The Gwangju Biennale
Canton Mix Express
It's a Hard Work to Be Idle
Project for a Revolution
Paul Harrison & John
Liew Kung Yu
The Arrival of Puteri Oriental
Borame Dance Hall
I Am Turkish, I Am Honest, I Am Diligent
Display, Sample, Museum
How Can I Measure the Biggest and the Smallest in the World
Report from Korea: Gwangju Biennale
from Sculpture Magazine, 2002
by Carolee Thea
With biennials having expanded into remote and global
arenas, curators are exploring the cultural vitality inherent to
these participating cities as well as addressing the modes, themes
and sites that highlight the moment(um) of a newly created space-time
historic sites, illustrating the breath of history -- coalescing
past, present and future as in a Borgesian text -- is one
strategy. Visual productions fed by the internet, film, video,
performance, fashion and other new media that depict new
ways to engage, transmit and cross-fertilize can also spawn
a platform for a new breed of events.
for the city of Gwangju came at an accelerated speed and
in 1995, this regional city hosted its first international
art exhibition. Serving as a bridge connecting contemporary
art of the west and the art of what was once called the Third
World, the biennial raised both the status of Korean art
in the international art community while introducing the
core art practices of various countries.
theme for the fourth Gwangju Biennale, Mar. 29-June
29, 2002, is a suggestion to stop the speed, linger and think,
rest or change direction. The show is divided into four different
sites, each with its own curator. The primary exhibition,
installed in the 7,000-plus-square-meter exhibition hall,
is the responsibility of Charles Esche, director of
the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmo,
Sweden, and Hou Hanru, a freelance curator who was
artistic director of the 2000 Shanghai Biennial and
co-organized the traveling European survey, "Cities on the
2 is titled "There: Sites of Korean Diaspora" and organized
by Yong Soon Min, a professor of studio art at the
University of California, Irvine. It focuses on artists who
live in the five key cities of the contemporary Korean diaspora.
Project 3, titled "Stay of Execution," was the work of Wan-kyung
Sung, the biennale artistic director, and venued in Liberty
Park, a reconstructed MP camp connected with the May 18th
civil uprising. Last but not least, the fourth project, curated
by Guyon Chung, professor of the Korean National University
of the Arts, takes place at the railway station on the outskirts
of the city.
and independent groups from several cities in Europe and
Asia formed the backbone of Project 1, which featured 20
mini-pavilions, each organized by an artist-run group. The
pavilions were designed by the artists in collaboration with
architects Yeong-jun Kim and Yong-ho Chang.
The ethic here is one of collaboration, community and experimentation.
The artists also embody strategies of resistance to the overwhelming
power of globalizing economic, political and cultural hegemony
in their own communities.
idea here is one of an open street market where basic business
transactions are done and where everyone is potential trader
-- a navigation tool of sorts. The projects also relating
to time, long-term change, slowness and social spaces were
developed by artists and with the flaneur in mind -- a strategy
quite fitting for an Asian biennial, which attracts an audience
of three quarters of a million in three months time.
work of Bert Theis, an artist from Luxembourg, greeted
visitors to the Biennale from the entrance roof of the hall.
His terrace, he wrote, is an "architectural prosthesis" that
invites a "pause" before entering, as well as referring to
a dialogue about tropical climates and the willingness to
be idle. It's titled It's Hard Work to Be Idle.
inside the hall, the viewer finds many works that invite
participation, or are simply viewer-friendly. Surosi Kusolwong's Relaxing
Machine, which won the UNESCO prize, was an open arena
carpeted in moss green and containing a kind of hammock made
from a gutted upside-down 1966 Volkswagen Beetle fitted with
a mattress and a Harry Potter videotape. Surrounded by palm
trees, soda machines, pillows and a computer, the work contained
an implicit invitation to hang out, watch the video and talk
with the artist.
Indonesia was the Museum of Personal/The Personal of Museum, an
installation and performance by Andar Manik and Marintan
Sirait. With unusual choreography, a minimalist esthetic
and few bright monochrome powders, the pair made an art piece
using their palms, fingers and bodies, and invited visitors
to join in. Bodies swaying and bending, painting, pouring
and smearing sand on mounds of clay with yellow, white or
black pigments, created an intriguing, rhythmic work.
artist Matthew Gui's contribution consisted of ordinary
construction pipe, bundled and installed unobtrusively around
ceilings and walls, linking the various artworks. One notable
work is a video by Swedish artist Johanna Billing,
titled Project of a Not-Revolution. It highlighted
groups of people who appear condemned to wait idly without
projects -- people paused, waiting, doing nothing. Yikes!
1's curators took care to site the artworks with texture
and rhythm. Two five-monitor video installations by the collaborative
team of UK artists John Wood and Paul Harrison were
placed at the foot of each of two ramps where the visitor
paused to get bearings but lingered much longer. Since the
two began collaborating in 1993, they have accumulated a
series of playful video works, distinguished as much by their
droll sense of humor as an unerring economy of execution.
