View of “Roundtable,” 2012, Gwangju Biennale Hall. Foreground: Michael Joo, Indivisible, 2012. Background, from left: Mark Bradford, 1872 South, 2012; Mark Bradford, 1910 West, 2012.

View of “Roundtable,” 2012, Gwangju Biennale Hall. Foreground: Michael Joo, Indivisible, 2012. Background, from left: Mark Bradford, 1872 South, 2012; Mark Bradford, 1910 West, 2012.

the 2012 Gwangju Biennale

View of “Roundtable,” 2012, Gwangju Biennale Hall. Foreground: Michael Joo, Indivisible, 2012. Background, from left: Mark Bradford, 1872 South, 2012; Mark Bradford, 1910 West, 2012.

THE 2012 GWANGJU BIENNALE, titled “Roundtable,” was the very image of contradiction: Diverse perspectives convened—collided?—around the idea of collaboration itself, turning the act of assembling shared viewpoints into one of radical dispersal. Although its catalogue did make the most of its name, convening a “Roundtable on ‘Roundtable,’” the exhibition’s dedication to the anodyne metaphor of exchange was ill suited to the wildly divergent opinions and positions of its organizers. Unfolding across the five gallery spaces of Gwangju Biennale Hall and as far as five off-site venues, “Roundtable” from the start was vexed in delivering the egalitarian exchange its name implied. One would not, of course, expect a biennial with six artistic codirectors to yield a cogent, singular vision—indeed, this could have been part of its promise, to realign the stakes and escape the (often male) solo-curator-as-author cliché. But few might have predicted the tensions surrounding this edition’s all-female team of Nancy Adajania, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Mami Kataoka, Sunjung Kim, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Alia Swastika to implode so visibly in the form of individually conceived subthemes, a bifurcated floor plan, and awkward curatorial devices that seemed bent on enforcing separation rather than encouraging productive intersections.

If its predecessor, “10,000 Lives,” set forth a new biennial model based on a tightly curated, historically minded museum approach, “Roundtable” reverted to the familiar, more-is-more biennial trope, evident not only in its disparate themes but also in its inclusion of more than ninety artists and collectives from forty-four countries, and copious site-oriented productions, on-site artist residencies, and projects that solicited interaction with the city of Gwangju and its citizens. At times, these efforts tended toward the boastful—noticed in the positioning of three prized commissions by prominent artists Mark Bradford, Do-Ho Suh, and Michael Joo at the entrance of Biennale Hall—or skewed toward quaint if predictable tactics of installationist intervention that played out in dilapidated housing (Abraham Cruzvillegas) or a pristine Buddhist temple (Wolfgang Laib).

The six subthemes—“Logging In and Out of Collectivity,” “Re-visiting Histories,” “Transient Encounters,” “Intimacy, Autonomy and Anonymity,” “Back to the Individual Experience,” and “Impact of Mobility on Space and Time”—struggled under the weight of their own inconsistent articulations. Commingling themes in the same space allowed for some bizarre pairings, including Dane Mitchell’s delicate handblown glass bulbs, “charged” with shamanistic energy, situated alongside Pedro Reyes’s musical instruments crudely fashioned from recycled firearms. Installed in a ramshackle corner of Daein Market, Kim Beom’s magnificent video Yellow Scream, 2012, instructing viewers on how to paint sound, was not only easy to miss, it would have benefited from proximity to his large maze canvas Untitled (Intimate Suffering #8), 2008, in Biennale Hall, also a meditation on the practice of painting. The divisive atmosphere was briefly disrupted by Aki Sasamoto’s Centrifugal March, 2012, an installation of revamped furniture, suspended ice cubes wired to sound amplifiers, and wall drawings that came alive during her idiosyncratic performance-monologue probing issues of life, death, and reincarnation.

Strong contributions by Chosil Kil, Lü Yue, Sophia Al-Maria, Fayçal Baghriche, and Shuruq Harb got lost in the shuffle of competing curatorial ideologies that, most unfortunately, announced themselves through a color-coded dot system that assigned artworks to a specific theme and, by association, a specific curator. The jurisdiction of the curators in “Roundtable” was therefore inescapable, effectively rendering participating artists as silent voices. It was not so long ago that biennials staked their definition of being international on a checklist of artists hailing from regions near and far. In Gwangju, this logic repeated itself in the need to assemble a curatorial team of equally impressive status and geographic reach, with nationality acting as the most authentic means of securing access to local knowledge and expertise.

Evidence that the artistic directors of “Roundtable” were in disagreement on just about everything ran rampant. This disharmony led to the exhibition’s most egregious misstep, an uneven distribution of real estate that resulted in two curators—Adajania and Lu—being granted their own discrete footprints within Biennale Hall to explore their chosen themes and artists, while the other four curators’ selections overlapped across the remaining gallery spaces and satellite venues. As the most spatially self-contained, however, the subthemes belonging to Adajania and Lu also came across as the most coherent. And yet even here there were conflicting views: Artworks in Adajania’s section espousing political awareness (the photographs of Noh Suntag) and collectivity (the film The Tower Songspiel, 2010, by Chto delat/ What is to be done?) openly clashed with Lu’s solipsistic framing of the practices of filmmaker Lü, writer Han Dong, art historian James Cahill, and philosopher-curator Boris Groys as examples of individualism.

The contrivance of “Roundtable” was thus laid bare, as the desire to “explore the possibility of democratic and non-hierarchical exchange” resulted in a cacophony limited to the curators, which did not allow for conversation to spring up among artworks. Here we might view Motoyuki Shitamichi’s Bridge, 2011—a procession of photographic images depicting planks and logs acting as assorted makeshift walkways, taken by the artist during his travels around Japan and installed in Gwangju along a passageway connecting three disparate gallery spaces—as an apt remedy for an exhibition rooted in divisiveness. Shitamichi’s images and their careful placement, aside from depicting moments of impasse, illustrate something far more valuable: how such limits can be creatively overcome.

Pauline J. Yao is Curator at M+ Museum of Visual Culture in the West Kowloon Cultural District, Hong Kong.