View of Eyal Weizman, Roundabout Revolution, 2013, mixed media. From Gwangju Folly II.

View of Eyal Weizman, Roundabout Revolution, 2013, mixed media. From Gwangju Folly II.

“Gwangju Folly II”

Various Venues

View of Eyal Weizman, Roundabout Revolution, 2013, mixed media. From Gwangju Folly II.

What lasting, tangible benefits do large-scale recurrent exhibitions offer their host communities besides display halls and tourist dollars? Such questions lie at the heart of Gwangju Folly, which commissions permanent pavilions for public use. The project was initiated as part of the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale, but, as of its second installment last year, has become independent while its “pavilions” seem to have radically expanded to include significant political and cultural engagement. Artistic director Nikolaus Hirsch (with curators Philipp Misselwitz and Eui Young Chun) asked eight participants not only to intervene in the city’s current fabric but to address the legacy of the 1980 Gwangju Democratization Movement, a citizen’s uprising that temporarily occupied the city until it was violently suppressed by the South Korean military dictatorship. Thus, in its work Power Toilets / UNESCO, 2013, the Danish collaborative Superflex riffs on the revolt’s induction into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2011 by replacing a run-down public toilet in Gwangju with a facsimile of the one used by the executive board of the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Whether or not this humorous copy spurs reflections on how lived experiences are condensed into symbols, it wonderfully fulfills a public need, as the facilities anchor a street that comes alive nightly with countless informal food carts. Ai Weiwei’s Cubic Meter Food Cart, 2012–13, a mobile restaurant prototype that was on view in the Biennale Foundation’s office, furthers the exhibition’s play with sanctions; the design, according to the artist, calls into question the municipal government’s attempts to regulate these working-class establishments while allowing for the unfettered construction of corporate tower blocks.

If such works implicitly raise questions about who gets to control space, and to what end, then Eyal Weizman’s Roundabout Revolution, 2013, foregrounds the issue. This ambitious work equates an existing circular public fountain in Gwangju, the de facto forum of the 1980 uprising, with several similarly shaped spaces utilized in like fashion during the Arab Spring. By way of illustration, Weizman inscribed the actual footprints of those places—labeled TEHRAN, TARIH, and so on—into a Gwangju intersection through a series of painted concentric orbits so that these democratic “turns” can be read as a model for a new Copernican Revolution. In an attempt to eschew any sense of deliberate hierarchy, the installation’s main structure, a glass pavilion that contains a round table for political debate in full view, is set off as a kind of satellite circling the intentionally left open void of the public intersection. While it might be easy to ignore the oversimplification found in the installation’s comparative historicizing, the glass pavilion’s glib transparency fails to disclose an alternate history of the project. According to biennial staff, the work was originally sited around the fountain itself; however, this plan was nixed, as it conflicted with the city’s vision for the multibillion dollar Asian Cultural Center currently being built there. Rem Koolhaas and Ingo Niermann’s Vote, 2013, asks quite literally what it means to be in step with others. A reimagined ballot box, their structure presents a series of propositions selected by a student assembly on a scrolling LED marquee positioned above a busy shopping street. Passersby reading the often quite provocative motions—for example, should homosexuality be legal?—cast their ballots by walking through YES, NO, or MAYBE lanes painted on the ground, triggering motion sensors to record and broadcast the real-time results on the marquee.

Ostensibly wearing politics on its sleeve, Vote merely flirts with the city’s greater political process; as a whole, Gwangju Folly II cut a similarly ambiguous figure. Whatever unique interactions or political aims were achieved by leaving the confines of the gallery, the installations themselves, as infrastructure, risk the folly of being recuperated into the larger politics of the city’s own real estate machine. The curators’ efforts to underline heterodox, if not minority or dissident, narratives gesture to a form of vibrant collective living that would be self-critical rather than autocratic, but the permanence of the structures in which these hopes are embodied may foil such aspirations.

Adam Kleinman