Directed by Okwui Enwezor, Annual Report: A Year in Exhibitions, Including Add Abdessemed, Francis Alys, Kaoru Arima, Sadie Benning, Nina Canell, Eunji Cho, Seo-young Chung, Thomas Demand, Seamus Farrell, Hans Haacke, Donghee Koo, David Lamelas, Ken Lure, Mona Marzouk, Gordon Matta-Clark, Steve McQueen, Apinan Poshyananda, L’appartement 22, Jewyo Rhii, Joachim Schonfeldt, Kohei Yoshiyuki, Dolores Zinny & Juan Maidagan, among 90 other artists
Autumn 2008 saw a constellation of biennale activity happening throughout the Asia-Pacific region: biennales in Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, two in China, three in Korea and the most recent edition of the Biennale of Sydney. Reminiscent of the European Grand Tour of the summer of 2007–which included Skulptur Projekte Munster, Documenta and the Venice Bienhale–there was a sense of having to do it all, with travel packages available for savvy contemporary art tourists and well-funded professionals alike. The most standout efforts of the lot, Sydney and Gwangju, South Korea, paid homage to the concept of revolution and its actors. Coincidentally, Gwangju’s organizing committee was headed up by a former Documenta artistic director, Okwui Enwezor, and Sydney was helmed by a future artistic director of Documenta, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev.
Not surprisingly, Gwangju shares many similarities with Documenta, not just an artistic director. Both take place in relatively provincial cities with less access to the flow of people and ideas that major capitals enjoy, a spirit of civic duty informs the staging of both events, their budgets are comparable and they were both established for extra-artistic directives. Documenta was initiated in order to re-establish democratic West German cultural production and trade following World War II; the Gwangju Biennale serves to commemorate the popular uprising against the military regime of Chun Doo-hwan, which took place May 18, 1980. This bloody moment in the city’s history is widely seen as the catalyst that led to the rejection of almost two centuries of post-colonial funk and dictatorial control in the southern half of the Korean peninsula.
While the uprising inspired the framework for the biennale, its blueprint is the idea of collective authorship as an analogy for the global complexity of contemporary art networks. The countercultural assemblage of student groups, labour unions and religious organizations that built momentum throughout the 70s, leading to the May 18, 1980 uprising, have come to be known as minjung, which translates roughly as “people’s power” Afterwards, this same collective made significant contributions to the creation of a civil society in South Korea.
To draw on people power, Enwezor appointed as curators for the biennale Ranjit Hoskote (Mumbai) and Hyunjin Kim (Seoul), who used public plenary sessions in Gwangju, Seoul and Beijing to establish a complex model for the event’s presentation. The resulting biennale can be broken down into three main components. The first, titled On the Road, was a collection of exhibitions staged around the globe during 2007-2008, which were then transplanted to Gwangju for restaging as part of the biennale. These shows ranged from small exhibitions at commercial galleries, such as Gerard Byrne’s show at the Lisson Gallery (London), to the academic group show Movement, Contingency and Community at Gallery27 (Uiwang-si, South Korea) and the Gordon Matta-Clark retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York).
The second component, Position Papers, saw a further five curators invited to produce new exhibitions under a more experimental format. One contribution to this section was the Bokdukbang Project by Sung-Hyen Park (Gwangju), which featured mostly local artists making public works in an open-air marketplace. These works were interlaced and competed with the normal goings-on of traders of live seafood and other animals, cheap clothing and traditional Korean furniture. Another contribution, Spring, curated by Claire Tancons (New Orleans), was an attempt to create an exhibition in movement. It saw contemporary artists and carnival designers alike invited to produce a procession that flowed through the city and ended up at the square where the uprising of May 18, 1980, took place. Scores of local art students worked to create costumes that playfully articulated aspects of local history, helping to highlight similarities between the aesthetics of carnival and protest. One group appeared in cage-like costumes; another paraded around with semicircular huts suggestive of Korean burial mounds, which were set on fire at the end of the parade; another wore prosthesis-like “arms” suggesting swords or other weapons.
Insertions, the biennale’s third component, presented nearly 50 newly commissioned works that engaged with the spirit of the event, including Kaoru Arima’s (Inu -yama, Japan) delicately beautiful series of 50 drawings. In each one, a small patch of correction fluid reclaims the centre of a sheet of newspaper. Inside this space, faint figurative pencil illustrations of daily Japanese life and pictograms piece together a narrative that suggests a realm apart from the media saturation of images that underlay it. Ken Lum (Vancouver) installed a droll new maze work reminiscent of his presentation at the 10th International Istanbul Biennial. In Gwangju, you were lured into a darkened space, which, in contemporary art exhibition vocabulary, tends to signal a video installation, but instead you blindly felt your way through winding, pitch-black corridors to end up in a brightly lit room flanked by a wall of mirrors.
Throughout the multiple biennale venues–which included the purpose-built Biennale Hall, the Gwangju Museum of Art, the Uijae Museum of Korean Art, the Daein Traditional Market and Cinema Gwangju–the three portions of the biennale intertwined and played off one another. Viewers could never be quite sure if they were seeing a transplanted group show, a newly commissioned work or an assemblage of works curated specifically for the biennale. Overall, the biennale’s aim was to portray the ever-connected nature of cotemporary art practice, creating a physical fragment of what curator Nina Montmann and media theorist Ned Rossiter refer to as “organized networks.” For Montmann, these networks represent a step forward for institutional exhibition practice; Rossiter furthers the argument by claiming that organized networks have the power to supersede modern institutions. The idea is useful when considering the institution of the biennale, which debuted at the end of the 19th century in Venice. Could the use of organized networks work to avoid the risks inherent with what Rossiter calls “rebooting [modern] formats for the digital age”? And could the outcome be an adjustment of hierarchical structures so that they more aptly represent what he describes as “the flexible, partially decentralized and transnational flow of culture, finance and labour”? In any case, the seventh edition of the Gwangju Biennale embodied not so much a sense of sombre, calculated remembrance of its historic origins, but instead a kind of modest jouissance. Hopefully, this shift will inspire a turn and new momentum in the networks that it activated.