Titled soft and weak like water, the 14th Gwangju Biennale opens on April 7, 2023 with 79 participating artists in Gwangju, South Korea. Curated by Artistic Director Sook-Kyung Lee, Associate Curator Kerryn Greenberg, and Assistant Curators Sooyoung Leam and Harry C. H. Choi, the Biennale will unfold over five venues throughout the city of Gwangju, including the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall, Gwangju National Museum, Horanggasy Artpolygon, Mugaksa, and Artspace House.
Proposing art as the source of enduring and pervasive transformations, the Biennale seeks to connect Gwangju and the world through a planetary vision and shed light on transnational narratives which bridge the individual and the universal.
Reimagining the Gwangju Spirit as a shared resistance against all forms of oppression
soft and weak like water brings together works that re-imagine the spirit of the Gwangju Uprising which propelled South Korea’s democratization. Rather than frame the historical significance of the Uprising within the specific locality of Gwangju, the Biennale proposes that the spirit of Gwangju resonates with movements for democracy and freedom that have unfolded across different parts of the world. Despite the differences in their geopolitical contexts, the Biennale reads them through their shared sensibility of solidarity against all forms of oppression. Johannesburg-based Mmakgabo Helen Sebidi’s paintings are rooted in African mythology and traditional value systems, reflecting her lived experience as a Black woman in South Africa under the apartheid regime. Santiago Yahuarcani’s paintings seek to preserve the knowledge system of the Huitoto culture of northern Peru, from which he hails, against the currents of modernization and globalization that have systematically eradicated Indigenous communities around the world.
Rather than take its theme as a literal metaphor, soft and weak like water suggests that those who are socially and politically marginalized can serve as agents of transformation through consistent, enduring expressions of their voices. Małgorzata Mirga-Tas, who comes from the Bergitka Roma tribe, presents new textile works that are made from garments donated by her family and friends, which depict and signify the Roma community and its struggle for inclusion. Oum Jeongsoon develops a series of sculptures through her collaborations with students with visual impairments, which result from their attempts to represent an elephant through auditory, olfactory, and tactile senses that are subsequently enlarged to the scale of the animal.
Contemporary discourses oriented towards equality and coexistence
Furthermore, soft and weak like water comprises works that speak of models of coexistence, particularly in the face of manifold crises that beset humanity, whether in the form of a global pandemic, environmental catastrophes, or military conflicts. Abel Rodríguez, a descendant of the Nonuya people in southern Colombia who had to move to Bogotá to escape the ongoing violence in the Amazon, presents meticulous drawings that seek to preserve Indigenous knowledge of the natural world. Mataaho Collective, a group of four Māori women artists who have explored the contemporary use of the weaving techniques of their ancestors, has produced a site-specific installation from ratchet tie downs that recall survival, endurance and responsibility through their everyday function as objects that enable people to carry babies, food and resources across long distances.
In the Biennale, such attention to ways of living together is emphasized by works of art that reveal universal values through focusing on individual and local specificities. Sikuma (2023), a series of posters containing personal and archival images with text conceived by the Ainu artist Mayunkiki, explores the various forms of boundaries that the artist experienced throughout her life as an Indigenous person within the Japanese society. Robert Zhao Renhui’s four-channel video installation Trying to Remember a River (2023), which engages with the life and history of an ancient, unnamed river tributary in Singapore that was transformed into a concrete drain in the early 20th century, resonates with the histories of urbanization around the world that similarly wreaked havoc on nature in favor of capitalist infrastructures.
Exhibition space and program that foregrounds care and hope as key messages
This edition seeks to reinvent the spatial configuration of the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall that serves as the center of the Biennale. Using natural, environmentally friendly materials, the Biennale’s exhibition design is characterized by a humble, modest aesthetic that produces a welcoming atmosphere which counters the standard white cube. By redesigning spaces that were formerly used as cafés and storefronts into a visitor welcome area that is directly connected to the main exhibition, the Biennale also allows for organic movements of visitors between the different galleries within the Biennale Hall. Such efforts are complemented by signage and visitor experience strategies that seamlessly connect the five venues across the city of Gwangju, as well as audiovisual materials that are offered in addition to customary wall texts and labels that provide information on the works presented.
During the opening weekend of soft and weak like water, a symposium co-hosted by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and Tate Hyundai Research Centre: Transnational entitled Confluences: Stories of Art and the Planetary will be presented. Centering the voices of the participating artists, the symposium will be organized around three panels, entitled Sources, Undercurrents, and Estuaries, that feature presentations by artists who are engaged in alternative models and practices that imagine models of co-existence, as well as a keynote lecture by writer and scholar Macarena Gómez-Barris and a roundtable between participating artists, curators, and scholars.
The symposium and public programs offered in the opening weekend will be followed by additional educational programs over the course of its run. Audience participatory works by key figures of the Korean avant-garde—Kim Kulim, Lee Kun-yong, and Seung-taek Lee— are presented in the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall and invite visitors to take part in artistic activations. Tarek Atoui’s installation, which features musical instruments produced in collaboration with local masters, will also be activated through weekly audience workshops. In addition, the Biennale will present monthly talks by participating artists, as well as creative workshops and audience programs for children and young adults. Details of the public program and bookings will be made available on www.14gwangjubiennale.com.
Press release from Gwangju Biennale Foundation