Biennial Exhibitions News USA

Korean biennial all fired up for tenth anniversary

Gwangju Biennale’s director aims to reflect country’s “incredible engagement with the future”

Gwangju's 8,100 sq. m Biennale Hall in Jungoui Park

“Burning Down the House” is the title of the tenth Gwangju Biennale in South Korea (5 September-9 November). But this show is going to conjure up more than the hedonism of the Talking Heads song from which it takes its name.

“Anybody who is invited to do a project in Gwangju cannot ignore the history of the city and its role in the democracy movement in Korea,” says Jessica Morgan, the artistic director of the biennial, referring to the fact that the exhibition was started to commemorate the victims of the 1980 civil uprising in Gwangju. She realised that the biennial also needed to include reflection on the whole country “and the often quite violent” developments that have taken place there. “Korea has experienced a very rapid process of change: periods of occupation, different interest groups from other nations—America being the most recent—and the economic growth that has taken place in the past few decades,” Morgan says.

It is a story of destruction as much as of renewal. “When you burn something down, you can move on to the next thing. You destroy something in order to be free of it,” Morgan says. In the West, people are often looking back, reflecting on and mourning the past. “Much of the art being produced in Europe and North America is almost like a paean to the 20th century, whereas in Korea and Asia, there is an incredible engagement with the future.”

In choosing the works for the biennial, Morgan, who is also the Daskalopoulos curator of international art at the Tate Modern, wants to illustrate the dialectic of burning and transformation, including live performance and dance, which gesture towards the song title and “the idea of the dance floor and what happens in this kind of exuberant space”.

Around 100 international artists have been invited to the event, the majority Korean (the full list will be revealed in May). The works, which will be exhibited within the biennial park, “already an enormous site”, will include between 20 and 30 new commissions.

The Gwangju Biennale, held in the city’s Jungoe Park, is the oldest and most prestigious exhibition in Asia. Artistic directors have included Harald Szeemann (1997), Okwui Enwezor (2008) and Massimiliano Gioni (2010). One reason the biennial is able to attract such stars of the art world is the autonomy they are given. “The freedom of authorship is quite incredible,” Morgan says. “It’s very much a carte blanche in terms of how you want to develop your idea. I can’t say that I’ve ever worked for any institution where there has been so much licence for giving you room for ideas and approaches.”

This year’s tenth anniversary of the biennial will be commemorated with a parallel exhibition at the Gwangju Museum of Art.

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