”
Formal gestures have been made, such as the inclusion of the names and profiles of the viewer participants side by side with the artist’s names. But from the presentation of the works, it was difficult to ascertain how much influence the viewer task force had on the final results.
One viewer participant, Josip Rastko Mocnik, the Slovenian sociologist who teamed up with Marjetica Potric, said he stopped getting replies from the artist after their first e-mail exchange earlier this year.
“It was not successful,” Mr. Mocnik said. “The artist just cut off contact. Maybe the artist didn’t have time to cooperate, but I was notified by the Biennale curator later on that she had already sent her work. It was a funny experience.” Mr. Lee, director of the Biennale, said artists were not permitted to replace their viewer participant once they had been paired off with one.
Jeong Jun-mo, a curator of the National Museum of Contemporary Art, says the Biennale didn’t demolish the walls around contemporary art. “They’ve certainly increased the audience’s impulse to participate in understanding art,” Mr. Jeong says. “But it was also a reminder that the walls around contemporary art are still high and solid.”

by Park Soo-mee

“A Grain of Dust, A Drop of Water” continues through Nov. 13. Admission to the Gwangju Biennale is 12,000 won for adults, 5,000 won for students. For more information, call (062) 608-4220 or go to www.gb.or.kr.
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