I’m here with an extra post. It’s not something I usually do. I usually write and then queue my posts in the order in which they happened. But in this case that would mean this post wouldn’t go up until 2019. Normally I wouldn’t mind but the Gwangju Biennale is an event that changes and is only every other year. Which means any readers who live in Korea or are visiting would miss out on this event and this experience. It was an experience I wasn’t expecting to have but I’m glad I did. The art exhibition is filled with stories and voices that thankfully have been given a platform to be shared. I hope, if you’ve time and in the area, you’ll go and listen.
The Gwangju Biennale is an international art exhibition that happens every other year (even years, like 2018) in the city of Gwangju. This is the 12th Biennale and the next one won’t be until 2020. Tickets are 14,000 won which will get you into the Biennale and Asian Culture Center’s exhibits.
Getting to the Biennale, which is the actually name of the building in which the show is housed was easy but long. I caught a bus and waited until it got to it’s last stop, which thankfully was also called the Biennale in both English and Korean and then asked for directions. Tickets were sold on the second floor and then I headed to the entrance where they asked if I spoke Korean. I said no and a staff member ran off to get me a pamphlet. I expected a thin thing with a little bit of English but ended with a book in full detail about everything. (Which I’m grateful for as I write this post) The whole show is translated into text into a little blue booklet. I also received a smaller one with highlights and locations. I was told that there was a secondary part of the event at the Asian Culture Center and that another part of my ticket would let me in there until the show ended on November 11th. I’m going to talk about both in this post so buckle up. It’s going to be a long one.
Day 1: The Biennale 비엔날레로
At first I wasn’t particularly impressed. There were sketches, photographs, and models of buildings. The theme of the event hadn’t really sunk in until I turned a corner and found myself looking at floor covered in rubble surrounded by walls covered in pictures of the buildings the rubble had once belonged to.
Imagined Borders is broken up into 7 sections like a research paper where the art is the proof of an argument of the way we look at the world. Think about borders for a second. Large borders, be it the ones between countries, the border between your home and the one next to it or your apartment, to small borders like the space between you and anything near you. Physical borders, ideological borders, political borders and pretty much anything and everything was set up into these 7 sections.
Imagined Nations/ Modern Utopias
“This Exhibition explores the intersection of modernism, architecture and nation-building in the 1950’s-70’s in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia, during crucial moments of social and political change. New capital cities, urban planning projects, government buildings, embassies, public housing and university cities gave form to modernist Utopian dreams wrapped up in a rhetoric of promise and hope, of progress and equity.
However, this is not a conventional architecture exhibition with the usual display of models, sketches and blueprints. Rather it aims to read architecture from the benefit of hindsight, from the point of view of its users and inhabitants and not just from the agendas and architects, designers or public officials.” -Clara Kim
You first start with architecture. The borders of places and how they can be affected by people, the changes in times, opinions, and political climates. Arguably one of the most constant and large portion of borders in our daily lives that we tend to not think about. In Korea after all it’s easily noticed how quickly buildings rise and fall and how the physical landscape changes, one week you may be visiting your favorite cafe and the next week it’s gone and is something else.
The art varied, there were many videos and photographs, some were models or wall hangings and others show cased the life of buildings and their destruction. It was stark to see the early articles about buildings singing praise and the pride of their accomplishments next to a picture of the architect on their death bed followed by articles of the destruction of their buildings due to the change in climate, conflict and survivors of horrifying destruction that happened in those buildings. This was the first moment I realized that I’d walked into a conversation that wasn’t going to let me leave unaffected.
I continued on to a room with the story and history of a National Museum that never finished and never opened. The history of the country, the artifacts and everything just still sit in the basement. It was fascinating and sad, leaving an intense wave of melancholy as I moved to the next section.
Facing Phantom Borders
“…Today, geopolitics and migration are a critical issue for global citizens. Immigration is seen as a threat and has led the world to rethink borders and social control, exclusion and inclusion, humanitarianism and national security. FPB explores both internal and external migration within Asia and beyond, and unravels the complex connectivity through borders and migration, showing how the intra-Asia connection and beyond has shifted the dynamics of mobility” – Gridthiya Gaweewong
The beginning of this FPB held a little lingering feeling of the previous section. There were photos of partial places. Places that were built, created as utopias and then due to conflict are now ghost towns, never fully completed. Nearby were travel photos of popular destinations and a suitcase with passports of different colors, a comment on how depending on where you’re born and the color of your passport your ability to travel and traverse borders is either easy or hindered.
