Gwangju’s artists link up with Asia
The biennale’s Web site perfectly shows how images function in an urban setting. They provoke, shock and amuse, and are then disposed of as quickly as a plastic cup.
It wasn’t until only recently that major cities in Asia launched state-funded art biennales, often with the grand aim of independently defining the notion of Asian art, rather than being defined through the eyes of the West.
In 2001, Japan launched the Yokohama Triennale in a restored brick warehouse; the Taipei Biennale, which had only invited Taiwanese artists until 1996, revamped its image by inviting overseas artists and a team of curators led by Fumio Nanjo ― the same curator for this year’s Singapore Biennale ― in 1998. Korea already has two international art biennales: Gwangju and Busan.
It’s merely been a matter of time until the Asian art world began to come together, and time is catching up. Next month, three Asian biennales will offer a joint tour package, allowing tourists to attend the opening events of all the festivals.
Covering six nights, the package tour to the cities costs $1,751 and includes hotels, flights, city tours and admission to the biennales.
The ties between the three biennales have helped them attract more attention from the media. In April, joint press conferences were held, first in New York, then Tokyo and Seoul, by the directors of the three biennales.
“It began as a collaborative network to emphasize the meaning and existence of Asian biennales rather than compete with each other,” said Kim Hong-hee, the director of Gwangju Biennale 2006, referring to the joint tour. “It’s become a meaningful tool of communication, as we get to interact and exchange information directly with our Asian neighbors, which we’ve only known through the eyes of the West.”
The three biennales, however, share rather unique histories and manifestos.
The Shanghai Biennale, which has ambitiously declared that it will become “an artistic gateway to the West,” has already made an immense contribution to contemporary Chinese art (the country has four major international art events; the other three are the Beijing Biennale, Guangzhou Triennial and Chengdu Biennale).
“The Shanghai Biennale is the most open, avant-garde, academic and internationally influential of any [biennale] in China,” said Huang Du, the curator of Shanghai Biennale 2006. “The most important two contributions, I think, for the Shanghai Biennale are its democratic way of electing the team of curators and its leadership in academic movements in China and Asia.”
The exhibit, which opened in 1996 as the first international art biennale on mainland China, explores how notions of design surpass artistic values and social idealism. It looks into the gap between our visual culture and the design industry, focusing on ways design is incorporated into peoples’ lives.
The Singapore event, run by Fumio Nanjo, the leading curator and the deputy director of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, features artists from the region and the city itself.
“Belief,” the biennale’s theme, refers to the need for residents of modern societies, barraged by competing value systems, to have faith in something. To pursue that theme, the Singapore organizers spread the artists’ works out among the city’s places of worship, including churches, temples and synagogues.
But it is Gwangju that stands out. The city, which held its first biennale in 1995 hoping to strengthen the city’s political identity as the site of a major democratic uprising in 1980, differs from the other two cities, which are heavily urban tourist draws.
In fact, much of the works in past Gwangju exhibits deliberately played on social ideals focused on humanitarian values, a reference to the city’s civic-mindedness.
This year, the exhibit attempts to change the way Asians feel about their art by focusing on ways Asian philosophy influenced the art world. Artists explore myth and fantasy in Asian cultures, cultural dynamism and changing ideals among the Northeast Asian countries, which have similar experiences modernizing and which share common cultural foundations, such as Chinese ideograms, traditional ink painting, Zen philosophy and Confucianism.
As a satellite exhibition, “Color of East Asia” brings together common artworks such as folk paintings, ceramics, furniture and other ornaments of East Asian folk art aside from contemporary artworks.
Yet the idea of an “Asian biennale” still challenges many curators to define their own identity and artists to define their boundaries. For example, many curators still question whether to include foreign artists or whether it’s possible to develop a general notion that unifies artistic practices in the different countries in Asia.
“I think the word ‘Asia’ is in fact an imaginary community,” Huang Du said. “Compared with Europe, the notion of ‘Asia’ is hard to define and is a complicated combination of history formed with multiple languages and geographical boundaries. Comparatively, it is also an area without a primary religious belief and at the same time had complex and diverse efforts at modernization due to colonialism and problems resulting from the Cold War.”
All three events have tried to break from conventional ideas about Asian artists and include more hybrid, marginalized groups.
In Shanghai Biennale 2000, for example, artists such as the Paris-based Huang Yong Ping and Cai Gu Qiang from New York were invited to present interpretive works on nationality and self-identity.
Xu Bing, a Chinese artist based in Paris, has designed a carpet for a Chinese temple in Singapore for the Singapore Biennale. Micheal Joo, a Korean artist based in New York, is bringing an ancient statue of the Buddha surrounded by numerous cameras in order to form the shape of a halo around the Buddha’s head, showing the artist’s culturally mixed roots.
“As an Asian curator, the biggest assignment or concern is how we are going to achieve a curatorial difference,” says Ms. Kim. “The foundation of difference is based on an Asian identity, but the notion of Asian identity itself implies disputes and a complex discourse that needs to be defined clearly.”
‘Local Asia’ pits its art against ‘cosmopolitan Asia’
Q.Can you briefly explain the conceptual background of “Fever Variations”?
A. The title stems from the concept of contemporary Asia, which is in dynamic transition from a place of political disputes to part of the global economic community. The name “Fever Variations” was given as a metaphor that could also appeal to the public, highlighting contemporary Asian art that breaks from cultural stereotypes held by many Westerners, such as the “land of the morning calm.” “Fever” conveys an idea that changes in Asia will effect the world. “Variations” is a term borrowed from music as a way of stressing the changes and cultural diversity within Asian nations as opposed to the notion of a “single Asia.”
Do you feel at all pressured to create a biennale that somehow distinguishes itself from mainstream European venues such as the Venice Biennale or Documenta?
If historical European art festivals such as the Venice Biennale or Kassel’s Documenta [in Germany] strive to present Western perspectives on cultural and regional hegemony, biennales that are opening in non-Western regions in the ’90s focus on post-colonial motifs by globalizing regional culture through mutual exchange and changing the cultural geography and hierarchal order of the world instead of simply receiving Western culture. In this context, it’s the right time for the Gwangju Biennale, as a leading art event of an Asian biennale, to seek a new identity with the goal of looking at the contemporary world through the eyes of Asia.
As a director, what worries you the most?
As an Asian director, my biggest assignment is how we are going to achieve a curatorial difference. The issue is how we are going to define Asian identity. The notion of Asian identity implies a complex discourse. In other words there is “local Asia,” or the Asian mentality based on cultural traditions. Then there is “cosmopolitan Asia,” which supersedes ethnicity and nationality. Both construct the notion of contemporary Asia, but the dispute over Asian identity or the identity of Asian art embodies these dualities. If we emphasize the side of “local Asia,” we could fall into the trap of “Orientalism” generated by theorists such as Edward Said. If we stress “cosmopolitan Asia,” we risk the dangers of globalism and the loss of our nationality. In fact, the notion of identity could only be defined by disrupting global versus local dualities.
True globalism can only be understood through the context of local traditions and historical consciousness. An Asian curator can make a difference by “re-contexualizing” the tradition and look into the conditions of dualities between past and present.
by Park Soo-mee