9th Gwangju Biennale – a preview

First held in 1995, the Gwangju Biennale has long been a champion of contemporary artists working across all mediums and practices worldwide. The biennale—Asia’s longest-running and most prestigious biennial exhibition of contemporary art—has solidified its reputation over the past decade, thanks in large part to the extraordinary lineup of accomplished curators that have guided its development over the years. This year, the 9th Gwangju Biennale is set to continue in its tradition of progressive and mindful stewardship with the appointment of six Co-Artistic Directors. Each a groundbreaking curator in her own right, these six women have joined forces in undertaking the exhibition’s direction as a single collective unit. In doing so, they propose an unorthodox challenge to the more conventional curatorial approaches that have prevailed in the biennale’s history.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Circle of Confusion (2010). Courtesy the artists, The Third Line (Dubai), CRG Gallery (New York), and In situ Fabienne Leclerc (Paris).

‘History’ has always played a key role in defining conceptual frameworks for the Gwangju Biennale’s exhibitions. Looking ahead to September and the 9th Gwangju Biennale, the question that looms largest for most people has been: how will this year’s exhibition continue to reinvigorate and engage with issues in contemporary art in ways that are fresh and relevant today? Faced with such a challenge, the exhibition’s Co-Artistic Directors have thrown open the curatorial conversation, abdicating the authority to endorse any single ‘officially-approved’ position. ‘ROUNDTABLE,’ the theme of this year’s biennale, is presented as a platform for open-ended collaboration, with the principal objective of arriving at a more qualified assessment and comprehensive interpretation of notions of the individual and the collective—a dichotomy that brings itself to bear on artistic practice as well as society in general.

By its very definition, the social institution of the ’roundtable’ eliminates the conditioned visual hierarchies implied by other seating arrangements. In the context of discussion or debate, roundtables are considered neutral sites that enable interactions in which distinctions of social standing and authority are rendered null and void; in a circle, all criteria for establishing an ‘optimal position’ cease to apply. Taking this as its guiding principle, ‘ROUNDTABLE’ simultaneously describes the working relationship of the exhibition’s six Co-Artistic Directors, the conversational interaction of the exhibition’s various interrelated sub-themes, and the non-linear structure of the exhibition at large.

Sara Nuytemans, Observatory of the Self version 2.1 (2011). Courtesy the artist

Discrete topics of interest—such as isolation, migration, mass communication, and the relationship between group trauma, memory and history—will be parsed from the exhibition’s wider conversation by the 90 artists and collectives (from over 40 countries) set to participate in ‘ROUNDTABLE.’ Collectively, they provide an impressive cross-section of contemporary artistic practice worldwide; individually, they reveal the variety of contexts that lead to qualified interpretations of the entire group as a collective unit. With so many individual perspectives converging within a common discursive space, there’s no guarantee that things will always go smoothly. According to the exhibition’s Co-Artistic Directors, conflict isn’t just a possibility, it’s an expectation. “The works may at times be in conversation or at times in opposition with one another,” they announced at a panel discussion hosted by the Tate Modern in June. “We have collaborated to create a platform where a shifting relationship between works and multi-faceted themes is possible, creating points of connection and conversation.”

Aki Sasamoto, Centrifugal March (2012). Photo Daisuke Yamashiro / Courtesy the artist

This year’s exhibition aims to facilitate unprecedented levels of connection and conversation by providing access to more voices than ever before. Building upon the Gwangju Biennale’s historic commitment to supporting artists, ‘ROUNDTABLE’ addresses the increasing importance of process and locality in contemporary artistic practice by subsidizing more than 40 commissions for new work, 15 residencies and 11 performances. A cycle of symposiums known as Workstations gathers select groups of non-artist voices to offer insight from a distance, presenting alternate models for advancing the exhibition’s curatorial objectives. Online, ‘ROUNDTABLE’ hopes to engage global audiences via a series of E-Journals which explore a set of themes related to the biennale’s overall concept. The pledge to maximize access on all fronts applies at the local level as well, with the exhibition set to extend beyond Biennale Hall and into various spaces of cultural exchange across the city (including a cinema, traditional market and Buddhist temple). The result, it is hoped, will be an exhibition not only encouraging collaboration but indeed personifying it.

Rasheed Araeen, The Reading Room ZKM (1987-2011). Installation view from the exhibition “The Global Contemporary. Art Worlds after 1989” (2011) at ZKM, Karlsruhe. Photo Steffen Harms / Courtesy the artist and ZKM Karlsruhe

The exhibition planned for this year’s 9th Gwangju Biennale is nothing if not ambitious. Heavy on concept and high in potential, ‘ROUNDTABLE’ refuses to shy away from the expectations part and parcel of Asia’s premier contemporary art exhibition. The six curators tasked with filling the tall order of history have taken the challenges and opportunities of working as a collective unit and incorporated them seamlessly into the very core of what the exhibition is all about. They have assembled a group of participating artists and collectives that is as strong as it is diverse, yet the question remains: will their work be able to cohere under the weight of the biennale’s high-stakes conceptual scheme? In the end, the litmus test will be to see whether the exhibition’s public is able—not to mention willing—to shoulder its share of collaborative responsibility that ‘ROUNDTABLE’ is depending upon. Results notwithstanding, this is precisely the sort of game-changing gamble required to effectively challenge the status quo, and a necessary one for the Gwangju Biennale to prove itself as an agent for progress in the 21st century.

