’97 Kwangju Biennale

Kwangju Biennale

The glut of international art exhibitions in 1997 meant that it was an especially competitive year for recently inaugurated biennials. The second Kwangju Biennale, for example, followed on the heels of Documenta X and the Venice Biennale, and preceded biennials in Istanbul and Johannesburg. This particular exhibition is unique, however, as the only major international art show in Asia. It has also promised to position Korea more centrally in the global art world and to stimulate the local art market,which remains depressed by the country’s recession. Many thought it remarkable that the first biennial even happened at all, but the second was to be more carefully planned and organized, with fewer satellite exhibitions and special programs—changes that were intended to ensure higher overall quality and strengthen international coverage. Attendance from overseas visitors, however, was disappointing, and the show seemed to generate less excitement and critical debate within Korea than the first biennial.

Like the curators of other recently inaugurated biennials (such as the 1997 Johannesburg Biennial), the organizers chose to address distinct and coherent themes. Here, the art was presented within a framework of traditional Eastern ideas, under the rubric “Unmapping the Earth.” “Unmapping” is, in fact, not an exact translation of the Korean word used, “yeobaik,” which refers to “a gap, or a boundary between everything that self-generates and fluctuates, that exists not in harmony and balance but in paradox and nonequilibrium.” Thus, the show’s theme could be said to represent the unraveling of institutions, discourses, and modes of thought and behavior.

The organizers opted for plurality not only in the exhibition’s design but also in the art represented. They chose five subthemes signifying common elements in people’s lives: “speed,” “space,” “hybridity,” “power,” and “becoming.” These were linked to natural elements—water, fire, wood, metal, and earth—to produce a conceptual framework poised between contemporary civilization and the natural world. This idea was also based on the principle of yin and yang and the ancient Chinese notion of the five primary elements or forces of the universe. To further ensure “plurality,” one commissioner was appointed to curate each section, and to freely interpret each subtheme. The exhibition thus comprised five very distinct exhibitions. The Swiss curator Harald Szeemann conceived of the section “SPEED/Water”; the Korean-American founder and director of New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture, Park Kyong, organized “SPACE/Fire”; the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Richard Koshalek, curated “HYBRIDITY/Wood”; the Korean art critic Sung Wankyung organized “POWER/Metal”; and the French freelance curator and art critic Bernard Marcadé conceived “BECOMING/Earth.”

The biennial was complex, well designed, professionally curated, and theoretically engaging. But if its curatorial premise—uniquely adapting ancient Eastern concepts to contemporary ideas about art and culture—achieved global relevance, the show was also criticized for being too similar to other international exhibitions (more than a score of the artists shown in Kwangju had exhibited only weeks before in Lyons, Kassel, and Venice). One of the biennial’s special exhibitions, “Everyday Life, Memory and History: Korean Art and Visual Culture since 1945,” organized by Kim Jin-song, presented a selection of “high” art from the peninsula within the context of pop-culture artifacts produced during the fifty years since Korea’s independence. This show highlighted the apolitical and asocial nature of much Modernist art produced in Korea. By way of contrast, the curator also assembled a staggering variety of newsreel clips, films, cartoons, printed matter, and material related to fashion and architecture, much of which had been culled from collections and archives that art curators had simply not tapped into previously. Long after the ’97 Kwangju Biennale itself closed, this eloquent exhibition lingered on in memory.

Jae-Ryung Roe