I watched a video of an Oud floating at sea as a man told his story in his native language and it was translated. A refugee forced at gunpoint by a smuggler he’d already paid a fortune to, to choose between his beloved instrument or his life. (Pinar Öǧrenci’s “A Gentle breeze passed over us”)
I turned into a section that was several parts, yet a bit brighter in color than the dimly lit videos I’d just left. There were two videos in this section. A video about a fake island’s journey to the ocean called “Phantom Island” by Jun Yang and in collection with a moon rock, two clocks showing the same time and some paintings and pictures with a video explaining a correlation of their stories: “The past is a foreign country- a landscape in 4 scenes”. It talked about Japan, the history of the country and the time it closed itself off from the world by penalty of death to those who tried to leave or those who tried to enter, how children who weren’t Japanese weren’t allowed and their families could be punished. About the ocean and who calls claim to it and how it changes depending on who is in charge. About space, how Richard Nixon had a speech prepared if the first men to the moon didn’t make it back (and died in space), and the humorous tidbit that when they landed off the coast of Hawaii that they had to go through customs and immigration. The clocks were about the meeting between North and South Korea and what happened then, and showed how the clocks changed to now show the same time, when they hadn’t before. It was a forty five minute video and I sat there enthralled, learning details about things I knew about and things I didn’t with pictures slid onto a pile on the screen in front of me and Korean text translating the English spoken. It spoke of how different life could be if things in the past went differently and how to us now the past can look quite strange.
This section on Facing Phantom Borders continued onto another section that dealt more heavily on topics of immigration and refugees and their stories. It got dark. Both figuratively and literally. The first piece was pretty hard to ignore, a giant orange wall with black block lettering. One side of it in English the other in Korean by SUPERFLEX.
The other piece that immediately caught my eye was “Reconstructing an exodus history: flight routes from camps and ODP cases” which was in part with videos with stories of people stuck between borders not allowed into any countries, the countries they’d been born in or the countries their ancestors had left, with a specific focus on “The Orderly Departure Program” of Vietnamese refugees.
Shortly after leaving this area I continued into darkness. It was disconcerting. Mostly videos, with some highlights over sculptures and coming from various tv’s showing videos. There were, throughout the entirety of the galleries many long black curtains, behind which were rooms where you could watch a short film. I sat and watched the entirety of an interview with an ex-spy who spoke about his survival in the middle of night surrounded by the orphans he was taking care of. (Chia-Wei Hsu’s “Huai Mo Village”)
I’d peeked in at another room, behind thick black curtains, expecting something similar, and found myself looking in an empty room with a bizarre disconcerting monster talking from the screen. I backed away, chastised myself because it was art and decided to try again. This time a young gentleman sat down in front of the monster like a writer and as I entered the center of the room the set up of the audio had a male voice speaking at a loud volume with music but then from each speaker was a voice whispering and it made my skin crawl. I was out of there faster than I realized I was moving. On the other side of it was another with a different man and a different monster, this one a typewriter transformed and the man stuck his hands in the alien creature’s mouth and it dripped goo and I once again decided nope. (Ho Tzu Nyen’s “The Nameless & the Name”)
I walked past more videos in a dark section and spotted a little flash of light in a space with between walls. Outside was a little artist’s plaque stating “Take a Seat” by Studio Revolt. I squeezed into the room and found a large screen, the room split in half by chairs that lined the room from end to end facing away from the screen. They faced a wall with “The Pledge of Allegiance” written on the wall in English and Korean. The video was interviews with deportees who’d been sent to countries they’d never known before away from their children who they’d (under the current laws during filming and the way things currently are) from ever seeing again as they’re not allowed back into the states. It ends with a plea to people in government from the men and woman to be able to visit their families and a black screen that states that the video was suppose to be sent to the white house but never was shown due to “Our voices being silenced”.
