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The Gwangju Biennial: Traumatic Memory and the Absence of Stability

This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).

Celebrating its 12th anniversary, the Gwangju Biennial began as an arts festival to commemorate the young lives lost during the Gwangju Uprising. The Uprising was a mass protest against the repressive military government which took place on the 18th and 27th May 1980, in the small provincial city of Gwangju in South West Korea. Freedom from oppression is a recurrent theme seen throughout the pavilions, celebrated through an array of thought-provoking artworks and site-specific installations. Most of these spaces are reused, recycled and borrowed from the city, encouraging visitors to engage with local culture and cuisine. This interaction brings to the fore the collective traumatic memories and subsequently a cold, isolating sensation of absence. This experience, combined with the works on display, presents a raw and unfiltered picture of the hardships faced by suppressed people, not just in Korea but globally.

Student protesters gather in the square in front of the provincial government building of South Jeolla Province in Gwangju, May 18, 1980 (Image: May 18 Memorial Foundation)

One of the main venues for the Biennial is the Asian Cultural Centre. This building complex previously housed the regional government offices that students gathered around in protest on the morning of May 18th, 1980. This black and white photograph was taken only hours before thousands of these students were murdered by the military in this square.

Okin Collective, Referring to Lee Jae-eui,  Gwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age, trans. Kap Su Seol & Nick Mamatas, Gwangju: May 18 Memorial Foundation, 2017, Banner on Jeonil Building, 12th Gwangju Biennial (2018) (Photograph: Eleanor Stephenson)

The harrowing memories surrounding the struggle for democratic freedom are felt in the city and are visible in its very infrastructure. Directly above the square is another former government building, however, it is disused and depilated, marking these unresolved traumas. Korean artists Yejou Lee, Joungmin Yi and Shiu Jin, have utilised the juxtaposition of past and present by hanging an enormous banner from the top of this multi-storey office. The absence of visible life in buildings such as this, reiterate the death and destruction incurred by the military government during and after the Gwangju Uprising. Rather than be explicitly narrative, the Okin Collective have taken abstract descriptions and quotes from witnesses, creating an eerily real connection with the victims of this tragic event.

Okin Collective, Passages and an Amorphous Map, the Asia Culture Centre(ACC), Section Exhibition curated by Sungwoo Kim, 12th Gwangju Biennale (2018) (Photograph: Eleanor Stephenson)

A short drive from the Asian Cultural Centre was the GB Commission, whose venue was another reminder of the brutality of the military government. In the Former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital, artists Adrián Villar Rojas, Mike Nelson, Kader Attia, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul created site-specific installations. French artist, Kader Attia, placed monolithic planks of wood in the centre of a few disused rooms. The presence of these pieces in the dilapidated hospital reminds the viewer of the beings that would have been there, either as casualties or as wounded captives. This is a literal and metaphorical representation of absence: manifesting through the object which signifies the lives lost in 1980 and the lack of life in the hospital since then. Walking down the dimly lit corridor, was as much of a thought-provoking installation as the site-specific sculptures.

Kader Attia, Eternal Now, GB Commission, Former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital, 12th Gwangju Biennial (2018)

The title for this year’s Biennial is Imagined Borders, adopted from Benedict Anderson’s book about nationalism: Imagined Communities. This theme was explored through a variety of avenues and issues, such as immigration, border conflict, colonialism, race and environmental politics. One of the most impressive explorations was by the Helsinki International Artists Program (HIAP), curated by Jenni Nurmenniemi, showing six artists, including Maelee Lee, Mire Lee, and Elina Vainio, in the Mugaksa Temple. Finnish artist Nestori Syrjälä discussed the psychological effects of global warming experienced by environmental scientists. The quotes gathered by the artist from scientists had been carved onto re-used plastic car windows and placed on rocks found in the local area. The subtlety of the works spoke of the silent torture faced by environmental researchers whose daily routine involves bearing witness to the earth’s self-destruction. This evoked an absence of stability, within the context of an uncertain, undetermined future for mankind. The message conveyed leaves the viewing feeling hollow inside, knowing that this future reality is unavoidable.

Nestori Syrjälä discussing his series Stele (2016), Helsinki International Artists Program (HIAP), Mugaksa Temple, 12th Gwangju Biennial (2018). (Photograph: Eleanor Stephenson)

Despite the heavy themes and issues raised by this year’s Gwangju Biennial, there was a sense of enlightenment upon departure. The feeling of absence in the city and in the lives of citizens has to an extent been filled with hope, joy and education through the celebration of art. This biennial allows people to come together to discuss and learn about issues which are often too difficult to approach within a normal context. Since 1995, the South Korean government has set-up, funded and promoted a celebration of democracy through this annual contemporary arts festival. This represents both its progressive outlook and enables a unique opportunity for other states to discuss freedom of expression, in the past, present and future.

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