Works of irony at the Gwangju Biennale, made only in Asia

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Works of irony at the Gwangju Biennale, made only in Asia

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The Gwangju Biennale appears to have finally gained some confidence as an Asian venue for contemporary art. Since 1995, the year the biennale was first held, it has stressed its Asian-ness to counter the feeling that the roots of contemporary art have been “imported” from the west.
The titles of the past five biennales, which referenced Buddhist sayings, have been telling examples of this insecurity about foreignness ― “Beyond the Border” (1st Biennale), “Un-mapping the Earth” (2nd Biennale), “Man+Space” (3rd Biennale), “Pause” (4th Biennale) and “A Grain of Dust; A Drop of Water” (5th Biennale).
So it’s a bit ironic that Kim Hong-hee, the first female commissioner in the biennale’s history, decided that the exhibit this year was to seek an Asian identity “from the spectrum between substance and fantasy in Asia.”
Indeed, for this year’s biennale, which began on Sept. 8 under the title “Fever Variations,” it was clear that the organizers had focused on the social conditions in contemporary Asia rather than the region’s traditional values. The political spirit of this year’s biennale seems to come from the civic consciousness of Gwangju, the site of a democratic uprising in 1980 in which thousands of Korean civilians were killed.
In “Myth and Fantasy” the Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Le presented “The Headless Buddha,” an image inspired by the headless Buddha statues he saw in Angkor Wat, Cambodia. The heads had been chopped off by looters, and reportedly sold to major Western museums.
Jitish Kallat created a picture of a waning moon using roti, an Indian bread, in “Conditions Apply”; Michael Joo, who won the biennale’s grand prize, installed mini-cameras around a statue of the Buddha from a local temple to form the shape of a halo in his “Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space Baby),” showing fragmented details of the statue as a way of posing the duality of the object.
In “Last Chapter,” artists from Europe and the Balkans, the Middle East and Latin America delved into political issues from their regions; In “Nature and Body,” artists took a more playful approach to landscape art. Whang In-kie created a digital version of a traditional Korean ink painting. In “Background Story,” Xu Bing created a spectacular landscape installation using tree branches, dirt and patches of pine leaves on the back of the plastic panel to form a shadowy image.
Overall, the biennale ― or at least the works of many artists in the show ― had the scale and taste that one would expect of a world-class contemporary art event. Yet journalists who have covered the biennale end up dealing with the same problem every two years: The organizers, essentially the city government, still can’t seem to escape from their bureaucratic traditions, formalism and lack of attention to detail.
Last year, for example, the salute to the national flag during the opening ceremony was a painful reminder of the event’s lack of cultural sophistication and its senseless formalism. At the 2000 Biennale, foreign journalists were astonished by the female guides wearing miniskirts and high heels who stood around the halls, giving 90-degree bows.
The salute and the heels were gone this year. But there were military guards blocking the entrance to the main exhibition hall the day before the opening, when civic groups swarmed to the site to protest the free trade agreement with the United States; the U.S. ambassador and his wife were scheduled to visit. By 4 p.m., in time for the visit by the Korean prime minister, the guards had completely surrounded the hall, blocking viewers, except for a few selected journalists.
The event, which featured armed guards parading about in the gallery, suddenly went from being a contemporary art exhibit to a reality performance.
Indeed, in a country that virtually adopted contemporary art practices from the West less than a few decades ago, the irony of the events outside seemed to outdo the artworks. It might all come down to the general pessimism around contemporary art, in which artists and critics are tirelessly reminded that art lacks the magic and wonder it once had, especially when the visual language of art is surrounded by the artful reality of confusion.


by Park Soo-mee

“Gwangju Biennale: Fever Variations” runs through Nov. 11. For more information, call (062) 608-4342.

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