The dialectic of creative renewal

Under the motto: “Burning Down The House”, the 10th Gwangju Biennale manages the balancing act between memory and the future

Men and women in white dresses and black blindfolds are crossing a public square. They carry dark-veiled boxes with the bones of their relatives. Silently they deposit the mortal remains in two rusty steel containers in the middle of the square. From two huge incinerators beside it swells pitch-black smoke.

In any other place such a scene would have been condemned as a reverent spectacle or unforgivable instrumentalization. But in the South Korean Gwangju the art bill came up. “Navigation ID” was the name of South Korean artist Minouk Lim’s performance, which opened the 10th Gwangju Biennale in early September. Right in front of the central exhibition hall of Asia’s oldest and most important art biennale, the survivors of two traumatic events in South Korean history celebrated a symbolic funeral.

The survivors of the Jinju and Gyeongsan massacres at the beginning of the 1950 Korean War met with the “Mothers,” the mothers of the insurgents, who massacred the military dictatorship of President Chun Doo Wan in May 1980. The tragedy in the industrial workers’ city in the west went down in South Korean history as a “Gwangju massacre”. What looked problematically staged for European eyes, however, resembled an appropriate re-enactment. On a series of photos in the “Memorial Center” of the Southwest Korean metropolis, one sees residents of Gwangju, who on May 5, 1997, seventeen years after the 14-day massacre of 1980, carry the bones of their relatives in boxes in a cemetery. Lim’s performance thus cautiously absorbed the historical model.

The Gwangju Biennale has already seen many famous curators. In 1997 Harald Szeemann curated an exhibition part about “Water”. In 1997, Charles Esche and Hou Hanru dealt with the topic of meditation under the title “Pause”. In 2008, Okwui Enwezor made his debut with “On the Road”. In 2010 Massimiliano Gioni split the art world with his show “10.000 Lives”, a sort of programmatic preview of his (similarly encyclopedic) appearance in Venice 2013. With the moving opening in the jubilee year 2014, the curator Jessica Morgan managed the balancing act, not the one in Gwangju Biennale comes around. To remember the traumatic history of the city and the country, but at the same time open a space for discourse in the future, beyond the historical events. The Gwangju Biennial was known to have been founded in 1995, after a fortnightly arts and culture festival commemorating the bloody defeat of the Resistance movement, expressly commemorating its victims. The uprising of May 1980 finally led to the overthrow of the military government seven years later.

With “Burning Down The House”, the title of their show with 105 artists, almost half of whom came from Asia, Morgan, curator at London’s Tate Modern, led the audience on a false pop track. The title of the American rock band “Talking Heads” served the curator as inspiration for the Biennale. The legendary song could be taken literally like the burnt house “La Isla / The Island” (2009), which the Argentine artist Eduardo Basualdo built from charred remnants of historic Buenos Aires Aires houses and into one of the five galleries of the huge Biennale. Exhibition hall on the edge of Jungoe Park.

But you could also take him as metaphorically as Nil Yalter. In the photo series “Le Chevalier d’Eon” (1978), the Egyptian artist documented the gradual change of sex of her former partner. What the Biennale presented as an example of a “fluid identity” could also be interpreted in such a way that the common house of the partnership is “burnt down” here. And the “Stoves-Ofen” (2013), with which the German-American artist Sterling Ruby worked his childhood in the rural, wood-rich US state of Pennsylvania, and which awakened unpleasant associations in the context of the symbolic funeral, seemed to Morgan the appropriate symbol for the Dialectic of creative renewal and the transformation of energies that they generally wanted to go beyond. Finally, today’s South Korea rose from the fires of the Second World War and the subsequent Cold War to one of the economically prospering “Tiger States” on the Pacific.

