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May 9, 2014 6:58 pm
Minouk Lim is a brave woman. At the opening in September of the Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, Asia’s biggest biennale, she will be responsible for a battered 6m x 3m x 3m container that will be positioned outside the event’s huge windowless halls. Inside the container will be the remains of some of the civilians killed in the Korean war of 1950-1953 – the bones of near history. These particular remains were left in a cobalt quarry in Gyeongsan-si.
In a country where the media is subdued – and some might say government-controlled – Lim’s dramatic gesture may seem provocative.
“People think that by ignoring the past they can move into the future,” says the Seoul-based artist. “But this action is also about hospitality. I’m asking Gwangju to be open and welcome another story.”
Gwangju carries its own burden of grief. The biennale might exhibit the usual characteristics of a circus coming to town, as artists, collectors, advisers, dealers and their dancing attendants attend overblown parties, but it’s also an act of remembrance. The city was the site of the first civil uprising, in May 1980, against South Korea’s military dictatorship that, seven years later, led to the country’s first civilian leadership since its creation in 1948. In 1995, the biennale was devised to honour the 200 or more people who were lost in the battle in Gwangju 34 years ago.
“I think that memory has been officialised – it’s become superficial and political,” says Lim. She believes that if art is to be used as a salve to the collective consciousness, it should engender discussion and revelation rather than offer an immediate solution. “I don’t want to create tension. I want to create a starting point.”
Once the possible disturbance around Lim’s exhibit has cooled, visitors will find at the biennale the work of 105 other artists from around the world, with some 20 from South Korea itself. This year – the 10th edition – is directed by Jessica Morgan, the 45-year-old Daskalopoulos curator at Tate Modern.
Morgan’s job at Tate is a kind of curatorial public-private partnership funded by the Greek D Daskalopoulos Foundation which enables her to travel the world to help dispel the western stranglehold over modern and contemporary art. She collects for Tate in the Middle East, from Morocco to Iran and into south Asia, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan. After the biennale she will turn her attention to a Tate show called The World Goes Pop. “It’s looking at pop but outside the US and the UK,” explains Morgan. “In eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America.”
This determined globalism is reflected in her selection of artists for Gwangju, assembled under the title Burning Down the House. Taken from the Talking Heads song, the title could suggest both destruction and renewal.
“I was very consciously making an exhibition about what’s not been seen here before,” says Morgan of working in Gwangju. “And I was trying to think what is meaningful to show in Korea now.”
For all that the biennale has a critical international reach, only 12 per cent of its visitors have in the past come from outside South Korea. Nearly half are local to Gwangju, a small city of only 1.4m people. Bearing in mind the country’s political situation – South Korea’s first female president, Park Geun-hye, is right of centre – such “meaningful” pieces could include South African artist Jane Alexander’s rare new installation questioning state control and individual freedom. And Edward and Nancy Kienholz’s dark military-looking figures on a mirrored surface that aims to reflect local opinion.
“Each figure has a sign on its head saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’. But before we install it, we go out into the street and ask people if they support their government or not. Knowing Gwangju, it will be ‘no’,” explains Morgan.
Among the exhibits, which include 36 new commissions, there is plenty of painting and an abundance of narrative and realism.
“I’ve recently developed quite an aversion to abstraction,” says Morgan. “We, I mean Tate, somehow bought in to this idea that there was a point in the early 20th century where you either chose abstraction or realism. And it was political: one was the west and the other was the communist east, with an absurd idea that one was more progressive than the other. Abstraction is now a market-driven thing taken to its own point of meaninglessness. We need to go back to what the figure is, the image and storytelling. It’s important because it’s often the way in for people.”
This view is made flesh in the punishing performance work of Lee Bul – pieces the Korean artist has not recreated since the 1980s – that involve excruciating episodes of self-torture, reflecting the brutality of the times in which they were conceived. And in a section dedicated to gender and sexuality, where Carlos Motta’s recent documentary on gay and transgendered people in Seoul might cause ripples.
There are big names too: Jeremy Deller will be creating flags outside; Carsten Höller and Urs Fischer will be given plenty of room inside. Puerto Rico-based Allora & Calzadilla return for the third time with a performance they will teach to people from Gwangju who work with their hands, from masseurs to bricklayers – you could call it art world glocal.
On the day we met, Morgan found out she wouldn’t be presenting a work by Mona Hatoum she had hoped to weave into her biennale. The other no-show is a Catalan celebrity – long dead but still capable of causing a commotion. Morgan tried, but failed, to borrow Picasso’s 1951 “Massacre in Korea” from the Musée Picasso in Paris (the museum, only recently reopened, felt it was too soon to let such a key work go). “Nominally Picasso was a communist, and if one thing is outlawed in South Korea, it’s communism,” says Morgan. “I still want the work in there in some form, but maybe if it’s not the original it won’t cause such a storm.”
The Gwangju Biennale opens on September 5, gwangjubiennale.org
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