Home Arts Soft power triumphs at the Gwangju Biennale this year

Soft power triumphs at the Gwangju Biennale this year

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Oum Jeongsoon’s series elephant without a trunk (2023), a centerpiece of the first section of the 2023 Gwangju Biennale (until July 9), challenges the question of how to see an elephant. Referring to the parable of three blind men interpreting an elephant by touching a part of it – imagining it variously as a tree, a snake or a rope – Oum describes in the work how the visually impaired collaborators of his organization Our Eyes imagine an elephant being . The soft surfaces of the fabric installation provide such a comforting tactile experience that the visuals might seem distorted and monstrous. Oum posits that the real distortion lies in our prioritization of seeing above all other senses, in the default ableism of art as visual.

“Audience members were really touching him. There’s a sign saying you can, and it’s very unusual. People seem really excited about the invitation,” says Kerryn Greenberg, who curated the 14th edition of Asia’s fourth longest-running biennial under the artistic direction of Sook-Kyung Lee and assistant curators Sooyoung Leam and Harry CH Choi. . “It’s a real engagement with the way we experience the world and art, it’s not just visual. The work asks the question: how do we navigate the world? How do we give a platform to people who have sailed differently than you and I? How do we actually recognize that all of these viewpoints are equally valid and in fact have a legitimate place? That we all have something to learn from each other?

Oum Jeongsoon, elephant without a trunk (2023) Photo: glimworkers

These questions underlie the theme of the Biennale: Soft and weak, like watera characteristic extolled as a virtue by the ancient Chinese philosophical text. “The show doesn’t seem to be about politics, but many of the works are deeply political, but not overtly,” Greenberg says. The subject “signifies a sensibility and sensibility in the work that belies political power. Artists don’t need to shout from the rooftops, post protest signs. He can be political in a gentle and benevolent way. Politics has largely failed us, giving us the opportunity to reimagine the world and come up with a different set of solutions,” drawing on age-old and indigenous ideas that are “collaborative and regenerative.”

Disability perspectives

Inaugural winner of the biennale’s Park Seo-Bo Prize, Oum placed her work alongside Korean-American deaf artist Christine Sun Kim. Every sign of life (2022) installation and video on counting in American Sign Language. The special space given to the perspectives of people with disabilities is part of the opening section Luminous Halo, which centers the biennial’s existential mandate as a living monument to the democratic spirit of the 1980 Gwangju uprising and massacre. The 79-artist show then delves into the past, present and future with the Ancestral Voices, Transient Sovereignty and Planetary Times sections, as well as an Encounter prelude section with immersive Buhlebezwe Siwani. spirits descend (2022).

“It’s not a touching surface in the spirit of Gwangju, it’s more of an aspiration,” says Lee, senior curator of international art at Tate Modern. “Choose a biennial like [the tragedy’s] the legacy is quite honourable. It comes from the way they have appreciated art, for hundreds of years. It is truly a cultural region, known for music, art, theatre.

Chez Christine Sun Kim Every sign of life (2022) Photo: glimworkers

The tragedy

The Gwangju uprising, part of a succession of violently suppressed uprisings against brutal American-backed anti-communist dictators, was a watershed moment in South Korea’s history. The fall of South Vietnam in 1975 prompted General Park Chung-hee to shut down universities and ban 483 “unhealthy” songs. Following Park’s assassination in 1979 and a coup that installed Chun Doo-Hwan as dictator, new student protests broke out in South Korea in the spring of 1980. In Gwangju, lines Telephone lines were cut off as soldiers began indiscriminately pulling people from buses and taxis to detain them, beatings, torture and bayonets. On May 18, residents of the small town united to fight back, with bus and taxi drivers loading their vehicles into the makeshift barracks of a football stadium.

The military fled, and for a week the residents of Gwangju enjoyed an unusual degree of self-contained security and freedom, comparable to the Paris Commune of 1871. On May 27, with the explicit support of the White House of Jimmy Carter, the Chun regime sent 20,000 paratroopers normally stationed in the demilitarized buffer zone with North Korea. They massacred between a hundred and a thousand people.


The opening of the 2023 Gwangju Biennale came shortly after the US-based grandson of Chun Doo-hwan met with survivors of the Gwangju Massacre to apologize for the carnage and clean up the grave of a victim. Jamie Chun Woo-won previously denounced his family and confessed to having mental health and addiction issues on social media. “This very fragile youngster, not even born but knowing his family history of this crime…has found a huge affinity with the people of Gwangju,” Lee said..

Chun Won-woo’s apology has drawn mixed reactions in Korea, but envy in the Philippines and Taiwan, where the son and alleged great-grandson of ousted dictators are now president and mayor, respectively. Along with the Gwangju local government’s establishment of the biennial and a memorial peace prize, the Korean national government issued an apology for the 1988 massacre, and in 2018 a defense minister is excused for the mass rapes during the incident.

“Gwangju has become a clear indicator of people’s position”

“Like everywhere else, Korea is sharply divided between left and right,” Lee says. “Gwangju has become a clear indicator of people’s position.” Downplaying the Gwangju casualties and falsely claiming the uprising was a North Korean plot remains popular on the Korean right.

Korea’s first wife traditionally opens the Gwangju Biennale, but this year first lady Kim Keon-hee was an absentee, replaced by dozens of representatives from the opposition Democratic Party announced to cheers. The Biennale Foundation itself is recovering from a 2021 cloud around former director Sunjung Kim, who tried to restructure and privatize the public foundation and was found guilty by the labor office of workplace harassment. “She interfered significantly with areas [beyond those] delegated to the artistic director”, explains a spokesperson for the foundation.


This year, the biennale has expanded the number of national satellite pavilions – organized by entities such as the National State Museum of China and Israel’s Independent Center for Digital Art Holon – from five to nine. The foundation’s current chairman, Park Yang-woo, said at the opening that the goal was to expand to 20 countries by 2025. Dusu Choi, head of the biennale’s exhibition team, said the program was in a “continuing experimental phase” largely organized by “the respective embassies”. or cultural centers in Korea”, a practice that the biennale intends to keep flexible.

“To observe and see the spirit of Gwangju from different angles, more discourses and cultural stories need to be discussed,” Choi says, even if it involves state entities of autocracies. “Instead of seeking mere harmony, the Gwangju Biennale is gearing up to become a place where issues and discourses are generated through joint discussions… The spirit of Gwangju is a concept that is difficult to define in one way .”

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