The very fabric of the second most important biennale after La Biennale di Venezia is undergoing a transformation these days. Held in South Korea, the Gwangju Biennale is one of the most well-attended art events across the world. However due to the onslaught of covid-19, the main exhibition has been pushed back by half a year and will now take place between February and May in 2021. And yet, the event has not gone all quiet, waiting for the pandemic to subside. Instead, under the leadership of artistic directors Natasha Ginwala, an Indian curator-writer, and Defne Ayas, the Biennale has adapted to the situation and come up with a thriving public talks programme and a bimonthly online journal to keep audiences across geographies engaged with the process of producing art.
Recently, the duo also announced an extended list of participating artists, which included names like that of Indian artist Sahej Rahal, Cecilia Vicuña, Pacita Abad, Korakrit Arunanondchai, Vaginal Davis, Patricia Domínguez, John Gerrard, Lynn Hershman Leeson, and more. The talks and the journal, according to Ayas, take the engagement of the viewer beyond the consumption of the final work of art, but offer a glimpse into the inner workings of art production. “Art is a product result of extensive research and reflection on the sociopolitical ethos of the time. The programming offers a peek into the artists’ extended mind,” says Ayas.
The 13th edition of the Gwangju Biennale, titled ‘Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning’, is particularly significant as it commemorates the 40th year of the Gwangju uprising, when citizens of the city took up arms after local Chonnam University students, demonstrating against the martial law government were fired upon and beaten by the troops. The city has a longstanding experience of resistance building and communal trauma. In fact, the Biennale was founded in 1995 in memory of this uprising.
The title of the 13th edition is particularly interesting. “There are two composites that come together,” says Ginwala. “It is the first time that two women directors are working together. From the outset, we asked ourselves what is it that both of us could bring towards formulating bigger enquiries while holding on to the legacy of the Biennale.”
The 40th anniversary allows the programming to delve deep into processes of solidarity building from around the world. “For this anniversary, the public forum we launched relates to many parts of the world—from Turkey, Hong Kong, Brazil, India, Tibet, to Lebanon…” It casts a critical lens on ongoing struggles today and hierarchies of suffering within them,” elaborates Ayas.
With artists, theoretical scientists and systems thinkers discussing and debating ideas, the Biennale has set out to explore multiple intelligences, looking beyond the binaries and arguing for primacy of plurality. According to the curatorial note, it debates whether points of origin and influence ought to be accessed not only through the dominant technological systems and machinic vocabularies traceable to the West but also relate to heterodox ancestries. “Defne and I were very keen on collectively exploring artistic approaches and scientific methods that examine the entire spectrum of intelligence—both organic and augmented. The idea has been to create an inclusive space for aspects of intelligence emanating from spirit beings, indigenous knowledge worlds, shamanistic cosmologies, and non-human cognition as well as from the machine brain and algorithmic regimes governing the world,” explains Ginwala.
Ayas concurs, and adds that the programming intends to navigate various theoretical, scientific, physical, sonic, spiritual, even olfactory vocabularies in strategies of dissidence and resistance, as well as communal healing.” The artistic directors had been discussing this much before the covid-19 pandemic broke out, and this idea has gained immense relevance in the present time. “We wanted to look at non-Western cosmologies, and how the artists would contend with planetary conditions with their vocabularies,” says Ayas.
The public programme, which started in October last year, was held in conjunction with the participating artists’ first site visits to Gwangju. The invited artists were paired with local interlocutors for various gatherings, ranging from shamanic figurations of the lower world with Yin-Ju Chen, an artist based in Taipei, who explores social power and history through cosmological systems to encounters with machine learning with Judy Radul, a Canadian multidisciplinary artist, writer and educator. “We had international and diaspora Korean artists converging with older and younger generations of artists and scholars from within the country itself. There were also interactions between artists invited from other countries. This was quite an important anchoring experience. We visited Buddhist historical temples, cultural organizations, historical collections and civic initiatives in Gwangju and more. This was all part of the learning experience,” elaborates Ginwala.
One of the outcomes of this journey is the bilingual online journal, which serves as an ensemble of the research process. It features long essays, poetry, sonic features and videos. The upcoming issues are all set to focus on a myriad ideas, ranging from online gaming culture and gender paradigm to queer life trajectory embedded in indigenous shamanistic culture and tragic historical trauma embedded in female bodies.
The first issue featured artist-poet Cecilia Vicuña’s ‘Rain Dreamed by Sound reading Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’ composed in the vein of mourning, self-exile and recovery. There was also technology researcher and writer Maya Indira Ganesh’s feminist takes on cyborgs and bots while building a larger conversation on how machine learning is reshaping the virtuality of desire, body image, and commits to making “wiggle room” away from tech bro culture.
The pandemic has changed the way the team has had to work together. “For a lot of younger members in the team, this is their first experience of coordinating the biennale. In South Korea, contact tracing is at such an advanced level, and containment measures are very swift, yet we have had to reinvent ways of working,” says Ginwala. The team has been having regular conversations to figure out the complexities. And yet the resulting programming is not a knee-jerk reaction. The online journal, for instance, is not a hurried response but a thought-through programme. Some works were always meant to be digital, and have not been commissioned just because of the pandemic. “We have had a very organic way of sharing processes. At this time, we are learning directly from the artists and their experiences, and let this inform our work” adds Ayas.
To get details of the programming, visit 13thgwangjubiennale.org