Participating artists:

A Gentil Carioca [Botner e Pedro + Fabiano Gonper] (Brazil) – Abraham Cruzvillegas (Mexico) – Adam Broomberg + Oliver Chanarin (UK/ South Africa) – Agung Kurniawan (Indonesia) – Ahn Kyuchul (South Korea) – Ai Weiwei (China) – Aki Sasamoto (Japan/ USA) – Ala Younis (Palestine/ Jordan) – Allan Kaprow (USA) – Allan Sekula + Noel Burch (USA) – Ana Husman (Croatia) – Andy Hope 1930 (Germany) – Anri Sala (Albania/ Germany) – Benjamin Armstrong (Australia) – Bibimbbap [Sang-‐hwa Park, Han‐byul Jang, Mae–lee Lee, Han–‐yeol Kim, Un Kang] (South Korea) – Boris Groys (Germany) – CAMP (India) – Choi Mi‐Yeon (South Korea) – Chosil Kil (South Korea) – Chris Marker (France) – Chto delat? / What is to be done? (Russia) – Craig Walsh + Hiromi Tango (Australia/ Japan) – Dane Mitchell (New Zealand) – Darinka Pop‐Mitic (Serbia) – Delaine Le Bas (UK) – Dick Verdult (Netherlands) – Do Ho Suh (South Korea) – Fayçal Baghriche (Algeria) – Fouad Elkoury (France/ Lebanon) – Gulnara Kasmalieva + Muratbek Djumaliev + ArtEast School for Contemporary Art, Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) – Han Dong (China) – Haroon Mirza (UK) – Hyun Tack Cho (South Korea) – James Cahill (USA) – Jangarh Singh Shyam (India) – Jenny Holzer (USA) – Jeong–lok Lee (South Korea) – Jihae Hwang (South Korea) – Joana Hadjithomas + Khalil Joreige (Lebanon) – Josef Dabernig (Austria) – Julia Dault (Canada/ USA) – Julieta Aranda + Anton Vidokle (Mexico/Russia) – Jun Yang (China/ Austria) – Jung Yoonsuk (South Korea) – Juyeon Kim (South Korea) – Kelly Schacht (Belgium) – Kim Beom (South Korea) – Kimsooja (South Korea) – Laurent Grasso (France) – Li Fuchun (China) – Li Ran (China) – Lu Yue (China) – Magnus Bärtås (Sweden) – Maha Maamoun (Egypt) – Maki Toshima (Japan) – Malak Helmy (Egypt) – Mark Bradford (USA) – Michael Joo (USA) – Mônica Nador (Brazil) – Moon Kyungwon + Jeon Joonho (South Korea) – Motoyuki Shitamichi (Japan) – Nasrin Tabatabai + Babak Afrassiabi (Netherlands/ Iran) – Nástio Mosquito (Angola) – Noh Suntag (South Korea) – Pedro Reyes (Mexico) –Poklong Anading (Philippines) – Porntaweesak Rimsakul (Thailand) – Rasheed Araeen (UK) – Rim Dong Sik (South Korea) – Rirkrit Tiravanija (Thailand) – Royce NG (Hong Kong/ Australia) in collaboration with Zebadish Arrington, Suhuu Goh + Soichiro Mitsuya (USA/ South Korea/ Japan) – Sara Nuytemans (Belgium) – Scott Eady (New Zealand) – Sejla Kameric (Bosnia–‐Herzegovina) – Sheba Chhachhi (India) – Shuruq Harb (Palestine) – Simon Fujiwara (UK) – Slavs and Tatars (Eurasia) – Sophia Al–Maria (Qatar) – Tintin Wulia (Indonesia) – Tobias Rehberger (Germany) – Tu Wei-‐Cheng (Taiwan) – U Sunok (South Korea) – Varda Caivano (Argentina) – Vertical Submarine (Singapore) – Wael Shawky (Egypt) – West Eastern Divan Orchestra (Israel/ Palestine/ Arab World) – Wolfgang Laib (Germany) – Wu Tsang (USA) – Xijing Men [Chen Shaoxiong, Gimhongsok, Tsuyoshi Ozawa] (China/South Korea/ Japan) – xurban_collective [Guven Incirlioglu + Hakan Topal] (Turkey) – Yerbossyn Meldibekov (Kazakhstan)

Gwangju Biennale website: http://gb.or.kr

Andy St. Louis is an art writer based in Seoul. He is an editor at ELOQUENCE: international creators magazine and runs Korea’s only English-language art blog, Seoul Art Fiend (www.seoulartfiend.com). Follow him on Twitter: @SeoulArtFiend.

A version of this article was originally published in the August 2012 issue of ELOQUENCE: international creators magazine, a Seoul-based monthly print publication by, for and about creators everywhere (www.eloquence.co.kr).


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