Falling in art at the 2012 Gwangju Biennale “Round Table”

Written by on September 26, 2012 in Arts, Travel

Every two years, I make a pilgrimage down to the city of Gwangju to catch the Gwangju Biennale, the biggest art exhibition in Korea of international contemporary art. I have only missed it twice since its inauguration in 1995 and although not all of the seasons have impressed me equally, I have never regretted going.

In its 9th season, this year’s theme is “Round Table”. Without any prior information or knowledge of the deeper meaning of this theme, the first thing that came into my mind was King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. My answer confused the docent who asked the question – I eavesdropped on a tour group – because, obviously, the theme had absolutely nothing to do with King Arthur.

Gwangju Biennale Hall is always a welcome sight

What “Round Table” does signify, though, is the collaboration and discussion between the six international art directors who fronted this biennale: Nancy Adajania, Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Mami Kataoka, Sunjung Kim, Carol Yinghua Lu, and Alia Swastika. Each director took on a sub-theme which was presented in a non-linear approach – like a round table, in fact, where there are no visible margins, where everything can be and is connected. The sub-themes encompassed spheres from the very individual to the collective, touching upon personal experiences, history, transiency, political and social narratives, space and time.

Docent explaining the photography of Noh Suntag

The exhibition is a collection of art work from all genres: paintings, sculptures, installation, photography, video, short films, performance, the written art, and multimedia. I’m not going to analyze and dissect the whole exhibition. After all, I’m not an art expert; I’m just an ordinary art fan. My impressions can be nothing but very personal. Some art works speak to me louder than others. For example, the abundance of short films and video work made me very happy, despite their taking up much time to fully appreciate.
Some of the art work which I found quite impressive:

Scenes from Faycal Baghriche’s “The Message Project”

Faycal Baghriche’s “The Message Project”, a bilingual film depicting the birth of Islam with both Arab and Hollywood actors is edited seamlessly, jumping from one language to another in such a smooth flow that you forget you are listening to two different languages.

Ana Husman’s “The Market”

The real sounds, vibrant colors, and fast motion time-lapse effect of Ana Husman’s “The Market”was captivating; you could feel the busy vibe of the vegetable markets in Zagreb, Croatia as if you were there. You can also hear the disquiet in the voice-overs of the people in the market as they discuss produce. The “ordinariness” of the market is caught in an extraordinary, yet un-preaching way.

“Rehearsal for a Reunion” by Simon Fujiwara

“Rehearsal for a Reunion (with the Father of Pottery)” is only snippet of work from London based artist Simon Fujiwara. The discussion that takes place between two people in deciding whether to destroy valuable pieces of pottery was fascinating to watch.

Jun Yang’s “Seoul Fiction

Jun Yang’s short film, shown on a screen between “apartment building” props that were used in the film deals with the issues of family and the rapid urbanization Korea is going through. Watching the film while being in the film, in a way, is quite an interesting sensation.

Sara Nuytemans’ “Observatory of the Self 2.2”

I take a lot of self portraits; mostly because I like wandering about alone and do not want to bother others to take my photograph, but also because I like taking self portraits of my reflection in mirrors. I like to seize the image of myself the way I see it, from my perspective, as if it were the only “true” image of me that can be portrayed.
Sara Nuyteman also like using mirrors for her portrayal of self, but on a totally different level. (Which is why she is an artist and I am not.) She is the center in the circling of her reflections, as the sun is to the planets; contemplation of the self cannot be avoided in whatever circumstance.

Do Ho Suh’s “In Between Hotel”

Perhaps the most talked about work of this year’s biennale, Do Ho Suh’s “In Between Hotel” is a miniscule single room “hotel” in a truck which can be driven and installed in small vacant spaces, i.e. “in between”. In October and November, the hotel will be moved to various locations within the city of Gwangju where visitors can actually stay. The organizers are taking applications for those who are interested and will go through a screening process before selecting the lucky participants.

Caught in motion: Maki Toshima’s “Casket of Tsukuyomi”

There were sculptures and installation pieces which caught my eye. Maki Toshima’s “Casket of Tsukuyomi” brought light, sound, and sculpture together, creating a mesmerizing effect of moving shadows.

Part of “Witch Hunt” by Delaine Le Bas

I found Delaine Le Bas’s “Witch Hunt”, which explores mythology in the Gypsy community, visually disturbing.

“Conjurer” by Benjamin Armstrong

The natural feel of Benjamin Armstrong’s sculptures which resemble vegetable and roots – I immediately thought carrots and ginseng – is almost organic.

From Tu Wei-Cheng’s “Optical Trick Museum”

Tu Wei-Cheng’s work is so beautiful, the mixture between the antique and the modern. (I wish my camera had been sensitive enough to catch the video image.) His work reminded me of Nam June Paik, but with a different attitude. He employs Morse code to “translate” a poem he wrote about Gwangju and puts images of nostalgia into his work which blend together harmoniously.

“Welcome to Xijing”’s boarding gate

Xijing Men, the artistic trio of Chen Shaozxiong, Gim Hongsok, and Tuyoshi Ozawa, respectively from China, Korea, and Japan, have created a boarding gate to simulate “crossing the borders”. The password to get past “immigration” is a smile; it is only after you have entered which you can see their art work and videos inside.