In the curatorial span between concrete and abstract Morgan introduced musically. The building covered three cover versions of the Talking Heads song by the French DJ Joakim in the ambient sound. Those who went in heard the most deconstructed version of who went out, the one most reminiscent of the original. In between, Morgan was able to fan out her topic in a wide reference sheet. Some were superficial: Jack Goldstein’s “Burning Window” (1977), for example, which gave the prelude to the show. The “disorienting effect” of the installation, a deep red flickering firelight behind a window set in the wall of a darkened room, did not materialize. What should evoke the idea of ​​a burning house was more like a cheap funfair effect or a Bengali fire.

Also, the frightening effect of the image of an octopus breaking through a burning stone wall, which the British artist Jeremy Deller had programmatically applied to one of the large facades of the Biennale Hall, was rather harmless. The “playful form of institutional critique” that Morgan made up in the work “Untitled” (2014), intended as a central “eye-catcher”, and which was supposed to recall the long chain of artistic criticism of the museum, the White Cube and the gallery, seemed rather borrowed from a cartoon for children. Gwangju would tolerate institutional criticism. The huge Biennale Hall, with its layout in five galleries, forces every curator into an exhibition corset, from which he can only free himself for the price of a schematic course. Unless he deviates from temporary locations in the city of Gwangju. A solution that Morgan renounced this year.

Morgan’s dialectic of destruction and renewal sounded a little like an aesthetic glass bead game. Especially as they juxtaposed the examples, which dealt with fire as an artistic technique and the creative role of destruction, unconnectedly: The Fire Picture “Geo” by Otto Piene (2000/02), for example, “Untitled” (Pour Madame Everaert avec l’amitie d ‘Yves Klein) “, a work from the cycle of” Fire Paintings “by the French artist Yves Klein (1961) or Cornelia Parker’s hanging cube” Heart of Darkness “(2004) from burned trees from forests in Florida.

Impressive discoveries could be made here: the pyrographies of the artist Anwar Shemza, born in India in 1928 and died in 1985. The burn marks that resulted from his “Roots Series” in the work “Abstract Writing” (1969), in which Shemza heated curved metal parts and marked them with a dark brown wooden plate, recalled lyrical motifs and calligraphies from Islamic and Asian culture. From a process of partial destruction arise the symbols of a new language.

The fact that Morgan was aware of the social and existential implications of her theme paradigmatically showed one of the best works of the show: “Dust to Dust” (2014) – a series of 50 black-and-white charcoal drawings by the Romanian artist Mircea Suciu, alternating emblematic scenes the upheavals in Eastern Europe after 1989 and the rebellions in Gwangju 1980 with abstract images of smoke and fire. In one of the unframed pictures you can see the German Reich Field Marshal Hermann Goering in uniform in front of a Christmas tree. The fat National Socialist lights the candles on the larger-than-life tree with a long stick. Works like these were able to neutralize the effect of the Spanish-British designer El Ultimo Grito’s wallpaper, which Morgan had used to knock out the galleries. The pixelated smoke-and-fire motif forced a convincing show unnecessarily into a decorative straitjacket.

Morgan’s vision presented itself in an uninterrupted fashion as she strove to reach metaphorical heights. In Jianyi Gheng’s installation “Useless” (2004) or Renate Bertlmann’s installation “Washing Day” (1976/77), the reference to the biennial theme is somewhat overstretched. The Chinese artist had stored personal items that his friends considered unnecessary in a huge room under plastic lintels to show the disposable mentality of Asian consumerism. The Viennese artist once again picked up on the society’s “phallocentrism” with one hundred pieces of latex-brimmed latex clothing hung over a clothesline. A documentary video work such as that of the American-Cuban artist couple Allora & Calzadilla, a gallery further, “The Bell, the Digger and the Tropical Pharmacy” (2014), got – on the criticism of neo-colonial relations – metaphysical features. Because the bulldozer, which demolishes a former US pharmaceutical factory in a small town in Puerto Rico, uses for its destruction work instead of the usual metal ball the discarded bell of a church.

