[Viewpoint]Overhaul the Gwangju BiennaleWhen we hear about the Gwangju Biennale, the country’s biggest contemporary art exhibition, we can’t help but think about something unpleasant: the disgraced curator Shin Jeong-ah.
The scandal has become so sensational that even foreign curators now know the family name “Shin.” Our whole society is reeling from her schizophrenic crimes, which transcended every boundary: political power (the Blue House), education (Dongguk University), religion (Buddhism) and art (Gwangju Biennale).
In particular, because international art biennials require a high level of intelligence and empirical expertise, the people in charge are supposed to have a high degree of morality. They should ignore any outside temptations.
The organizers of the Gwangju Biennale, however, did not show that sense of responsibility.
Instead, they closed their eyes and ears to myriad criticism and advice. From the perspective of common sense, the procedures followed for the selection of the art director of the Gwangju Biennale were clearly flawed.
Still, prosecutors didn’t find any evidence to indicate who was behind the debacle.
The art community does not have much prestige in our society. For that reason, speaking the naked truth with a sharp tongue can be suicidal if communities are immature.
The case has escalated into a full-scale political battle being handled by reporters from the city news department rather than the arts and culture sections. For that reason, nobody cared about what was wrong in the artistic sense.
There has been some criticism about the Gwangju Biennale.
People say that backdoor dealings, gross hypocrisies, complicities and fraud persist, contrary to the public’s high expectations for such an intelligent art exhibition.
The Shin Jeong-ah case is just one telling example.
Rather than develop principles and mutual trust, build professionalism and strengthen its international competitiveness, the Gwangju Biennale has abused its authority to exploit experts, both domestic and abroad, for temporary advantage. They claim the ends justify the means.
Once, we used the term “economic animals,” to sarcastically describe Japan’s psychological and moral corruption.
However, I believe the Shin Jeong-ah case is a reflection of our profound corruption. I am at a loss for words to describe the fact that there is a heated competition among publishers to write Shin’s memoirs. Should the Gwangju Biennale be congratulated on its success because of the fact that the exhibition has gotten a lot of free publicity throughout the country?
Nevertheless, it is my firm belief that the Gwangju Biennale must continue. But the Gwangju Biennale must be fundamentally reborn.
Sadly, Okui Enwezor, a Nigerian art director who was named co-director with Shin, is carrying out matters with a high hand. Korean artists have been struck dumb with surprise to learn that the exhibition is entirely at his disposal, even though he has no artistic interest or information about Korea and Asia.
Nam June Paik, a leading artistic avant-garde figure, once said in an interview with a Korean newspaper, “Art is just fraud.” He strove to break from established practices, as if he himself were committing an act of fraud. But he became extremely angry when he actually dealt with real fraud caused by criminals who used a copy of his own signature.
To fix things, first and foremost, the board of directors, a hotbed of incompetence and corruption, should be abolished.
We should do our utmost to establish an international committee comprising of relevant experts and to devise strict clauses of morality with the view of eradicating fraud and corruption once and for all.
Even though corruption poses a serious threat to fair authority, I believe that facts are stubborn things, as long as we have firm commitments to act according to principle.
Let bygones be bygones.
The Gwangju Biennale attracted 1.6 million visitors to its first exhibition. Now it should forget those sweet memories.
The Gwangju Biennale could go one step farther and make its success reach far beyond Korea and take the international art biennial to a whole new level.
First, though, a complete overhaul must begin.
*The writer is an art critic and a professor of Kaywon School of Art and Design.
by Lee Young-Chul