Review: Gwangju Biennale

Gwangju Biennale, September 3 – November 7, 2010
This year’s Gwangju Biennale curated by Massimilliano Gioni entitled 10,000 LIVES is an excellent example of good curating—some might say even too good. If you were lucky enough to have seen it, you would have been treated to excellent works of art, and a compelling narrative embedded in the exhibition. Gioni’s layout of the exhibit, in part organized to commemorate the 1980 massacre of South Korean civilians in Gwangju by the then reigning military junta, leads the viewer through a maze of emotions and expositions related to politics, society, mourning and comfort. Before getting past the third room this was clearly going to be an experience that would push towards something definitive, for each viewer, in both context and content.
Upon entering the exhibition, Gioni sets the viewer up for his narrative by leading with Kim SangGil’s seemingly benign, but fundamentally disturbing photographs of online communities, offline. This work is followed by Bruce Nauman’s Poke in the Eye/Nose/Ear 3/8/94 Edit. At this early point it was very unclear, nearly confusing, where Gioni was heading, as these two works did not make that much sense together. But upon entering the third room Gioni’s narrative began to unfold beautifully. The show was moving and gripping, with each floor of the Biennale Hall so well arranged around one theme, succeeded by another: death, witnessing, mourning, burial, the body, waking, fallen heroes, innocent victims, worship, memorial, the tactile, stand-ins, comfort and surrealism.

Some could argue against Gioni’s tight control of the exhibition, and purposeful ordering in the Biennale Hall, but frankly what is a curator for if not to arrange an exhibition’s narrative. The problem for some could have been Gioni’s totalizing approach, which in many ways was refreshing and simultaneously disturbing. I found myself looking for slippage and at first found none. In the end my main criticism is that some of Gioni’s choices were cliché. Especially in the Gwangju Museum of Art, even if they did have a part in the overall narrative, works such as Garden Dead Men by Paul McCarthy and those of Dieter Roth and Andy Warhol in particular felt as though they were simply included for name recognition. That Roth and Warhol were stuck in the back of an initially disturbing collection of works in the Gwangju Museum of Art but ended up feeling a bit like afterthoughts.
In his opening statement included in the guidebook Gioni speaks to the flood of images that inundate us everyday. Here was slippage in terms of analysis. Gioni’s idea would have been more effective if there were actually a critique. Instead the viewer is forced to look at two project of totalizing scale in particular, that in the end, only provide the viewer with the nauseating feeling of will this ever end? The exhibition’s simultaneous imperatives—one exposition, an examining without critique the torrent of images and the other akin to the processing of grief—work at cross purposes.

The complexity of images begs for some kind of rigor in examination, while we know that the process of life or processing of living is not so easily experienced as explained, it does not preclude that images in that process can be analogous and/or critical. The exhibit taps into the potential of a distinctly bicameral experience. Yet akin to Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland, the end results reflect one imperative as intellectual and the other more palpable—describing life as all tumult and mystery and in the other case a logical and order stream of information. Yet life is by far messier. And although the exhibition allows for that kind of self-consciousness in tandem with more visceral experiences, still they remain separate.

That this endeavor is resting on the memory of one of the more terrible moments in modern history is also something for consideration. In light of the exhibitions reason d’être it is important to keep in mind the significance of that event, which I realize makes it sound like what happened is settled, but for the people of Gwangju and many Koreans the massacre stands as a testimony to how far there is to go for equality and transparency. In any case this biennale functions as a monument to trauma and grief as well as the need for outlets and expressions of that and all the other injustices and cowardly acts of violence perpetrated on innocents and the opposition, alike. It would have been hard to ignore the overtly political aspects of this show, when in the 3rd room you are confronted with Sanja Ivekovic’s On the Barricades, which was a very direct memorial to the victims and survivors of the massacre.

All exhibits beg the question: what’s the point? Here despite the curatorial feats and foibles, the Gwangju Biennale in the end made one think, and happily or not, that looking is at it’s best is both work and wonder and be glad that there is still the possibility for art to invite discourse on tragedy and terror.

reviewed by Julia Marsh