Although Gwangju Biennale curators resisted pinning down any one theme for the works selected for this year's event, a great deal of the works seemed politically charged. It is not surprising that one of Korea's largest international events should take this form, since the Biennale is held in a city most famous for its history of revolt. In 1980, student demonstrations in Gwangju against a newly instated military government met violent suppression. These initially peaceful demonstrations erupted into full out insurrection as armed citizens forced troops out of Gwangju city limits. Although national military quickly regained control of the city, Gwangju is remembered today as "the shrine of Korean democracy".
Shades of this legacy were present in the often socially conscious artwork at 2008's Gwangju Biennale, which featured 127 artists from 36 countries. Entering the first room, an apocalyptic nightmare by Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla set the tone for the event. Sediments, Sentiments (Figures of Speech), an intimidating grey mass constructed of foam and plaster, "was conceived of as a model of some future disaster - broken planes, masses of geological or rocklike forms, and subterranean tunnels suggest the aftermath of an explosion or a natural cataclysm." Inside these tunnels lay several singers, playing the roles of various world leaders and luminaries. Operatic in tenor and archaic in dialect, the words of each actor were unclear even from a short distance; the tunnels muffled the sound of each voice, which was competing with every other voice for attention. As a result, a single voice gained force only as part of a whole. Just as the disfigured sculpture groped confusedly out into space with no clear order or purpose, the voice of each individual singer was meaningless, gaining power only as part of one anxious, teeming mass.
(More on the Biennale below the fold)
Given the highly formal stage and score of Sediments, one would expect the actors to dress the part, but this was not the case. The strange wails echoing throughout the room were produced by a man in jeans and sneakers, resting his head on a plastic water bottle; or by a woman in strappy high heels, eventually descending awkwardly from the plaster mound. Though perhaps unintentional, this non-sequitur resonated with themes of surrounding works. Surprisingly often, artists focused on the commonplace, the informal and the unimportant. These sentiments often seemed to spring from democratic urges. As the entire exhibition was self-consciously a product of and response to globalization, artists sought out the rural, out of step values hidden in the cracks and edges of society, occasionally turning a critical eye to the powers that be.
Daniel Faust's series of photographs, Alaska, epitomizes the apolitical side of this tendency. Taken during a trip through Alaska, Faust chooses to depict "things that have become invisible to the people among whom they exist.... There is nothing extraordinary here - just that the artist saw it." Weathered truck beds and cracked lead paint surround Faust's folk and grant a warm homage to the common. In a similar but more cynical vein, Area Park's photograph Brad's Day Out with Brad's Friend, perhaps my favorite photograph of the Biennale, places two young men in an abandoned room in front of a large, knocked-in portion of wall. Outside, one finds a grey landscape overlooking a dusty courtyard where two crumbling statues stand. Inside, one finds a subtly characterized portrait of slow-aging unawareness, evoking a dread against ennui which nearly sent me into a panic attack. A bitter outlook on the world which produces such a scene looms silently in the distance.
For the most part, however, Park's photographs address outrage more explicitly. Park's excellent series of Korea's demilitarized zone is valuable both as a rare documentary and as an unsettling reminder of Korea's divided state. Another nearly metaphysical series of Korean protestors pushes Park's stance further toward the radical. One photograph depicts old women with face masks pumping their fists, ducking beneath the force of police shields carried by soldiers wearing gas masks. This brand of radicalism met many peers in the Biennale's halls. From a documentary on striking workers to an expose of Bush administration cover ups, the eclectic works featured often tended toward social commentary, even if only implicitly at times.
Photographs of Sediments by Robert Johnson, reproduction of Brad's Day Out courtesy of the artist and Gwangju staff. Special thanks to James for making my trip possible.