The most convincing evidence that served as a base for the Japanese occupying forces in the 1930s and later as a detention center for political prisoners was the South Korean intelligence service. When Chinese-Korean artist Suknam Yun recalls the mysterious death of Korean singer Choi Senung-hee in her picture installation “Choi Seung Hee” (1996). The artist vanished without a trace after she was expelled from the Labor Party, a decade after her move to communist North Korea. And Young Soo Kim’s series of black and white photographs “Torture” (1988) recalled a violent method that never dies out. In a series of actor-led scenes, torture practices such as “roast chicken” or “water torture” are demonstrated, which also applied the South Korean military regime in the name of national security. Beside those of his colleague Mircea Suciu, the works of Kim were the second major discovery of the Biennale.

The Brazilian artist Jonathas de Andrade and the Turkish artist Güneş Terkol showed that the democratic uprisings are continuing. With his film “The Uprising” (2012), the filmmaker underwent the city government of Recife. To lift the place to the level of a prosperous urban economy, the authorities there banned traditional horse-drawn carriage races. For de Andrade’s film about this custom they made an exception. The video shows how the news of the upcoming race spreads throughout the city: a rebellion is created by word of mouth. Güneş Terkol, on the other hand, encourages women from diverse backgrounds to formulate their wishes and fears and to artistically process them in workshops. At the “Against the Current” (2013) series of embroidered tapestries, one sees migrant female workers wearing headscarves from Vienna holding placards bearing slogans such as “Job” or “Equal”.

Neither tourist spectacle, location marketing nor motor of gentrification. The Gwangju Biennial is a stroke of luck in the increasingly dense torrents of international biennials. Just as the Gwangjuer exemplar emerged from a democratic resistance movement, it is a socio-political, not a cultural-industrial mission written in the DNA. Its central building is located in a residential area next to a park; it does not serve as a development accelerator for tourist, creative or construction sites. In the opening speeches of the Biennale, the “Spirit of 1980” is often summoned. But just in the UNESCO “City of Human Rights” hovered for the 20th Biennale anniversary, the shadow of censorship on the institution, which is to secure the democratic discourse space permanently, which was banned in times of military dictatorship.

Shortly before the opening of a banned coalition of warring mayors, over-careful curators and Keynote speakers of the Seouler right-wing government, the politically always left-leaning municipality Gwangju a thorn in the eye, banished a picture of the artist Hong Song-dam from the separate anniversary exhibition “Sweet Dew – Since 1980 “for the anniversary of the Biennale. “Sewol Guwol – April May” referred to the picture that caricatured the South Korean dictator, Park Geung-hye, as South Korea’s head of state, Park Geung-hye, as the straw puppet of her dictator father Park Chung-hee, the “father of the South Korean development dictatorship “Who was murdered by his secret service chief in 1979 – a year before the Gwangju massacre.

Yongwoo Lee, art history professor and founder of the Biennial, 34 years ago as a reporter witness to the massacre, took over immediately with his resignation as president of the Biennale Foundation, the responsibility for the debacle. This shows that the Biennalists are taking very seriously the fundamental issue of Gwangju’s freedom of the arts. The fact that a work like “The Ozymandias Parade” (1985) of the American artist couple Edward and Nancy Kienholz could stand unopposed in the actual biennial course of Jessica Morgan, however, proved that the censorship accusation against the Biennial does not apply.

The installation, two riders on horseback on a mirrored platform lined with colorful rows of light bulbs, is a parody of US President Ronald Reagan, militarism and the abuse of power. Morgan has exchanged the American flag for the South Korean. The curator has also responded to the will of the artists in each country in which the work is being shown to have carried out a survey with the sentence “Are you satisfied with your government?” In the leftist Gwangju. With 98 percent, the result was as clear as in the presidential election a year ago. That’s why one of the horses now emblazoned a white flag with the two black letters “No”.

Create a website or blog at