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Asian Art Guide: Gwangju and Asia’s Oldest Biennial

A view onto Gwangju city from the Biennale Hall. Ai Weiwei's porcelain installation, "Field", can be seen just past the flags. (all photos by the author)

SEOUL — It’s a four-hour train ride from Seoul — two trains, to be precise, as a transfer is necessary. With a population of a little over a million people, it’s the sixth-largest city in South Korea. That city is Gwangju, a name that literally means “the bright province.” It’s a city of flashing neon lights, love motels, high-energy dance clubs and some of the best restaurants in the country.

Gwangju in relation to the rest of Asia and South Korea.

Among international creative circles, it’s also known as the home of Asia’s oldest art biennial, the Gwangju Biennale. Founded in 1995, it has attracted high-profile international directors like Massimiliano Gioni and Ai Weiwei, as well as local leaders in art and design like Seung H-Sang and Yongwoo Lee (the current CEO of the Biennale Foundation). The city itself has a proud history as the famous site for Korea’s democratic uprising, which was brutally crushed by military forces in 1980.

Pros: The Gwangju Biennale is receiving growing attention internationally with higher-profile presentations. Last year’s art biennale, headed up by Massimiliano Gioni,received glowing reviews, as did this year’s design biennial. Those who can make the commitment to visit can be assured a thought-provoking, meaningful exhibition. A trip out can be easily combined with a few days in Seoul, the heart of Korea’s art world and creative industry.

The Biennale hosts a number of discussions and public events, especially on the opening day.

Cons: Gwangju can be a trek for travelers from abroad, as very few airlines offer direct service, even from nearby China and Japan. Once there, the main feature is the Biennale Hall and surrounding museums, with fewer creative offerings from the rest of the city. Much of the best programming is focused on the opening days, a narrow window of time for travelers at the beginning of the fall art season.

Opening night at the Gwangju Biennale, with DJ Spooky and members of the Gwangju city orchestra.
Opening night at the Gwangju Biennale, with DJ Spooky and members of the Gwangju city orchestra.

In the coming year, the Biennale will be lead by its first team of female directors, a six-person team from six countries across the Asian continent: Wassan Al-Khudairi from Qatar, Sunjung Kim from Korea, Mami Kataoka from Japan, Alia Swasticka from Indonesia, Carol Yinghua Lu from China, and Nancy Adajania from India. This is sure to lead to a potent exploration in contemporary Asian art, given their broad perspectives and experiences.

This year, I worked on the Gwangju Design Biennale’s curatorial team, in the Un-Named Design section. The section, which was headed up by Ai Weiwei and Brendan McGetrick, focused on expanding definitions of design and looking at objects like basketball buckets, peanut shellers, floating cities and coffins as a form of design. The show runs until October 23.

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