ROMAIN MAITRA visits the Biennale in Gwangju and finds nations assembled for the sake of art.

In the world of visual art, the biennale, or the triennale, is the most widespread form of large-scale global exhibition today. It has surpassed the limited notions of geographical boundary, nationality, or even the lure of the market in the presentation of contemporary global art. Compared to the traditional idea of the museum as a place where artworks are collected, stored and exhibited, the biennale, or triennale, is marked by its evanescence and cyclic repetition every two or three years. By assembling diverse artistic phenomena, under curatorial conceptions, in all possible media (from traditional art forms to site-specific installations, performance, video graphics and sound art), such a monumental art event throws an exciting challenge to the viewing and understanding of art while linking its immediate objectives to multiple areas of knowledge.

It was with this lure that I went to the Gwangju Biennale when it began last month. Founded in 1995 in this south-western city in South Korea, the Biennale has been positioned as a vital representation of Gwangju’s historic identity of rebellion. The city is well known for its significant role in the country’s human rights movements and for its people’s democratic uprising in May 1980, when civil demonstrations were staged against the then newly installed military government; many laid down their lives when military forces fired into an assembly of unarmed demonstrators.

Transient Encounters

Gwangju has two Biennales in alternate years — the Design Biennale and the Biennale (for visual art). Both take place in a huge biennale building with large halls covering around 8,100 sq.m., along with adjoining premises meant exclusively for them. The Biennales are also spread out across different pockets of the city as well, for effective interaction with the local people.

This year the Biennale was conceived with the metaphor of the “Roundtable” in which six women co-artistic directors, hailing from six different Asian countries, interacted together to create six sub-themes, with each of them curating one from them. In the exhibition’s grand design, the curated sections of these sub-themes often overlapped with one another like interwoven textures of different visual discourses, although for easy identification each work from a particular curated sub-theme was specified with a dot of a particular colour.

“Roundtable” featured nearly a 100 artists, artist groups, and temporary collectives from 43 countries along with ongoing seminars and discussions (termed as “workstation”) in which the curators and artists spoke about their works and ideas. In terms of visual impact, the most outstanding entries were from the sub-theme of “Transient Encounters” curated by the co-artistic director Mami Kataoka, chief curator of Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, which proposed “to arouse awareness of the connecting points that temporarily link the changes, cycles, continuity and experiences referred to above, and the invisible forces that facilitate these combinations.” In this section, the anthropomorphic root-vegetable-like forms, in Australian artist Benjamin Armstrong’s installation titled “Conjurers”, was a tableau vivant of dancing figures belonging to no particular time or space and yet looked organically charged with life and growth. A similar instance of this spread-out spatial arrangement was Korean-American artist Michael Joo’s installation “Indivisible” in the sub-theme “Intimacy, Autonomy, and Anonymity”, curated by the Seoul-based co-director Sunjung Kim. An array of 108 interconnected shields lay suspended above a diverse display of oil- or clay-made objects that seemed like the overarching symbol of some anonymous authority monitored timelessly over the artist’s personal effects from his past that significantly resembled objects from archaeological past.

As I came out of the Biennale building into the huge open space, I saw some enthusiasts playing table tennis on some of the 14 mirror-finished, stainless steel tables, which were laid out as installations. Buenos Aires-born Rirkrit Tiravanija’s curiously titled “(Who if not we should at least try to imagine the future again)” ping pong tables alluded to the two Koreas, the North and the South, on two sides of the nets. While the offence and defence in the game referred to their confrontational belligerence during the Cold War period, the reflections of the players/visitors on their mirror-like glazes were meant to evoke pensive introspection on the issue.

Unlimited Ocean

The Biennale was also spread out at the Mugaksa temple complex (thanks to its chief abbot’s interest in art), in the traditional Daein Market and in Gwangju’s oldest movie theatre, Cinema Gwangju, for some film entries. Kataoka’s chosen artists presented their works in the temple complex. In Gwangju-based Juyeon Kim’s interactive “Erasing Memory I”, visitors could meditate or dissolve their pent-up memories by sitting on the surrounding stools while placing their bare feet on hillocks of salt that hemmed in a blue standing slab.

Above that hall, in the temple’s capacious conference hall, the German artist Wolfgang Laib, who partly lives in Tamil Nadu, painstakingly installed “Unlimited Ocean” with 32 long rows of tiny mounds of rice produced by this temple and some piles of hazelnut pollen that he had himself gathered. Gathering pollen for his art is something he has been doing for years. When asked about what he thought happened to the pollen during its journey (from its natural ambience into a collecting jar and then to the exhibition space), he replied, “When I collect the pollen and bring it to exhibit, it’s intensified in the abstractness of a neutral space.”

One of the most interesting works from the sub-theme of Jakarta-based curator Ali Swastika was the Mexican artist and musician Pedro Reyes’s “War Is Over If You Want It”, in which he transformed different firearms into sculptures of musical instruments, and also performed with them. Reyes has been researching the global arms trade that led him to dwell on the fact that countries that experienced conflicts and violence were not those that manufactured arms. He made his own map out of such findings to form another image of the world’s frontiers.

From the visual aspect, if that is considered important in art, the curated sections by Iraqi-

born Wassan Al-Khudhairi and Bombay-based Nancy Adjani left much to be desired. It is essential to mention here that I often felt it to be a better idea to overlook certain curatorial notes that were unnecessarily abstruse and unreadable due to inordinate use of “curatorese” that helped more to obscure than to clarify. After seeing some of the selections and the way they were presented, I was reminded of what Charles Esche, who curated one of the previous Gwangju Biennales, once wrote: “The political moment in art is not documentary, didactic or accusatory, but ambiguous and sensual; it ushers in an instability that enables viewers to effect a transformation in themselves and to imagine the world other than it is.”

The Biennale is on until November 11.