Attention getting and arresting, each video is played out
against a minimalist, monochrome backdrop, or within the
sealed off space of the monitor itself. Each of the works
involves the presence of one of the artists, either as the
butt of an extended sight gag or as the trigger for a spiraling,
artist Liew Kung Yu designed a display titled Puter
Oriental, an amusing and beautiful installation of hanging
straw-hat chandeliers hovering above tables illuminating
'knock off copies" of designer clothes. In this work, the "Princess
of the Orient" brings her rich culture and heritage as an
ambassador of her peoples.
Jung's installation, Boramae Dance Hall, featured
music of the '50s and '60s piped into the papered walls,
which were covered with images of ordinary, middle-aged
Korean couples dancing -- figures who were somehow transformed
into native versions of Fred and Ginger. We were invited
to dance, but more compelling was lingering with the reverie
of the music and the images of the dancing people.
solo artist, Esra Ersen, made an installation of meticulously
stitched Turkish children's black uniforms with white collars
called I Am Turkish, I Am Honest, I Am Diligent. Esren
had Korean elementary school children wear these for a week
and write down their emotional reactions, which were printed
directly onto the uniforms. Ersen's work examines the ways
that identity is formed and how meaning is created.
solo artist, the German Olaf Nicolai, made a Big
Sneaker; a huge inflated replica of a tennis shoe that
reminded me -- at first -- of an Oldenburg soft sculpture,
until I read the yards' long narrative printed on the back
wall. It not only slowed down my viewing, but also changed
my assessment of the work. The narrative was about desire,
consumerism and reflection on youth, rebellion and family.
Inside the shoe was a couch where sat an old man and his
grandchild, a serendipitous moment between language and art.
and Elmgreen's work outside, Taking Place, Too, commented
on the destruction of the signification of the western
art institution; the white box. They had previously destroyed
the original site of the Kunsthalle, Zurich, in 1996, and
rebirthed it here; the white box as rubble with
huge blocks of concrete from the construction site -- a
sincere break with a gallery space dominated by Western
culture but also elucidating the boundary between the displayed
object and the art space.
impetus for Project 304, a Thai group, was to create
a meeting place where continuous film screenings, dancing,
music, art, design, dialogue, architecture and narrative
reverie takes place and as platform for sharing their art
projects. Their modus operandi is to develop relationships
between art and a disconnected society. One charismatic member, Michael
Shaowanasai, presented his nostalgic film and a separate
interactive performance. For his performance, Shaowanasai
installed images of himself, pinned to the wall in layers,
and invited viewers to draw on, adorn them or to otherwise
alter them in some way.
Thai group, IT Park, which was founded in 1988, was
billed as a "power conscious artistic movement," an important
witness to Taiwan's transition and embracing a development
and consciousness for contemporary art. This installation,
like an apartment designer's showroom, contained art, design
a group from Russia, constructed Sheltered Sky, a
Bedouin tent made with Egyptian rugs and, customarily, by
men only, contained a resting platform and many large and
imaginary photomontages that mixed familiar big city monuments
with Islamic mosques and pillars.
second project, Yong Soon Min's exploration of the
Korean diaspora, focused on five cities -- Los Angeles, S“o
Paulo, Osaka, Amaty in Kazakhstan and Yanj in China. Meant
to be a momentary rest from the endless discussion of a national
identity and to offer a space of new possibility where Korean
diaspora and division could be examined from a different
perspective, the project featured works that were typical
cross-cultural narratives of oppression or absorption. One
show stopper was a video by the stand-up comedian Jennifer
Moon, a Korean who lives in L.A. An architectural installation
by Wonu Lim, Elysian Fields, was a miniature
Plexiglas city set on the floor with lights and videos signifying
dystopia and utopia.
Project 3, "Stay of Execution," the goal was to reflect on
how a society deals with the historical events and collective
memory while investigating (new) possibilities for remembering
the past. Most of the works installed in the 40-room barracks
and on the lawn broke no new ground on the given issue, though
works by Jong-ku Kim, Seung-Young Kim and Jung-Min
Kim were more poetic than most.
4 was installed at the railway station, a space from the
past, overlapping with the present, that is like a keyhole
to read Gwangju into a new time and space. The project was
prepared to have the city meet public art and to probe the
possibilities that will result in the birth of a truly "cultural
the highlight of the biennial in Gwangju was Project 1, where
instead of a conventional form, Esche and Hanru opted for
an outlaw experiment -- a willfully chancy, pandemonious,
full of surprise and challenge, win or lose exhibition. But
along with this cutting the edge, the curators were laden
with an intractable bureaucracy, poor lighting, a few unrealized
artworks due to incompetent technical assistance -- and of
their own making, an outmoded '80s identity politic that
excluded U.S. artists and included some anti-U.S. works.
museum," said Walker Art Center director Kathy
Halbreich, "should be a town square, not a temple." Gwangju
is an expensive laboratory where a study of the city,
a specialized knowledge of contemporary art, exhibition form
and culture has the ability and mandate to mirror the texture
of the city and the changing times.
transient and often sited on the edge of town, it is an experiment
that can share the spectacle and charisma of Carnivals and
World's Fairs -- and this one, in particular, had the beguiling
impetus to join the party, to smile or to frown.
CAROLEE THEA is a New York-based
art critic and curator.