A little uneasy and a little low from spending awhile in darkness I left and headed to the next section which had a parental advisory at the entrance.
“The Ends: The politics of Participation in the Post-Internet Age”
“Whether assuming the stance of a counterfeit ideology, plummeting into the depths of online protest culture, or envisioning present and future outcomes, these artists propose alternative perspectives on a long and treacherous journey into 21st century globalization. They also provide reflection in an age when threats to privacy, facts, journalism and justice are not only clear, their fate ultimately rests in hands of the politically and economically empowered.” – Christine Y. Kim and Rita Gonzalez
With a parental advisory at the entrance to this section I braced myself for things to be darker and more disturbing but I didn’t find too much that affected me more than the previous sections. Though I also didn’t stay and watch all of “Jubilee”. (By Zach Blas this short film is over a half hour long in a space with no seats where guests chose to stand along the edge due to what seemed like a continuation of florescent art on the ground, however this art is on a lot of the promotional art and seems to be an important voice amongst the collection.) I was a little done with videos and a bit emotionally drained for the day and instead moved through the section rather quickly. There were interesting pieces though, a board game called “founders” based off previously made art called the “Founder’s paradox” which seems to poke fun at the idea of the founders of an area when people and societies had already been before in a sort of satire of “Settlers of Catan”.
There was also another game in a section called “Fireworks and Gunpowder” which includes a game “patterned after one used by the CIA in their training of operatives to deal with unfolding crises”.
“A ‘walk-in magazine,’ furnished with stories and images from the Biennale’s first four editions (1995-2002). …Rather than trying to summarize the legacy of this expansive platform, my aim was to add an historical layer to the viewer’s experience, whilst arousing the institutional memory of the Biennale itself.”- David Teh
This section I spent the least amount of time in, mostly due to the bizarre sounds coming from the sound system coupled with exhaustion. But if you have any interest in archives then this place is heaven. Throughout the section are tables with book where you can look at art from the past shows.
When I was finished and heading to the cafe/shop a staff worker came over and asked if I’d fill out a questionnaire. I got a cool cup with that show’s promotional art on it and I was asked a question that had changed from when I’d entered the show and when I left it.
“Do you think you’ll visit the Asian Cultural Center’s after this?”
At the beginning of my journey I probably would’ve said no. But standing with the staff at the end of this journey through the Biennale having forced myself not to cry while listening and reading stories, laughed at others and then felt my skin scream at me to run I was determined that that’s what I’d do the next day. I was, after all, in Gwangju for two days, so why not? The staff seemed both delighted and surprised by this. And I headed out, first awkwardly through a door that didn’t open, like I was a dazed and art-drunk being before figuring out which door would let me out, only to realize belatedly that having gone out the exit I could no longer go into the cafe/art shop and would never know what was in there and kicked myself for it.
Day 2: Asian Culture Center
I did other stuff, but that’s for later posts (2019 really) and I over did it. But I was determined on day 2 to get to the Asian Culture Center to finish this journey that was the Gwangju Biennale. While the Biennale took awhile to get to via bus the Asian Culture Center was very easy. I took the train to the Culture Complex. Note: the trains don’t come as often as they do in Seoul so be patient. (Though they come more often than they do where I live.)
The Culture Complex is complex. It’s a little overwhelming. I wandered around trying to figure out which building housed the rest of the Biennale. I walked through a garden, past a building filled with children playing and through an outdoor festival for kids until I gave in/finally found the tourist information. It turned out to be in B5, so I headed down in the direction I’d been pointed.
