Curating the Gwangju Biennale
Gwangju Biennale Hall 2012
When, on 9 June this year, Tate Modern hosted a discussion on ‘Roundtable’, the 9th Gwangju Biennale, I experienced a slight feeling of melancholy after speaking as one of its panelists. Since the Gwangju Biennale Foundation announced the appointment of six Asian curators – including me – as the co-artistic directors of the biennale, it has been both a treat and a challenge to be part of a collective, which we’ve described among ourselves as a forced marriage. The six curators, all women, come from China, Korea, Japan, India, Indonesia and Iraq – being Asian is hardly a common ground to operate from. No regional attributes, assumptions or generalizations helped ease some of the surprises that arose during the course of our many attempts to share a discussion.
Co Artistic Directors of ROUNDTABLE The 9th Gwangju Biennale 2012 including (L-R) Sunjung Kim, Carol Yinghua Lu, Alia Swastika, Mami Kataoka, Nancy Adajania, and Wassan AI-Khudhairi.
Most of us didn’t know each other prior to this gathering, and had little knowledge about the practices of our fellow curators. We had come together simply through the invitation of the biennale foundation, only to find that even though we all speak English, mostly as a second language, the differences among us were much greater than a matter of language. In the year or so leading up to the biennale, we’ve had the opportunity to gather in various locations around the world for openings, meetings, closed-door conferences, symposia, and promotional events, trying to come up with a theme for the biennale that would reflect all of our individual concerns. It turned out to be an extremely difficult and frustrating process – we were to discover more differences among our curatorial approaches and intellectual positions than affinity or curiosity. This eventually led us to decide upon the title ‘Roundtable’, which would both describe our collective approach and enable each of us to articulate our respective interests and concepts. Having acknowledged the impossibility of having a singular vision in the set up of our curatorial collective in the early process of us working together has driven us to devise possible solutions: for instance, having six sub-themes under the general title of ‘Roundtable’. Each of us came up with one, and invited a number of artists to participate in the biennale under each sub-theme. We had also laid out the space in a way where there will be works of artists chosen for different sub-themes that are interwoven with one another, and works of artists under one subtheme are grouped in one gallery of the biennale building.
The ‘Roundtable’ discussion at Tate Modern in June was the last step of our preparation before turning the exhibition into a real thing; it was time to put our ideas and thoughts into action. We would be confronted with the result of our lengthy, intense and complicated course of trying to communicate with each other and to look for links and connections between our varied and at times divided positions. All of us arrived in Gwangju in August to start working on the actual exhibition although some preparation had started long before. There had been site visits by artists – a number have started their residency in Gwangju to create works specifically for a selection of venues in the city such as a temple, and the Gwangju cinema that was built during the Japanese occupation. It was my seventh time now in the city – a place where the words ‘Gwangju Biennale’ are just about the only English ones recognizable to any taxi driver. The word biennale has been incorporated into the local vocabulary over time since the city gave birth to the event in 1995. When told to go to the biennale building, a local taxi driver told me that it wouldn’t be opened until September. Restaurants give us special discounts and treat us like family, knowing that we are working for the biennale. When we approached the local market, cinema, museums and temples as potential sites for venues, people opened their doors to us and were receptive towards proposals and collaboration. The biennale clearly occupies a position in the fabric of the local life in Gwangju as much as it is considered as an international platform for contemporary art.
All six of us have come from outside of the city, moved by and grateful for the enthusiasm and support from the local community. We had every intention to make the biennale a strong exhibition, not just for ourselves but also precisely for the trust of the people in the city. All five galleries of the biennale building, which is normally closed in-between the Gwangju Biennale and the Gwangju Design Biennale, two of the major events that alternate on a yearly basis, sprang to life one month prior to the opening as builders, painters, furniture-makers, equipment-providers, artists, helpers and curators gradually poured into the building to take up their posts.
Four of the co-artistic directors agreed to show work together in Gallery 1, 2 & Gallery 5 so that four of their subthemes: ‘Re-visiting History’ (as proposed by Wassan Al-Khudhairi), ‘Transient Encounters’ (as proposed by Mami Kataoka), ‘Intimacy, Autonomy and Anonymity’ (as proposed by Kim Sunjung), and ‘Impact of Mobility on Space and Time’ (as proposed by Alia Swastika). The show’s layout was based on consideration of the dimensions and nature of the work, availability of space and discussion among the four curators. Two of the six co-artistic directors, Nancy Adajania and I, both asked for an independent space. I, for one, felt that what I intended to articulate about creative subjectivity with my sub-theme ‘Back to the Individual Experience’, would have been lost if I had to show the work in different spaces and within different narratives. This difference of opinion in the allocation of space to a certain extent also revealed the differences among our attitudes towards curating and what were considered necessary instruments for the expression of one’s curatorial vision.
We had agreed not to conceal the disagreements that had risen during the process of working on this biennale – whether our choices of sub-themes, choices, and spaces. We also agreed not to interfere with each other’s approach. This allowed us to explore our own interests and thinking.
What came out of the biennale was a truthful reflection of the working relationships among us, the variations of our own positions and curatorial concerns, the conceptual dialogues we were able or not able to develop among us, as well as the connectivity and divisions among our intellectual stands. It was clearly not a unity, but a set of complicated, at times entangled but more often disparate concerns.
￼9th Gwangju Biennale Opening Ceremony, September 6th 2012