View of Eyal Weizman’s site-specific installation Roundabout Revolution, 2013, at Gwangju Station; in the Gwangju Biennale. Photo Kyungsub Shin.

“A tool, not a monument”: this is how the artist Dora García describes what she sought to create with the bookstore installation that is her commissioned contribution to the latest Gwangju Biennale, directed by the Swedish curator and critic Maria Lind. Nokdu Bookstore for the Living and the Dead (2016) re-creates in a plywood structure—a few paces past the entrance to the exhibition’s first gallery—the small bookseller that, in the 1970s, “incubated and hatched” a culture of dissent vital to a historically significant political revolt in Gwangju. Stocked with books and periodicals on art, politics, and Korean history, among other subjects, the installation will host programs and events throughout the biennial’s run. In an interview with curatorial team member Azar Mahmoudian, García describes her aim to establish a critical distance between her artwork and the official symbolism of the 5.18 Uprising, in which, on May 18, 1980, the city’s populace, enraged by the bloody suppression of a student protest, rose up against Chun Doo-hwan’s US-backed military dictatorship.

García is wise to separate her project from the fraught ideology of commemoration. The story of the Gwangju Uprising, as it’s commonly known outside of Korea, is fundamental to most discussions of the city’s Biennale, which was founded in 1995 as the first major biennial of contemporary art in Asia. But the exhibition’s relationship to the Gwangju citizenry’s remarkable gesture of dissent in 1980 is highly nuanced. As the scholar Hong Kal writes in Aesthetic Constructions of Korean Nationalism: Spectacle, Politics and History (2011), the first Biennale (then styled Kwangju) “was basically a national festival firmly embedded in a politics which desired to transform the image of the city from a bloody site of radicalism and marginality to an international site of art and creativity.” The official “manifesto” of the inaugural edition, which attracted 1.6 million visitors, stated that “the very function of art is to cure catastrophes of the [sic] politics and the industrial society,” and enjoined its public to “assume a central role in the production of culture as members of the global community.”

In response to the Biennale’s perceived political insufficiency—its alleged veneering of the 5.18 events—a group of local artists and activists staged an “Anti-Biennale.” The appointment of Lee Young Chul, one of the Anti-Biennale’s lead instigators, as director of the second Gwangju Biennale seemed to acknowledge the value of appearing open to critique rather than overtly sanitizing the city’s political past. The second development key to the Biennale’s current identity was the appointment of Okwui Enwezor as the first foreign director, for the exhibition’s seventh edition, in 2008. The release of the top position to figures in the global art system suggested that the Gwangju Biennale was less governed by an explicitly regionalist or nationalist agenda. 

Lind’s stated ambivalence to site- or context-specific projects also exemplifies this shift. She explains in the catalogue that “if artists wanted to do that, it was fine, but it was not our aim.” But the problematics of place can and should be explored by artists, and the few works that do this in this biennial, notably García’s Nokdu Bookstore, Doug Ashford’s Photographs of Paintings Carried to Places Where the Movement for Democracy in South Korea Happened, and Four Examples of What Was Produced (2016), and Eyal Weizman’s The Roundabout Revolutions (a book and permanent installation executed in Gwangju in 2013 but included in the show), are successful precisely because their local subject matter is unabashedly engaged from within the parameters and capacities of art as a global discipline. In Ashford’s piece, Korean actors were hired to present “unfinished” lime-green monochromatic paintings to sites of significance to Korea’s political history, articulating the difficulty of responding to the recent past through aestheticized means and the supposedly emotive language of abstraction. Weizman’s work, meanwhile, connects the “roundabout” where protesters gathered for the 5.18 Uprising with the traffic circles central to other political actions, in Cairo, Ramallah, Tehran, and elsewhere. Weizman goes deep into the history of the form—the roundabout—while keeping the historical site in Gwangju at arm’s length: the pavilion installation he delivered, surrounded by concentric rings demarcating different roundabouts, occupies an anonymous traffic circle. 

These works notwithstanding, Lind’s overall approach led to an eclectic exhibition, with participants invited “based on the criterion of choosing practices that we find relevant and strong today”—thus the biennial’s predictably vague title and theme, “The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?),” a reference to the sphere of “the imaginal” proposed by the Persian philosopher Suhrawardi (1154–1191) and reworked by the French philosopher Henry Corbin (1903–1978). Careening from strains of work exploring the material aspects of digital culture (by artists including Anicka Yi, Matias Faldbakken, Mohammad Salemy) to projects embedded in global activist networks (Trevor Paglen, Julia Sarisetiati, Cooperativa Cráter Invertido) to imaginative historiography (Anton Vidokle, Walid Raad, Arseny Zhilyaev) to Iranian modernism (Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian), the show’s dense, cheek-by-jowl installation intentionally makes any kind of directed engagement with the content—which was, unintentionally, still not completely installed even a few days after the opening—impossible. 

While Lind’s treatment of the exhibition itself as a kind of afterthought (albeit one that functions as a workable survey-textbook of the global contemporary) may dilute some artists’ work, her installation nonetheless mirrors the richness and plurality of the biennial’s programming. This approach recalls recent attempts at drawing biennials out from the domain of the auratic exhibition, like the equal emphasis placed on “Day” (gallery exhibition) and “Night” (extensive program of events) in Adam Szymczyk’s 2008 Berlin Biennale. Speaking to Artforum, Szymczyk described his project as moving “from the institution toward an event.”

Lind should be credited for advancing this model by inviting smaller-scale institutions from Korea and abroad to participate in meaningful ways that sometimes overshadowed the “main” art exhibition. Her decision to organize a curatorial training initiative alongside Korean universities (the “Infra-School”) and monthly conversation gatherings suggests a genuine investment in cultivating local interlocutors. The programs are held at and partly organized by Mite-Ugro, a small organization (at once library, publisher, discussion and exhibition venue, café, and studio space) comprised of Gwangju-based practitioners and occupying a storefront stall in the city’s market. Lind invited representatives from small-to-medium size art organizations that exemplify what Bina Choi, a member of the biennial’s curatorial team, has called “trans-local” institutions: groups like Beirut’s Ashkal Alwan and the Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, that are born of specific artistic communities but invested in art as a global field. Called the Biennale Fellows program, this initiative, though limited by funding constraints, attempts to build a network of like-minded collaborators that might last beyond the exhibition’s closing date this month. 

Perhaps the most direct means of honoring the question of democracy and dissent that haunts Gwangju is to insist, like García, on building tools enabling thought, collaboration, contestation, and exchange, not monuments. With drastic inequality in funding levels between large and small art institutions globally, patronage for monuments significantly outstrips support for tools. But, as this Gwangju Biennale has shown, strategic curatorial pluralism might offset this imbalance. Large state or private institutions, including biennials, may draw on a reserve of credibility or independence from beneficent slumming with small organizations, but the advantages may occasionally flow in the opposite direction, so long as these organizations can negotiate their autonomy and insist on exhibitions as sites of debate.