Friday, September 3, 2010

8th Gwangju Biennale's humanism strikes heart, history

``Visible World’’ by Peter Fischli and David Weiss is among works featured at the 8th Gwangju Biennale,ongoing through Nov. 7. The artwork features 3,000 small photographs, laid out across 15 light tables.
/ Korea Times photos by Ines Min

GWANGJU ― This is going to take all day.

Five massive (though well organized) galleries, plus a national and folk museum. Indeed, this particular art event is one that takes a bit of stamina ― which is the whole point.

The 8th Gwangju Biennale opened Friday to a waiting world of artists, curators, aficionados and local residents, curious about this year’s exhibition halls and museums, each transformed by the thousands of works contained within. More than 9,000 images by 134 artists from 30 countries are on display at this year’s extravaganza.

Artistic director Massimiliano Gioni ― of the Nicola Trussardi Foundation in Milan, a nonprofit group that seeks to diffuse contemporary art within the public ― this year turned heads with a biennale concept that stunned. Gone are the installations of mostly brand-new artwork, still sleek with shine from a last gloss, and with the optimistic-cynical-etcetera vision of a future so wide open, the 2008 biennale operated under no unifying theme at all.

Under the theme ``10,000 Lives,’’ this year's event dives headfirst into an analysis of man, traversing the psychological and emotional grooves that constitute people’s relationship with ― what else ― images. The concept was taken from Korean author Ko Un’s 30-volume epic poem, ``Maninbo’’ (10,000 Lives), a collection of descriptions for every person Ko had met in his life that he wrote while imprisoned as a participant of the 1980 Gwangju democratization movement.

Since the beginning of the year and the theme’s unveiling, a key ― anxiety-inciting ― word for the biennale has been ``museum.’’ Rather than stand as an agglomeration of new art, Gioni worked to amass an impressive collection of images, homage and memories to people and the ones they loved, providing a telling glimpse of our need to create effigies in our image. Initially a hard theme to swallow, the director’s vision truly stuns in its strength and clarity, though that does not mean hours (upon hours) on end will not be needed to explore the riches of this show.

Around the exhibition

The opening hall focusing on representation of figures directly confronts the subject of the host city, as this year’s biennale falls on the 30th anniversary of the Gwangju massacre. Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic quietly invades the senses with 10 performers, who hum the marching anthem of the movement from three decades ago. Surrounding the scene are images of the victims as gathered for family members, yet with one oddity and change: Ivekovic has altered the photos to close all of their eyes, in a haunting yet peaceful closure of the tragedy.

Swiftly following is a piece by Franco Vaccari that invites visitors to take a self-portrait in an old-fashioned photo booth and hang the strips of four onto the wall, in an ever-growing collection of visitors, capturing the fleeting moment. 

Gallery 2 explores the world of imagery through two contrary forces, optical illusions and scientific approach. Work by Thomas Bayrle, an influential German pop artist, provides intricate trickery by depicting figures in bold, illusory patterns.

Gallery 3 takes on the world of heroes and martyrs, and hosts the notable ``Rent Collection Courtyard,’’ or more than 100 life-sized farmers caught as victims of exploitation by wealthy landowner Liu Wen-tsai. The figures look entirely capable of movement, as if simply waiting for visitors to turn their back to resume their pleading.

Gallery 4 is filled with a range of religious icons, fetishes ― Korean Ham Yang-ah’s video features a group sensually caressing a bust made of chocolate ― while an innovative performance piece Tino Sehgal features performance artists writhing on the floor in steady, smooth and robotic action (coming from rooms filled with the robotic and false bodies, the effect is surprisingly convincing). 

The final gallery focuses on idiosyncratic perspectives of TV and film, and the exhibition, which continues to the Gwangju Museum of Art and Gwangju Folk Museum, tackles more themes such as self-portraiture through Roni Horn’s photographic takes on her own androgyny.

But there are multitudes more to see beyond these few names, including the likes of Evan Walker, personal collections by Andy Warhol, the unexpected artist James Castle and more. By the end of the biennale, visitors are left with a feeling of strangely satisfying exhaustion, as walking along the corridors of 110 years of art (the earliest photograph dates to 1901) is an experience more emotionally trying than just historically ambitious.

``Images are the children of nostalgia,’’ Gioni told reporters, Thursday at the biennale. ``We make them because we miss somebody. So yes, the show is elegiac, it’s an exhibition about losing somebody and the struggle of not wanting to let go and wanting to fight time…The tonality is maybe quite somber, but I think even in the quantity there’s a sense of effervescence.’’ 

The final result of the show ― which acts simultaneously as an exposition of human nature and a thesis, complete with evidence and proofs ― is thoughtful introspection that points toward the paradoxical desires and weaknesses of man. As ephemeral life can be and as great the fear of mortality, it is exactly those traits that drives individuals to create images, a sense of compassion serving as the savior from death through the simple ability to remember each other.

So yes, perhaps this exhibition will take all day, or several... but there are 10,000 lives in there.

The 2010 Gwangju Biennale runs through Nov. 7. Single-day adult tickets are 14,000 won, 3,000 won for children. For more information on directions and the show, visit

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