Whoever wants to find info on the Kwangju Biennale this year has to look a little further towards the front of the telephone book. For Kwangiu, South Korea's fifth largest city, was officially renamed "Gwangju," as this Anglicism presumably reflects the native pronunciation more accurately. Nomen est omen, as they say, and the name is just the beginning of issues under construction in Gwangju.
Since 1995, when the Gwangju Biennale celebrated its debut, its less than perfect management has been no secret among the insiders and art journalists at home and abroad.
The cutbacks in central government funding of regional administrative bodies, initiated in 1997, further worsened the situation, leaving the city of Gwangju with an insufficient budget and consistent frictions with the Seoul authorities.
Charles Esche, director of the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmö, Sweden, and one of the four invited curators for the 2002 biennale, which runs Mar. 29-June 29, described the functioning of the organization with a catchy euphemism: "creative bureaucracy." As if in evidence, a biennale staffer had to be hospitalized from overwork a few days before the opening, and the artists' meeting rooms failed to provide international phone lines or computers with internet access.
Boasting that it is the largest art exposition in Asia, the Gwangju Biennale attracted a sizeable contingent of Japanese journalists and media. This Japanese interest in their neighbors in Korea is new, and can be explained by their co-hosting of this summer's World Cup soccer games. Surely, both soccer and art are competitive games. In fact, the Biennale organizers purposely skipped an extra year between the 1997 and 2000 versions, in the intention to profit from the expected higher number of visitors to Gwangju in 2002.
As we can read in the Gwangju Biennale promotion folder, the makers ordered themselves to take a "P_A_U_S_E" (the underlines are part of the typography), presumably from the frantic speed of Korean life, or perhaps a "pause for thinking." Losing ones way is to find a way, the makers say, and the very task of threading a path through the exhibition and making sense of it all is left for the viewers to discover.
The biennale consists of four projects scattered through the town of Gwangju. The second refused to be numbered and calls itself "There: Sites of Korean Diaspora." This section, together with Project 3, "Stay of Execution," which deals with the mass killing of civilians by the military regime in 1980, reflects upon a critical historical context. Despite grumblings from locals who view Westernized contemporary art as hard to grasp, the outcome is not all that disappointing, and may even be considered serious and thought-provoking in tone.
Led by the artistic director Wan-kyung Sung, who has now served as commissioner for all four Gwangju Biennales, the 2002 version has adopted a thematic approach, in contrast to the previous survey-type exhibitions segmented according to continental regions. Works by 233 participating artists from home and abroad (26 Koreans and 207 international artists) are on view throughout four galleries of the three-story Gwangju Biennale Hall. The hall stands in Joong Oe Park, which is also home to other city-run cultural institutions such as the Gwangju City Folk Museum, the North Korea Exhibition Hall, the Gwangju City Museum and outdoor performance theatres and cultural centers.
As if to remind visitors of the hustle and bustle of Asian street markets with exotic goods and lively negotiations, "Pause" is intended to invite the viewers to interact with the works in display. The two organizers, Esche and the Paris-based curator Hou Hanru, have brought together young, independent artists working in Asia and Europe whose art is founded upon a rethinking of U.S. cultural and economic influence.
"There: Sites of Korean Diaspora," on display on the ground level of the Gwangju Biennale Hall, considers the fragile identity of Koreans living in foreign cultures. To illustrate this topic, the Korean-American curator Yong-soon Min, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, chose works by 24 individuals and artists' groups who are of Korean ancestry but born and living outside of Korea, largely in the U.S. This approach only considers a fractional part of the issue, as the Korean diaspora has a long history, dating back to Korea's colonization by ancient China and later Japan as well as the short political influence of Russians during the early 20th century.
To view Projects 3 and 4, a 20-minute bus ride to the May 18th Liberty Park is required, where works by 49 politically engaged Korean artists are on view. In "Project 3: Stay of Execution," the curator Wan-kyung Sung reconstructed a military police camp as it existed on May 18, 1980, the day of a civil uprising against the military regime, in which a still-undisclosed number of civilians were killed. One of the founders of the Minjoong ("People") Art Movement of the 1980s, Sung includes artists from the '80s who primarily use paint as their medium, as well as members of later generations who adopted photography, video, animation and installation. As in Trauerarbeit, as the Germans call their examination of their 20th-century past, Koreans are here called upon to pause and reflect on their painful history.
Native Koreans also can relate to "Project 4: Connection." Architect and professor Guyon Chung chose a deserted railway station located in the south-eastern edge of Gwangju and turned it into a temporary public art space. This railroad once connected Gwangju with Yeosu, the scenic coastal city at the southern tip of the province, and was a symbol for the hopes of industrialization before it was shut down about 10 years ago. Twenty-three participating artists, students and architects have contributed ideas about recycled objects, earth art, outdoor classrooms, bridges and a project for a railway history museum.
For a biennial aiming for international scale, Gwangju in 2002 had an organization that was mired in quarrelling and provincial difficulties. However, it attempted bravely to deal with another, more important dispute -- the Korean struggle for self-identity and the attempt at coming to terms with Korean history. South Korea has within half a century developed from one of the poorest countries on the globe to an industrial powerhouse, though at the cost of a military dictatorship lasting for more than 30 years.
Is it a sign of hope that the World Cup soccer games are now hosted shoulder to shoulder with a country which for 36 years was Korea's vicious colonial ruler? A pause for thinking and reflection is indeed needed. In the midst of all that, the locals take this Biennale more as a community event, with families and friends visiting and idly strolling between the blossoming cherry trees in Joong Oe Park. And some of them indeed P_A_U_S_E in front of the artworks.
JINA PARK is a freelance journalist writing about art and design based in Vienna.