It was unfortunate if revealing that, a few weeks before the opening of the 10th Gwangju Biennale, news broke of the censorship of a work included in a show marking the 20th anniversary of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Officials from the city government, which provides most of the exhibition’s funding, banned a painting by Hong Sung-dam titled Sewol Owol (Sewol May, 2014). The satirical work depicts an enraged Park Geun-hye, the current South Korean president, being held back by her late father and former president, Park Chung-hee, and her chief of staff, Kim Ki-choon, from attacking the families of school children who died in the MV Sewol ferry disaster in April. The small-minded ban resulted in the resignation of the Biennale Foundation’s president, Lee Yong-woo, as well as the show’s chief curator, Yun Beom-mo. This attempt to silence a critical response to the government’s handling of the recent Sewol tragedy is particularly pertinent to the Gwangju Biennale’s history: it was founded to commemorate the Gwangju massacre of 1980, when peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators were murdered by military forces. The government’s dictat to exclude Hong’s artwork’s from the Foundation’s anniversary show – which is not part of the 10th Biennale – served to justify the public’s discontent at the government’s perceived failings in its handling of the tragedy. Ultimately, this sad prelude only prompted more questions about how much or little has changed or been learnt in South Korea since the events of 1980.
If this controversy had any impact on curator Jessica Morgan’s exhibition, it didn’t show. Hers was a tough and testing – at times, even testy – biennale. Not shying away from the show’s sombre history, she courageously decided to make Minouk Lim’s powerful performance Navigation ID (2014) the centrepiece of the show. The work involved the installation of two shipping containers carrying the remains of victims of the nationwide massacres that followed the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, in which suspected North-Korean sympathizers and political opponents of the government, led by Syngman Rhee, were killed. As well as the containers, Lim arranged for families of the victims to travel to the biennale and to be greeted by mothers of victims of the Gwangju massacre. This moving ceremony took place in the Biennale Forum during the exhibition’s opening.
The laudable geographic diversity of the show spoke to Morgan’s former role as a curator of international art at Tate Modern (she has recently been appointed director of New York’s Dia Art Foundation) yet coherent thematic threads ran through the exhibition. Contra the titular idea of ‘Burning Down the House’ (after the 1983 song by Talking Heads), the show was a thoughtful taking stock and setting of one’s house in order: focusing equally on rebellion and commemoration, critique and reconciliation. For those wanting to read it, here was a show of Agambian bio-politics writ global. In a number of different national settings, politics of the home were distinguished from those of the polis, with the body enacting the threshold of political interference. The opening room set the tone with a three-channel video and slide installation documenting Lee Bul’s early performances from the late 1980s and early ’90s. The excruciating Abortion (1989) sees the artist, naked, reciting a monologue while suspended painfully by ropes; Sorry for Suffering – You Think I’m a Puppy on a Picnic? (1990) shows the artist walking around public places in South Korea and Japan in one of her monstrous, oversized, appendage-laden costumes. (That two female South Korean artists were given prominence in the biennale was a deserved and edifying highlight.)
Uncomfortable body-based work continued in Young Soo Kim’s Torture (1988), a series of black and white photographs of staged torture scenes, highlighting the all-too-real events that took place under South Korea’s military dictatorship throughout the 1970s and ’80s. A number of studios refused to print these works, fearing government retaliation. British artist James Richards’s four-slide-projector installation Untitled (The Screens) (2013) similarly underscored the power of the decontextualized image, showing, for example, flickering, unsteady images of cuts and bruises taken from an instructional book on how to apply theatrical makeup.
Camille Henrot’s burnt-looking artefacts, Augmented Objects (2010) – household items bought on eBay and caked in clay and tar – were the lynchpin of a rather literal, medium-specific section of the show that enforced themes of burning down and building up: a work from Yves Klein’s ‘Fire Painting’ series (1961) was placed next to Cornelia Parker’s installation of carbonized fragments from a Florida forest fire (Heart of Darkness, 2004). Anna Maria Maiolino’s beautiful Raku ceramic sculpture More Than 50, from the Prepositions Series (2008–14) and Rosemarie Trockel’s fantastically strange ceramic wall pieces were unfortunately shoved into corners. One of the show’s highlights (of which there were several) was the powerful short video We Are not your Monkeys (1993) by Anand Patwardhan, which documented the poet Sambhaji Bhagat singing a poem refuting the ‘divine’ justification for India’s caste system. The series ‘Prison Paintings’ (1972–78) by Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa, depicting everyday scenes of imprisoned female political activists, based on her own six-month incarceration for political activism, and Filipino Brenda Fajardo’s satirical paintings aping comic strips (Crossroads, 2003) – Uncle Sam being spanked like a naughty schoolchild – activated a keen-eyed feminist perspective on political and cultural oppression. Paintings were abundant, among them Xiaodong Liu’s Time (2014) – a block of 20 canvases showing a group of teenagers in an idyllic site blighted by the Gwangju massacre – and a selection of Apostolos Georgiou’s and Tang Dixin’s satirical scenes of human futility. Where film appeared, it was effective: Ramallah-based artists Basel Abbas & Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s split-screen video The Incidental Insurgents: The Part about The Bandits (2013), a dense, immersive layering of searching political storylines and strobing subtitles, took on poignancy in the light of recent events in the Middle East. Akram Zaatari’s Exploded Views (2014) was a more oblique narrative: a tracking shot showing an eerily quiet site used for the testing of building structures in downtown Beirut.
Anything but quiet was the show-within-a-show: the bombastic one-to-one scale installation of Urs Fischer’s New York apartment, 38 E. 1st St. (2014), the interior papered in photorealist wallpaper, replete with 2D renderings of his own collection of artworks, and containing the 3D work of other artists in the biennale proper. The similarly loud Name Announcer (2011) by Pierre Huyghe, a performance by a suited man calling out the names of visitors in the style of a court announcer, helped puncture the decadence of this setting.
Quieter, historical positions ended the show: Ulrike Ottinger’s alluring photographs were coupled with Gavin Kenyon’s lumpen curios – sculptures made in dyed plaster and fur. This pair found solace with the coupling of Lionel Wendt’s beautiful staged portraiture from 1930s Sri Lanka and the heavy hemp, jute and iron floral sculptures by New Delhi–based Mrinalini Mukherjee. Sharon Hayes’s four-channel video We cannot leave this world to others (2014), shot in the US and Seoul this summer, rightly brought the exhibition back to the present tense. Hayes’s filming of different generations of Korean women wrestling in a public square struck a similar note to the stark publicness of Lim’s work. Exiting the final gallery through Carsten Höller’s series of mirrored Sliding Doors (2003) leading back out to the mezzanine overlooking Lim’s containers, and seeing one’s reflection vanishing forward and back, proved a fitting end to this show. When faced with the humiliating legacy of past tragedies, remembrance and recollection are only productive when acknowledged and made public.