BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE, GWANGJU BIENNALE 2014

Gwangju is a tough city.  

 

It was the site of the 1980 Gwangju Uprising where government troops fired upon and killed hundreds of students participating in peaceful democratic protests. Such brutality prompted the city's citizens to take to the streets to fight and eventually overthrow the military regime that had governed them.  An example of how, from the ashes of destruction, new life and fresh beginnings are possible. 

 

The first Gwangju Biennale in 1995 commemorated this historic event and from these highly charged polticial beginnings, it has grown to be one of the most respected and pioneering biennales in the world.  This year's director, Jessica Morgan borrowed the title of a Talking Heads pop anthem to present a biennale that focused on 'the process of burning  and transformation, a cycle of obliteration and renewal’ (Morgan, 2014).

 

I was particularly excited about seeing this biennale, having researched it for my class paper before the trip.  My investigations suggested it would be a full volume show; singular yet diverse, angry yet soft, art with a strong narrative and clear purpose.   I was not disappointed.

 

Morgan assembled an impressive list of 105 artists and mixed pre existing work with plenty of new commissions.  There were familiar names such as Ken Unsworth, Yves Klein and Urs Fischer and complete unknowns such as Tahmineh Monzavi, Prem Sahib and Minouk Lim.  The stand out works for me were the ones which had an associated, often personal narrative or story of human struggle.  All of the works had been carefully selected and displayed, sitting well beside each other as I moved through the spaces.

 

Of the three biennales that I saw, this for me was the clear winner.

1,000 CANES

1,000 CANES

MINOUK LIM, 2014 A collection of unfinished canes made by the artist Eui Jin Chai who survived a massacre in Korea in 1949 after being left for dead under the corpses of his brother and cousin. The canes symbolise a life permanently tainted with pain and sorrow. This and Lim's other work in the exhibition, Navigation ID (2014) were extraordinarily powerful examples of community-engaged art demonstrating how events that are highly historicised are still highly relevant.

CLAMOUR

CLAMOUR

SEULGI LEE, 2011 - 2014 Inspired by traditional masks worn in Korean rituals and ceremonies, each mask features two pin sized eyeholes and some kind of protrusion. I was drawn by the simplicity of the shapes and the bold use of colour where even the plinth edges had been painted in bright colours. An example of tradition and history placed within a contemporary context.

LIBRARY OF SPIRITS II

LIBRARY OF SPIRITS II

BANU CENNETOGLU, 2014 Cennetoglu's artistic practice focuses on the traditions of spirit making and for this project, concentrated on the traditions and histories of soju, a traditional, highly alcohol, Korean drink. The soju library presented research notes and recipes alongside examples of bottles of home-brew soju which we had the opportunity of trying for ourselves.

CLAMOUR

CLAMOUR

SEULGI LEE, 2011 - 2014

LIBRARY OF SPIRITS II

LIBRARY OF SPIRITS II

BANU CENNETOGLU, 2014 Library entry with recipe details for soju.

TEMPERAMENT & THE WOLF

TEMPERAMENT & THE WOLF

ALLORA & CALZADILLA, 2014 Two neat lines of Korean workers waiting to hold your hand, look you in the eye and welcome you warmly.

DUST TO DUST

DUST TO DUST

MIRCEA SUCIU, 2014 The title of this work reflects the artist's belief that issues of conflict, war and fighting are eternal and that human behaviour is impossible to change.

MISE-EN-SCENE

MISE-EN-SCENE

EL ULTIMO GRITO, 2014 Close up detail of the digitally produced vinyl motif wallpaper that ran throughout most of the exhibition. The images of flames and billowing smoke served as a continual reminder of the curatorial theme and brought a sense of coherence to the exhibition. A refreshing and welcome change from the usual white walls.

TEMPERAMENT & THE WOLF

TEMPERAMENT & THE WOLF

ALLORA & CALZADILLA, 2014 An opportunity to momentarily interact with a group of strangers all of whom use their hands in their work. Shaking hands acknowledges each other's presence and interrupts the usual way of entering an exhibition space. It was such a warm and simple performative undertaking that I must have left the space and reentered four or five times to do it again.

DUST TO DUST

DUST TO DUST

MIRCEA SUCUI, 2014

DUST TO DUST

DUST TO DUST

MIRCEA SUCUI, 2014 A wall installation comprising fifty images drawn from photographs of historically significant moments from the past 100 years. Some were familiar such as the self immolation of the Tibetan monk or the peaceful protests in Tahir Square during the Arab Spring Uprising. The charcoal techniques were impressive and the skill of the artist was evident.

GROUP PORTRAIT

GROUP PORTRAIT

CORNEL BRUDASCU, 1970 I came across these works after having spent a considerable amount of time admiring Dust to Dust, Mircea Suciu upstairs. Upon reading, I discovered that he, like Suciu, was from Romania and also appropriated from photographs to create striking, beautifully created images. I was certain Brudascu had been an influence on Suciu.

LI HULAN

LI HULAN

ZHANG HUAN, 2013 The satellite exhibition entitled Sweet Dew - After 1980 stood at the back of the biennale. I was completely struck by this large installation made of traditional dried chinese medicines pressed onto linen. The image depicts a captured naked Korean woman being led through the snow into a Japanese army base. She was a 'comfort woman', one of thousands of women forced into sex slavery to satisfy occupying forces. The image to me was beautifully made but painfully sad.

BAD BOLLARDS, PART 1

BAD BOLLARDS, PART 1

It was in Gwangju that I first noticed this phenomenon that would pervade throughout this biennale and into the others to follow: the bad bollard. Substantial amounts of time, academic reasoning and determined effort had brought together these impressive exhibitions only to be spoiled by these clumsy efforts to restrain visitors and remind them to behave and not touch. They began to become omnipresent and I could not escape the upsetting sight of them wherever I went.

LI HULAN

LI HULAN

ZHANG HUAN, 2013 Close up detail of the Chinese herbal medicines used in the collage.