I used the rest of my ticket to get in and was ready for more emotionally charged art. While the Biennale had a large international vibe and discussion the Asian Culture Center felt like a mirror of Gwangju and the world. It started with a white wall covered in English text. The artist’s statement was a full thesis with little reference notes and author’s explanations to terms or ideas explained in more detail. This bright white wall stood in contrast with the actual art which was on the other side. A huge warehouse style space, vast, empty and dark with concrete floors and the only light coming from the screen. People sat on the floor and watched this invasive daily life of Korean people interspersed with pictures of their homes, animals in various places and loud sounds that didn’t seem to fully fit it. There was a set of escalators and a staff member waiting with a flashlight to guide people to it, but on the other side of the screen was another screen with a different film, which seemed to be an elderly woman watching the previous film in her home. (Adrian Villar Rojas’s “The War of the Stars”)
The Art of Survival: Assembly, Sustainability, Shift
(three parts, part one)
Assembly Place and Non-Place
“In the Korean language, the expression “assembly place” is generally often used in two contexts: a military context and a context of sexual exchange/exploitation. In military context, “assembly place” refers to an area of a random place selected temporarily for tactical and strategic purposes where soldiers assemble and disperse quickly. Although an assembly place is of great importance from a military viewpoint, it cannot be an established place of permanence where lives and life exists because the place exists only momentarily. In addition to assembly places in military context, there are countless types of assembly places in contemporary social environments: small stores and franchises that continuously proliferate and die out; traffic-related assembly places, such as airports, terminals, stations and rest stops; and factories (or workshops).
By contrast, there is a type of assembly place that is not perceived or concealed. These are assembly places of sexual exchange/exploitation where prostitution still occurs. The places are visible to all but no one sees them, and there countless assembly places for prostitution in Korean society.”- Man Seok Kim, Sung woo Kim, Chong-Ok Paek
After passing through a section by Bark Sehee called “passengers” which was set up like an airport the space opened into a circular viewing experience with rooms. You essentially had to walk in circles and up levels, all open so you could see below, above and across from you before you headed into rooms. The first floor was filled with wooden blocks with paintings of women on them holding burned pieces of paper, statements of woman from all over Asia raped by Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War. This collection of pieces is by Akira Tsuboi and is a series called “Sex Slaves by the Japanese Military”. The floor further on has lights hanging over tombstones called “Black ground” by Yeo Sang Hee and the stones hold records of “victims of extensive state violence that occurred in modern and contemporary Korean history.”
Another section on one of the higher floors deals with prostitution specifically in South Korea and Gwangju. That second version of non-place mentioned at the beginning of the section. One is a set of two films shown side by side showing “Day and night of Brothel District” and another room is a map of South Korea made out of pharmaceuticals that sex workers tend to rely on, a third room has holographic books filled with statements in either English or Korean from sex workers with space to sit and lights to read like one is studying at the library. (All three by Youseung Jeong.) I read the English one its entirety and it was disheartening to read the commonality of fear, hopelessness and no-escape from debt owed.
After this dimly lit section I had to ask how to leave, having walked around in circles for about four floors and unsure where to go next. The next section was brighter.
“In Faultlines, we look at the uncertainty of our imagined belonging when the values that we share, and which forms our borders, are threatened, broken, ignored or denied. In these unsettled times, we ask: Is imagination — and its promise of fantasy, fiction, emotion and abstraction — a better way of facing our social and political realities?” – Yeon Shim Chung and Yeewan Koon
In this section I realized the time and hurried more than I should’ve, walking through videos of ruins where kids whistled through bird whistles, cut up photographs and words, paintings of bruises and a section by an artist’s work with students where the artists questioned the students on borders and another part of vials of water with pictures of boarders between countries that are bodies of water.
Another section I enjoyed was called “Tobiu”, it’s a section specifically requested that the viewer not take pictures. The artist stayed at a residency program in a place called Tobiu that doesn’t exist on any maps. “It comprises only ten homes, mostly inhabited by elderly retirees, and buildings now abandoned.” He worked with locals on a forestation project and visited a place called Ahunrupar which “according to Ainu myths, is a magical cave that leads to the playground of the gods”. The art was made with locally created materials (he made his own charcoal to draw portraits of the children), and photos were included as well as magical sculptures.
Right outside Tobiu is a large pigment print called “Thousand Little Brothers” by Hasan Elahi which is another piece that’s story adds so much more to it. “Hasan’s work is closely related to his personal experience on September 11, 2001. After an erroneous tip linking Elahi to terrorist activities led to a six-month FBI investigation, Hasan responded by upturning the process of surveillance by self monitoring and documenting every mundane aspect of his life, which he then sent the FBI. A decade later, he continues to voluntarily monitor himself and updating the agency with his self-produced surveillance report.”
