Gwangju's art biennale is all fired up

The Gwangju Biennale's burning theme is both a nod to the South Korean city's turbulent past and a positive sign of the art event's future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 August, 2014, 6:25am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 August, 2014, 8:45am

In 2003, Chinese artist Geng Jianyi asked his friends to give him stuff they considered to be rubbish. He got boxes of ripped sneakers, a number of tatty office chairs, broken hi-fi speakers and other odd things, a selection of which he proceeded, over the following year, to lay out neatly on white square podiums as if they were the most valuable display objects in a designer fashion arena.

He titled it Useless, displayed it in 2004 as an art installation, and for its 10th anniversary this year this collection of used and "useless" objects is one of the headline exhibits in the Gwangju Biennale, opening next month. "Of course the point being that a few decades before, they probably would hardly have given him anything because the idea of redundancy of materials has changed so swiftly," says Jessica Morgan, curator of this year's edition. "Suddenly an item that would previously have been used until it fell apart - and even then it might have been recycled to become something else - is now trash as soon as it's got a small hole in it."

The Gwangju Biennale - one of the biggest and most significant contemporary art exhibitions in the region - is entering its 10th manifestation. Although many people outside South Korea might not have heard of it, this show, held every two years in five massive halls in a stark white conference complex in the southernmost tip of the country, is in terms of visitor numbers, the biggest biennial art show in the world.

With up to 800,000 visitors expected over two months, it's almost twice the size of the much more famous Venice Biennale, which last year attracted 425,000 visitors over a longer summer period. Yet with most (around 80 per cent) visitors coming from within South Korea, the southern city of Gwangju is still less famous internationally for its art show than for the democratisation movement that in 1980 took its name.

Gwangju was, in many ways, South Korea's Tiananmen: students and young people protesting, violent retaliations all leading, arguably, to a long-term shift in government policy. However, although Morgan says "anyone who works on the biennial has to be aware of the incredibly important context of the uprising", when she signed on as curator in May last year she was aware that anything she did and chose "had to be about now, it can't just be about the past … it was about thinking about what's happening in Korea now and the incredible pace of change, which has a positive as well as a negative side."

And although she is from Britain, Morgan has a personal understanding of the issues of rapid industrialisation: "My family is Irish and if I look at Ireland it has the same feeling of overnight transformation, but everywhere there are consequences."

Morgan, who has been a curator at the Tate in London since 2002, once organised an exhibition in Iceland for 40 artists before the financial crash ("and we had this incredible opening where we went in small planes around the country), but the South Korean show is off the scale in terms of comparisons, not least because of the new work made specially for the show.

"For some reason I went into this project thinking I wouldn't have very many commissions, and I have come out with 35 new projects," the curator says. Most art biennales today are about trying to capture a state of the art right now, with only new work shown. But Morgan was greatly affected by the Documenta X show in Kassel, Germany, in the 1990s, in which older work was also on display "and you could take a new look at the past". (Documenta is a large-scale contemporary art event that takes place every five years.)

So as she prepared for the biggest art show in the world, she also wanted to include work by French 1950s artist Yves Klein, and coloured fluorescent light artist Dan Flavin (whose installations are getting harder to show as fluorescent bulbs are almost impossible to source).

The theme for 2014 is "Burning Down the House", the title of a 1983 song by American band Talking Heads. Since she heard it as a teenager, Morgan had always been struck not only by the violence of the image, but also somehow of the necessity of it, as if things had to burn in order for change to occur.

For some reason I went into this project thinking I wouldn’t have very many commissions, and I have come out with 35 new projects

"When I announced the title to the mayor and others in Gwangju, their first reaction was 'Oh my goodness Gwangju is burning again'," she says. "They are familiar with the idea of the conflagration of the city. The title is pan-cultural as everyone has a fascination with fire and burning. It could be rooted in a more agricultural situation - burning is used to clear crops, so it's a necessary part of the yearly cycle. What interested me is how it can be celebration, destruction or protest. It can be ritualistic and dangerous. Or it can be about cooking."

The show does not actually have much actual fire: just a 1994 work by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson that shows a blue circle of fire from natural gas, titled No nights in summer, no days in winter (seen on the cover of The Review). "Not that I wanted to shy away from it, but I was keen to limit the number of literally burned objects. Even the best metaphor has its limits: you can't be encountering the same symbols wherever you go."

Instead she explored some of the different things "Burning Down the House" could suggest. One section grapples with the mindset that's been part of developing South Korea so rapidly, including works by South Korean Paris-based artist Seulgi Lee, who plays with the motifs of traditional Korean blankets, once made by hand.

On a similar theme, a performance piece devised by Puerto Rican-based duo Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla involves a line of people welcoming visitors at the door of a gallery, shaking their hands as if they are part of a wedding welcome. They are all volunteers from Gwangju city, working in shifts, and most importantly they are all people who work with their hands.

Other works, such as Geng's Useless, are about how we need to let go if we are going to move forward. This element is particularly dear to Morgan's heart. "I'm a very keen cleaner. I have a very minimal home. Possessions make me rather nervous. We've never had a car for example. It makes me feel positively ill, the idea of it."

This trait can be quite tough for her family, "as I'm always getting rid of their things too. Occasionally we have regretted it, but I think it's all for the better, really."

Other sections are dedicated to the notion of "house". Often this is a metaphorical house to be burned, which can be anything from an institution to aspects of identity or sexuality. So there are works from South Korea and the US looking at women and the labour movement; and a collection of 1930s photographs by the gay Dutch/Sinhalese lawyer and concert pianist Lionel Wendt in Sri Lanka, who specialised in taking pictures of beautiful men.

For other sections of the exhibition, the element of "house" is - almost - literal. So one hall is dedicated to a specially commissioned recreation of the apartment of Swiss-born New York artist Urs Fischer. Instead of seeing the physical objects in the rooms, you see flat renditions of them as wallpaper, as part of the walls.

"He has an incredibly packed house filled with art and objects and things piled up," Morgan says. "Toys are lying around and there are cats and dogs … it's a very animated environment."

A metaphorical house she is burning herself is the tradition in the biennial art world of producing the full catalogue several months before the show opens, even though many of the installations have yet to be constructed. Instead there will be a small guide produced in advance, then a second one photographed and written up when everything is in situ after the opening. "I was researching different exhibitions, from Malaysia to Gwangju, and it became more and more apparent that I was looking at something that bore no relationship whatsoever to what the show actually looked like. I realised the real exhibition existed only in the imagination and the memory of those who attended it," Morgan says.

"I wanted to do better than that."


The Gwangju Biennale runs from Sep 5 to Nov 9. For more details, go to