The Gwangju shoe from Agung Kurniawan’s “The Shoes Diary”

How can we forget? Gwangju Biennale was founded in 1995 to commemorate Korea’s 50th year of independence and also remember the spirit of the Gwangju Democratization Movement in 1980. The citizens of Gwangju came together to protest against dictatorship, and the uprising ended with many fatalities.
Agung Kurniawan’s project “The Shoes Diary: Adidas Tragedy” depicting political and social tragedies with uncomfortable started with his homeland of Indonesia. His project was extended to various cities with similar tragic histories, and it is of course essential that he had Gwangju to be a part of his project. The display is quite jarring because it is in the concept of a commercial shoe store; you can try on the tragic stories and feel for yourself.

“Black Hawk Down” by Noh Suntag

The Gwangju Democratization Movement shows up again, this time in the photos of Noh Suntag. Noh has the approach of a photo journalist: no frills. A large selection of his work is being shown, most notably a series that pays tribute to the victims of the massacre in 1980. It is haunting, like the two words in the photo above: “Breath” and “End”.

From the “Glocal Site” series by Lee Jeonglok

Among the many photographs on display, I found the “Glocal Site” series taken by Korean photographer Lee Jeonglok the most striking. The photos are of houses and buildings in the same architectural style: metal container boxes, westernized Korean country houses, or houses and buildings with traditional roof eaves. The photos are blunt, raw, as is, and simply true. Which make them more compelling.

Media tables with laptops make you spend hours and hours

In addition to all the art displays, there were places to sit and reflect. I spent a lot of time in front of the computers listening to experts explaining various works of art. (I listened to everything in English and am not sure if Korean was available.)

A resting place to read poetry

I also spent some time reading poetry by the Chinese poet Han Dong. I didn’t quite know how to take this, poetry in an art exhibit; is poetry so detached from everyday life that it has to be presented to us as art? Han Dong gave a live poetry reading at the beginning of the biennale but does that constitute as art? Or is this simply another method for the poet to reach the public?
From what I read, I did like his poetry and plan to read more of his work.

Part of Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev’s work from Kyrgzstan

Sometimes I wish the people who decide to participate in interactive art work would do so with more sincerity. Although I liked the graffiti aspect of this project, I wished that it wasn’t only stressed out teenagers who took their time to leave their marks. Or perhaps that is what the art work is really trying to convey: we are all filled with banal thoughts.

Become a part of the artwork. From xurban_collective’s “Evacuation Series’

My preferred kind of participation: be in the image. I tried to follow the footsteps in the alongside video, but those discs were slippery and shoes had to be removed before being allowed in the installation. I was surprised that no one else bothered to play around as I did. Come on, art exhibits aren’t always about being dead serious and proper.
The above art works weren’t the only ones that left an impression; some were impossible to photograph, some I didn’t want to photograph as they were too multi-dimensional to be captured in still film, and considering that I took about several hundred photographs, I really can’t show them all. Among the ones not shown, the multimedia project “Home” by Craig Walsh and Hiromi Tango, the film “The Obscure” by Lü Yue were two of my favorites.

Chinese contemporary art at the Gwangju Museum of Art

Alongside the exhibition at the main hall, the special exhibition, a selection of work from notable Chinese contemporary artists is being displayed at the nearby Gwangju Museum of Art. It’s a quick brisk walk from the Biennale Hall, and if you have more time, a visit to the Gwangju Folk Museum on the way is also quite interesting.

People in the plaza can be a work of art, too

After an initial viewing of this year’s biennale, my favorite still remains the 4th biennale “PAUSE” in 2002. I found this year much more interesting than the previous one in 2010. However, although I wasn’t expecting a completely literal interpretation, I did wish the theme of “Round Table” had been more prominent, especially in the aspect of discussion, communication, or interactivity with the public, whether in the artwork or in the way it was presented.
Despite the theme being presented as a conversational interaction between the co-artistic-directors, I felt the conversation was too exclusive, a conversation too much between the directors themselves, rather than engaging the non-expert public in an inclusive conversation. When you have to read additional explanatory spiels of art jargon to grasp an idea of the concept behind the artwork instead of letting the art talk for itself, you’re not letting art be understood in a straightforward manner, hence giving the impression that contemporary art is “difficult”.
Despite this small grievance, I’m definitely going back a couple more times to see every single short film, stare for hours at my favorite pieces, and also make a visit to the other locations. I spent a full seven hours at the exhibition, yet I couldn’t take in all that I wanted to – it is a huge exhibition – and if you’re as attentive as I am, a day will not be enough. I got myself a full season pass ticket. After all, I have to wait another two years and it has to hold me until then.

The exhibition is being held at the Gwangju Biennale Hall and other locations throughout the city of Gwangju, such as the traditional Daein Market and the Temple Mugak-sa.

Gwangju Biennale “Round Table”
September 7th, 2012 ~ November 11th, 2012
9:00 am ~ 6:00 pm
(Open every day, ticketing hours 30 minutes earlier than above time)
For group reservations or English docent tours, check out the official site:

* Details and photos of all art work are available at the official site

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul