An Alien Echo at the Gwangju Biennale

Sopheap Pich, "The Dance (La Danse)," 2022 (installation view). Courtesy the artist and Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo: glimworkers.

I arrived at the 14th Gwangju Biennale intrigued but skeptical about its goals. This year’s title is Soft and Weak Like Water, an aphorism from the Dao De Jing that suggests how something infinitely‎ yielding, a trickle of water, will patiently carve the most obdurate stone. The exhibition invites us to “imagine our shared planet as a site of resistance, coexistence, solidarity and care” by privileging “ancestral and indigenous” knowledge. It invites consideration of marginalized perspectives as a challenge to “modernist, often Western, colonial” ones. Water, as physical material or ‎as a metaphor for strength through weakness, unites the galleries and pavilion spaces.

The themes are familiar. The title evokes the New Museum’s 2021 triennial, Soft Water Hard Stone, which attributed a similar sentiment to a Brazilian proverb. The 2021 Shanghai Biennale (Bodies of Water) and 2022 Sydney Biennale (rīvus) also ruminated on the aquatic. Sydney’s biennial featured queer, Southern, Indigenous, and other marginalized perspectives, further echoing attempts to rectify the exclusionary Eurocentrism of the arts in Singapore, Berlin, and Venice, as well as in many previous iterations of the Gwangju Biennale.

On the one hand, the proliferation of decolonial curation is a clear victory for a once radical idea put forward by the Sharjah, Havana, Dakar, and Istanbul biennials, among others: simply that contemporary art could arise from and circulate in those regions. The first Gwangju Biennale was held in 1995, embodying optimism for a country eight years into democratic governance and commemorating the city’s own pivotal democracy movement, which occurred only fifteen years earlier. On the other hand, I had the impression that the political impulses of the democracy movement, known as the “Gwangju spirit” due to the widespread involvement of local citizens, have been diffused by their refraction through an art biennial. The growth and expansion of decolonial exhibitions could signal that things are righting themselves in the arts—the parochial association of art with the West being eroded, drip by drip, by internationalist principles. But might the fact of their accumulation also indicate something hollow in the promise? At what point do we have a referendum on the decolonial biennial? What might come after them?

Kira Kim, Security garden as paranoia, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo: glimworkers.

My overall impression of the Gwangju Biennale was of visiting a pantheon of the marginalized. It’s an accomplished example of decolonial curating, but it left me with a sense that this kind of undertaking may be a victim of its own success. What was brave and novel coming from the art world’s peripheries in the 1990s has become thoroughly orthodox. While the exhibition seeks the liberatory promise of decolonial goals, its execution gravitates toward inhabiting the perspective of the Western center. Continuously, I observed a curious slippage between what justice and resistance—two themes invoked by the biennial’s publicity material—might mean for a Korean and what they might mean for a Global Northerner. These meanings involve different demands and emphases as well as, crucially, different capabilities. As a resident of South Korea, while I meticulously wash and sort eight types of recyclables and two types of household waste, I am often enveloped in a fog of fine-dust pollution on which national action has limited effect. The dust comes largely from elsewhere and always from the past.

As I traveled through the exhibition spaces, my thinking took on a pendular motion where resonances of non-Western thinking and politics continually lost their momentum, as though emancipatory ideas are denuded by transmission through the hierarchies of art. The object I most admired was created by Yee I-Lann and twelve Indigenous collaborators, who wove organic mats together with plastic-bag waste collected from the shores of Omadal Island in Malaysia. But the ingenuity of the woven mat, now displayed as a wall hanging, seemed muted by the aestheticizing impulse of the biennial context. Isn’t it strange how elevating collective craft traditions to the ‎high-art realm does as much to affirm the deeply modern autonomous status of art as it does to subvert ‎it?

A version of this call-and-response structured my exploration of the exhibition, which is comprised of an introductory space and four large galleries organized around political resistance and solidarity; spiritual, ancestral, and Indigenous knowledge; legacies of colonialism; and interactions with nature. Created by seventy-nine artists and collectives and featuring several original commissions, the works escape neat categorization, and topics carry over from hall to hall liberally. There were as many encounters that left me delighted as those that left me perplexed.