The Art of Survival: Assembly, Sustainability, Shift
(another part of three)
“This exhibition was inspired by the concept of Symmetrical Thinking advanced by Japanese philosopher Shinichi Nakazawa. In symmetrical thinking, the world is recognized as a place where there is no boundary between humanity and nature, and humans, animals, plants, minerals, ect. are transformed and mixed with each other.” – Man seok Kim, Sung woo Kim, Chong-Ok Paek
This section was the most whimsical, in the most bizarre way that I loved. Like a twisted fairy tale. First I walked through “Mudeung Fantasia-Virtual Garden of Cogitation” (or really tried to, there was a couple having a photo shoot in the art piece and it was hard to avoid photo bombing them since it was the only way into the next section)
In this case I’ll let the photos do the justice of this whimsical section, there’s not as many stories to go with them.
“This exhibition aims to explore the acceptance and rejection of individuals and the collective as well as the structure of endless unity and discord in the contemporary context.”- Man seok Kim, Sung woo Kim, Chong-Ok Paek
I probably spent the least amount of time in this section due to running out of time before the exhibit closed. (In reality I was fine on time but I got anxious.)
The final section was another part with no photography allowed.
North Korean Art: Paradoxical Realism
“There is an assumption that only State-ordered propaganda art exists in the DPRK. It is true that North Korean art is largely propaganda art, but that is not all of what it is. This exhibition explores various genres and expressions of Chosonhwa.”- BG Muhn
This section was several pieces of art that showed a study of Chosonhwa “the North Korean name for traditional ink wash painting on rice paper”. It showed the various genres that might be found done by an artist in North Korea, starting with ideological art. The ideological art were vast paintings of people working happily and determinedly together in what looks like dangerous situations. Then the second genre was landscape paintings which were beautiful and impressive. “The white portions of an image are created by leaving the natural white color of the rice paper untouched.” Reading this while looking at a vast mountain was mind boggling and the statement on the explanation “techniques such as this require great skill and planning” felt like an understatement.
The third genre was “Literati” painting which there weren’t many examples of but reminded me a bit of traditional calligraphy style art.
The final genre was animal paintings. There was a huge beautiful painting of a tiger and next to it in the explanation; “After the most talented and elite North Korean artists serve their country by generating ideological paintings while they are younger, they often move on to creating either landscape, bird-and-flower, or animal paintings during the remainder of their careers”.
With this I exited through the gift shop which, if it was the same as the other gift shop than I’m okay I missed it. Nothing screamed buy me, but there was stuff I liked. I just already had bought a ton of books at Aladdin and didn’t see myself lugging thick art books home
With that I was done. I hadn’t seen everything, there was at least one section not up and a couple other spots in Gwangju showcasing more art. (Such as the Former Armed Forces Gwangju Hospital) But I for sure left art drunk, itching to write a thesis paper about borders. I really truly hadn’t know what to expect and was stunned. There was so much English, an over abundance of it in spaces more so than Korean that surprised me and from time to time I felt a bit nostalgically homesick for college. (I went to an art school) I loved the way that things were show cased. Each section was different and reflected the topic and the artist’s work. There were bright sections and dark hard to get through areas that reflected the story being told.
The Gwangju Biennale is from September 7, 2018 until November 11, 2018. After which “Imagines Borders” will be over and the art from 165 artists from around 43 countries and their stories and experiences will disperse. And “the grave discourse of contemporary” will move on. All quotes used during this blog post were pulled from their English Guidebook and can also be found at the start of each section when at the exhibition or next to the art in the artist’s statements.
The Asian Culture Center is closed on Mondays but the Biennale is open all week long from 9am until 6pm. The Asian Culture Center is open from 10am until 6pm though on some days maybe 7pm. Tours are also available. Information from their website on how to get to the locations can be found here.
If you’re in the area I highly suggest visiting. I didn’t include every single piece that moved me but I tried to include many and I’m sure you’d have your own experience. Also give yourself time if you have it to experience the exhibition. It took me two days to get through (and have time to eat and do other things) and I still felt a bit rushed.