As a recurring art event, the Gwangju Biennale carries a heavy burden: to deal with the legacy and trauma of the democratic uprising and the massacre that followed in the city in May 1980, a recent historical event that has not reached its closure. Indeed, only a week before the opening, a grandson of the now-deceased South Korean dictator paid an unexpected visit to Gwangju, a city 270 kilometers away from the country’s capital. He flew in from the United States to confess the wrongdoings of his family and apologize to the victims of the massacre in public, stirring the citizens of Gwangju to reflect on their memories of the incident.
Indeed, the Gwangju Biennale was inaugurated in 1995 under the country’s first democratically elected president after decades of military dictatorship, as a way to commemorate the event. This year’s artistic director, Sook-kyung Lee, who also serves as the senior curator of international art at Tate Modern, said that she also wanted the participating artists to “understand where the biennial came from” and not to “touch upon very slightly or on the surface” of the issue of direct actions’s importance for liberation movements.
he 14th iteration of the Gwangju Biennale, “soft and weak like water,” borrows its title from a line in Tao Te Ching with an emphasis on the water’s capacity to permeate seemingly impenetrable things. The exhibition, which comprises the main exhibition hall building, four satellite venues, and nine additional national pavilions, proposes a planetary yet local perspective on what art means in our time of automated and enhanced bias, division, and conflict. With 79 artists and collectives from predominantly non-Western or Global South countries, this year’s biennial offers in part a view of artistic practices that have been disregarded by a Western, Eurocentric perspective.
As such, one might consider “soft and weak like water” as an exhibition that fulfills its title both in positive and negative ways. But true to its reference to a Taoist classic Tao Te Jing, the biennial nudges the viewers to expand their view of today’s world, by juxtaposing practices of so-called “indigenous” origin with a mediated reflection on the sufferings that took place in its host city, Gwangju.
Here are some of the artists from this year’s Gwangju Biennale who deal with the complexities of different histories through artistic practice and speak to the conditions of our time.
Sculptures in Guadalupe Maravilla’s “Disease Thrower” series (2019–present) do not only exist as altar-like installations that exhume the artist’s ethnic and cultural background. Instead, Maravilla considers these works as “healing machines” through which he soothes untreated traumas from himself and others and learns about healing practices from different cultures. Part artwork and part instrument for healing, the intricate installations speak to the artist’s Central American ancestry, genealogies of displacement, and his personal experience of healing from cancer.
Carrying the power of healing, they need to be activated before they are presented in public, which often becomes a ritual of sorts—in Gwangju, the works were activated through an hour-long process. Coupled with the “Embroidery” series (2019), which depicts emblems of resistance to oppression of undocumented immigrants, the installations aptly remind the viewers of both the possibility of healing and concurrent struggles.