I-Lann Yee and Adik Darwisa, Kak Budi, Pak Annik, Kak Roziah, Kak Lorna, Adik Erna, Abang Boby, Adik Dayang, Adik Marsha, Adik Umairah, Adik Tasya, Adik Shima, Salted Fish White Mat (Tepu Putih Ikan Masin), 2023. Courtesy the artist and Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo by X. Amy Zhang.

Buhlebezwe Siwani, An Offering (Umnikelo), 2023. Courtesy the artist and Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo by X. Amy Zhang.

For instance, in Buhlebezwe Siwani’s captivating video commission for the introductory gallery, four performers crawl, tread, and dance in different natural environments—attentively touching and spreading sand, water, stone, and earth on their bodies. The wall text explains that the natural elements reference the artist’s practice as a healer using ancestral rituals informed by Christianity and “African spirituality,” while leaving the content of these belief systems troublingly unexplained, as though the invocation of Africa, nature, and spirits is in itself straightforward and unremarkable.

The gallery on “diverse forms of resistance and solidarity,” as the wall text puts it, combines art depicting political activism with artwork related to the identities of Deaf communities, Black Britons, and Roma people, implying tendentiously that socially excluded groups automatically embody political resistance. Pieces in the gallery with the theme “Ancestral Voices” feature several Indigenous contemporary artists and reference mythical and deceased spirits from a broad swath of the non-Western world, including Malian spirits, Sufi poets, Indigenous Australian women healers, and the Huastec ancestors of the artist Noé Martinez, who performed a ceremony on-site. In recruiting such a diverse and ancient force to challenge “Western ‎perspectives of modernity and coloniality,” as posited by the wall text, this gallery worryingly treats indigeneity as an essentially premodern superstitious condition. While it was charming to imagine all these ancestors and mythical figures hovering near their objects or milling about among us, I wanted our planes to coincide so I could ask them: why are you all here?

Noé Martínez, Bunch 3 (Racimo 3), 2022. Courtesy the artist and Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo: glimworkers.

The inherent tension between including marginalized perspectives and essentializing them lingered as I navigated through the rest of the exhibition. There is a thoughtful variety of emotional registers in the gallery regarding colonial history—indifferent, combative, mournful, filled with horror, and even triumphal. Oh Suk Kuhn’s domestic photographs of jeoksan gaok interiors (“enemy houses” constructed in Korea by Japanese colonizers) document how people just muddle through contested history. The collective ikkibawiKrrr’s propulsive video, Tropical Story (2022), memorably exhibits remnants of the Pacific War from across Korea, Micronesia, and Indonesia on two adjacent screens, pairing up images of bunkers, airstrips, and monuments with family resemblances. Many of the sites have become satisfyingly covered in vegetation. The concluding gallery presents artists’ regard toward nature, a theme that I found too unwieldy for great catharsis.

The sampling of diverse sources of knowledge carried over into the symposium held during the two opening days of the biennial. Called “Confluences: Stories of Art and the Planetary,” it promised to center voices who “imagine other ways of knowing and existing together,” but its valorization of those perspectives was left incomplete. I felt particularly lost in the keynote lecture by Macarena Gómez-Barris. Titled “Decomposition at the Sea’s Edge,” the talk on survival in what she calls the “colonial Anthropocene” enlisted a collection of marginalized cosmologies that privilege erosion and entropy. Though winningly delivered, the concepts started to lose their mooring, and I became concerned when trying to distinguish between lessons from queer femmes, Mapuche cosmology, Zulu knowledge traditions, Black feminist thought, and relatives who emigrated from Pinochet’s Chile. If observing the liminality of the shoreline (ocean yet land, wet yet dry, always shifting with the currents) is an insight from all those thinkers, then it belongs to none of them. Respectfully presenting their perspectives should not result in their interchangeability.

