Gwanju, South Korea

Gwanju Biennale 2004

Various Venues

With the recent proliferation of biennials worldwide, curators are hard-pressed to differentiate their own from the others. Yongwoo Lee, the general artistic director of the Gwangju Biennale 2004, certainly came up with an original and courageous take on the problem: Starting from the insight that viewers are equal partners in the making of an artwork, he decided to pair each invited artist with a “viewer-participant,” an individual unconnected to the artist and his or her work (or rather, since the viewer-participants were selected first, to pair each viewer-participant with an artist according to the aesthetic inclinations, or other relevant attributes, of the former). The hope was that these viewers’ communications would influence the making of the works the artists would produce for the biennale, as a cook hopes that by adding mustard to eggs and oil his mayonnaise will arrive at its full flavor.

The collaborations were at times truly successful, resulting in a genuine coproduction of the artwork. Such is the case of Peruvian-born Belgian artist Jota Castro’s A Drop in the Ocean, 2004, produced with viewer-participant Peter Moszynski, a British journalist. It is a dense stack of a takeaway newspaper with articles by Moszynski (the cover and back are by Castro) on the subject of his expertise—African conflicts, especially the Sudan. This and a few other pairings really made the art go places it would not otherwise have gone, proving the validity of the curatorial gambit. In most instances, the collaboration consisted of the artists engaging with their viewer-participant partners by exchanging a few e-mails but ultimately submitting works to the biennale that would likely have been the same anyway. At times artists were annoyed by this intrusion into their creative process, especially when the organizing committee insisted that the names of the viewer-participants be placed next to the artists’ on the works’ labels, as if attributing authorship to both.

Organized around the metaphorical theme spelled out in the show’s title, “A Grain of Dust A Drop of Water,” the exhibition filled the five galleries of the biennale, plus a few sites around the main hall and throughout the city. Gallery 1 was organized around the theme of dust, Gallery 2 water, Galleries 3 and 4 dust and water, and on the ground floor “The Club” comprised a few additional interactive installations and a stage where events and performances took place throughout the biennale. Focusing on the representations of the conflicts and injustices of today’s world (one possible metaphor for dust), Gallery 1 was the most political in content and offered the strongest grouping of works, among them Chinese artist Yue Minjun’s paintings and sculptures of laughing men against backgrounds of war or capitalist development; Momoyo Torimitsu’s videos and installations of robot businessmen crawling on the ground; Muntadas’s very simple video installation contrasting a scene shot at Gwangju’s food market and images of the Chosun University library; Joon-ho Jeon’s video installation In God We Trust, 2004, which inserts Korean history into the imagery of American currency; and Jim Sanborn’s Atomic Time, 2003, an installation of original electronic instruments and tools used in the ’40s by the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was assembled. On the whole, the works produced by the artists ignoring the viewer-participants seemed to be the most successful ones, proving that while the viewer is a crucial element in the process, her role takes center stage after rather than before or during a work’s creation.

Valérie Brewart