At the 14th Gwangju Biennale's press conference, a local journalist probed artistic director Sook-Kyung Lee on the difference between this edition's themes and the one before it.
It wasn't a bad question. soft and weak like water (7 April–9 July 2023), which takes its title from the Tao Te Ching, explores 'our shared planet as a site of resistance, coexistence, solidarity.' Its framework echoes the 2021 Gwangju Biennale, Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning, which 'delve[d] into a broad set of cosmologies, activating planetary life-systems, queer technologies, and modes of communal survival.'
Of course, ideas of alternative, planetary globalisms have informed biennials for years, which is fine unless that repetition is read as a sign of the global art world's failure to develop solidarity beyond its representation in international exhibitions that barely connect to their contexts.
soft and weak like water seems to have pre-empted that critique by curating an impeccable show, whose relational flow is defined by an arrangement of artworks by 79 artists and collectives that feels measured to the millimetre.
Meiro Koizumi's five-channel video projection Theater of Life (2023), which layers footage across a large corner of the hall like a new-media pediment, likewise dwells on embodied hybridity. Children of the Korean diaspora in Central Asia, who now live in Gwangju, were filmed engaging in a drama workshop exploring their place in a history that extends beyond Korea's borders.
The transcending of borders, both geographical and temporal, also informs Guadalupe Maravilla's four healing sound instruments arranged just before Koizumi's projection. Created from steel skeletons coated in a bone-like material made from microwaved fibres, each form features objects the artist collected and commissioned along his childhood migration route from El Salvador to the United States, including loofahs, stone carvings of body parts, and tools.
Reflecting their function as instruments for sound baths that fuse healing traditions from Indigenous cultures in the Americas and elsewhere, each 'Disease Thrower' (2019–ongoing) holds a gong tuned to a specific planetary frequency.
These gongs, Maravilla explains, were made in the U.S. and Germany based on data collected by NASA, making every sculpture a fusion of grounded-yet-futurist forms, as with the gong tuned to Earth for the bed-shaped Disease Thrower #11 (2021).