Edgar Calel, The Echo of an Ancient Form of Knowledge (installation view), 2023. Courtesy the artist and Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo: glimworkers.

On the whole, the biennial’s technique of elevating non-Western, marginalized, and Indigenous forms of resistance and solidarity tends to uncritically and unhelpfully transfer Euro-American art discourse onto an incongruous context. (Are Koreans not autochthonous to Korea?) Much of the decolonial framing echoes curatorial trends driven by white Western moral desperation, but most visitors here are not Western (in an uncomplicated way) and certainly not white. This exhibition prods viewers toward solidarity with marginalized groups but conceives of them from a stubbornly Northern perspective. It’s a triumph of the West in precisely the last place anyone wants that.

There has been persistent friction between the high-art biennial and local civic culture that has recently sharpened. At the Gwangju Biennale’s 1995 inception, some local artists held a concurrent “Anti-Biennale,” contesting the instrumentalization of the Gwangju spirit on the global art-world stage. Recently, in the South China Morning Post, novelist Jun Yong-ho remarked that some locals disdain the use of Gwangju’s political history as an “ornamental feature” for the biennial. A local politician also criticized the exhibition for its exclusivity, saying, “It is an international event that doesn’t have much to do with Gwangju citizens.” On the opening day of this year’s exhibition, activists shared leaflets protesting the newly established Park Seo-bo award, designed to be funded by the artist for the next ten years. They argued that the dedication “tarnishes the Gwangju spirit,” asserting that the modernist painter “stayed silent,” “conformed to the military regime of the 1970s,” and “turned a blind eye to the pro-democracy movements.” The Gwangju Biennale Foundation terminated the award one month after the biennial’s opening and returned the remaining funds to the artist’s foundation.

Oum Jeongsoon, Elephant without trunk, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo: glimworkers.

Leaving the symposium, I wished the biennial exhibited greater self-awareness about the power of art on the external world, but I also entertained that I acquired this cynicism from my deeper affiliation with a stagnant society. For American visitors to South Korea, it is undeniable how aspirational slogans that would strain credulity in the United States correlate with frequent and tangible improvements to life in South Korea. My localities’ taglines are “All Ways Incheon” and “Better Life Yeonsu.” Year after year, they have delivered, diminishing the gulf between branding and state capacity and generating newfound and sincere optimism in me. Assertions about the transcendent meaning and value of art that could be delivered only winkingly in New York can be more resonant outside of it. So I also left wistful about my experience. The exhibition seemed like it could have been more meaningful if I were perhaps a more earnest or maybe more spiritual viewer with a less complicated relationship to the art world.

I am left uncertain about whether I should see this biennial as a missed opportunity for deeper periphery-to-periphery connections or whether this echo of the West is entirely predetermined—that it’s inevitable for Southern spirits and ancestors to arrive in Gwangju after associating with professional institutions in the North. Status hierarchies are real. The cyclical logic of the art world requires churn. How ideas become hegemonic and how they disperse follow deeply embedded norms within the art world. Especially in a venue of this register, art betrays a complicated relationship to the external world. Must decolonial curating oblige art to resist the politics of its own creation? I also question the emotional register of the exhibition. After all, the democratization movement did not result from obliging patience. Photos of the uprising and subsequent massacre at the nearby May 18 Democracy Uprising Archives, housed in the bullet-ridden Jeonil Building, show frenetic crowds, people on top of buses, the streets deluged with emotion—not at all a placid trickle.

Wavering between elegiac and preemptively triumphal, this Gwangju Biennale asks us to consider the “colonial Anthropocene” then redirects the negative emotions it provokes. It implores viewers to take marginalized ideas seriously, to acknowledge their underrecognized potential, but fails to draw out how those ideas build power. Soft and Weak Like Water is an ‎elegant validation of survival and persistence. But as consoling as righteous suffering may be, I found much more inspiration in the record of political struggles within the Archives. Speculating about the power of weakness ultimately sentimentalizes surrender.

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