Established in 1995, the Gwangju Biennale has risen to become one of the premier events in international contemporary art, continuously presenting cutting-edge artworks that embody the spirit of Gwangju while exploring diverse contemporary discourses. In 2021, the thirteenth Gwangju Biennale was held at various sites in downtown Gwangju, including the Biennale Exhibition Hall, Gwangju National Museum, Horanggasy Artpolygon, Gwangju Theater, and the former Armed Forces Gwangju Hospital. For thirty-nine days in April and May, sixty-nine artists (or teams) from forty-three countries explored the theme of “Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning,”presenting visitors with a dazzling array of works emphasizing the importance of plurality and the sense of community embedded within global life systems, shamanism, indigenous lifestyles, and alternative social relations.
This year’s Gwangju Biennale featured eleven Korean artists (or teams), three of whom—Min Joung-Ki, Moon Kyungwon, and Kim Sylbee—produced new works through the support of the GB Commission. These three artists and their new works are now the subjects of in-depth articles by TheArtro. The first article looks at two newly commissioned works by Min Joung-Ki—〈Poetic Circles’ Pavilions in Mudeung Mountain〉 (2020) and 〈Altar of Heaven in Mudeung Mountain〉 (2020)—in the context of earlier works from the 1980s and 1990s. The second article introduces the latest installment of Moon Kyungwon’s 〈Promise Park〉 (2021), a series that she has been working on since 2015.
by Kim Jaeseok
The first artwork to greet visitors at this year’s Gwangju Biennale exhibition, 《Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning》, was Moon Kyungwon’s . The biennial’s artistic directors Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala opened Gallery 1 to the public for free as an open space implying the contemporary concept of publicness. In the online exhibition tour video, Natasha Ginwala stressed that Moon’s work is consistent with the first floor gallery’s theme. She analyzed that “functions as a multidisciplinary space” and “[the artist] invites experts including neuroscientists, historians, and other scientists to try to reflect on how society and geography shape our worldviews.”
Promise Park in Gwangju is a piece in the form of a carpet in a large square shape measuring 7m 60cm on each side, and with a thickness of 1.5cm. Were it not for the written sign, some would probably just pass by this work without noticing it, as it is spread out on the floor. Upon careful inspection from all sides, characteristic tactile textures and code-like patterns the warp-weft weaving left reveal colorful aspects that change by the lighting angle and viewing direction. Due to the inconsistent combination of navy blue, brown, and olive drab, and the viewer’s bird’s eye perspective looking down at the floor from above, the piece delivers a sensation of viewing an enlarged satellite map, military camouflage, or a part of an abstract painting. What, then, is the park referred to in the work’s title, and what story does it include about the specific city of Gwangju and parks?
A New Platform Where Parks and Collective Intelligence Join Hands
Promise Park in Gwangju is a piece based on research about the history and urban landscape of the Gwangju Biennale exhibition hall and its adjacent park. To understand this, an introduction of , a project of the same name Moon has been working on since 2013, is needed.
It was at 《Art and Collective Intelligence》, the 10th anniversary special exhibition of YCAM (Yamaguchi Center for Arts and Media) in 2013 in Yamaguchi, Japan, that a work titled 〈Promise Park〉 was first shown. The artist responded to the exhibition’s serious topic of “What might be art’s role in the future?” with a two-channel video including a future park that is regenerated in a virtual society of 2070 that has become desecrated by a catastrophic natural disaster. It was a work consisting of an imaginary park realized with the artist’s drawings and computer graphics, and close-up video of an actual park. Moon conceptualized the park as a place reflecting humanity’s zeitgeist, and she conducted research with professionals from the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and botany in the process of making the work. Present in Moon’s previous work as well is the approach of flexibly crisscrossing the macro and micro histories related to the place through complex and expansive research re-illuminating a certain place, subject, and landscape from a humanities perspective and tracking the place’s history. Seoul and Pyongyang or Namdaemun of the Passage series, Bubble Talk’s Samcheong-dong area galleries, the former Defense Intelligence Agency building of (2009), and the greenhouse that appeared in the 2010 Gallery Hyundai one-person exhibition are representative. Also, the methodology of taking the apocalypse narrative as the starting point of storytelling, and studying art’s essential meaning in a multidisciplinary way, is found in , a collaborative project with the artist Jeon Joon-ho, too.
Enamored by the rich meaning, multilayered charm, and future feasibility Promise Park held as an artwork, YCAM proposed a long-term project to be completed in over 10 years to the artist. Thus, a large-scale research project with the participation of experts and researchers of various fields, including art, architecture, botany, history, urban planning, and publishing, commenced in 2013 centered on the everyday place of the park. A one-person exhibition in the format of a research showcase unveiling the achievements of three years of study, 《Promise Park: Rendering of Future Patterns》, was held at YCAM in 2015. The exhibition consisted of three parts; “Park Atlas,” a section visualizing an archive obtained through research on a genealogy of parks representing the East and the West, Carpet of Moving Images, a video reimagining the remains of Japan’s early modern industrial facilities through drone filming and computer graphic synthesis, and Woven Carpet, in which a giant carpet was made over three months and spread out in the art museum garden.
The noteworthy work (place) was the carpet. Moon presented the carpet as “a collective intelligence platform” metaphorically referring to the Promise Park project’s entire process. She connected the park’s role as an artificial paradise refuge in the city to the carpet’s function of easily re-contextualizing the localities it is placed in as it is unrolled, folded, and transportable. The carpet is like a meeting place and stage connecting people together. The weaving method in which weft and warp threads combine became a powerful formal language (method) refreshing the digital era’s knowledge and information connection and archiving. The artist reinterpreted the park’s several elements through the concept of the pattern, and she engraved this into the carpet. The scene carved into the carpet was made by collage based on a drone-filmed video of ruins or abandoned industrial facilities around Yamaguchi Prefecture, and this was made into a carpet using Japan’s nishijin (西陣織) traditional fabric weaving technique. Like moss sprouting in ruins, the carpet gradually covered the floor as if proliferating. A research and workshop session was held in Seoul as a part of the 'Promise Park project' in May 2016. YCAM’s bio lab programmer and experts of various fields including publishing, curating, architecture, engineering, and music gathered, and they conducted a discussion and science experiment approaching in a new way, through the sensorial medium of scent, the park’s symbolic concept inherent in the subconscious. In 2017, a book of the same title compiling the research and exhibition results of Promise Park was published.
〈Promise Parkin Gwangju〉, Weaving Gwangju’s History Anew
Promise Park in Gwangju, presented at this year’s Gwangju Biennale, departs from the specific history and memories of the city of Gwangju, as the title suggests. The artist transferred the city’s scenery into an abstracted pattern while referencing Gwangju’s old maps or satellite pictures, and she weaved this into a large carpet. Finely carved into the image that looks like part of a secretive document are stories surrounding the city of Gwangju that are interesting but we had now known about well. While creating the piece, Moon Kyungwon discovered, one by one, stories related to the existence of Gwangju’s first public park, which was created in 1943, the history of the textile industry that became the starting point of Korea’s modern industry, the Gwangju and Jeonnam area’s textile mills of the 1950s and ’60s, and the art museum and park that were created to heal the historic wound after the May 18th Democratization Movement, and she tracked changes in the city and beyond. Also, she conducted parallel studies with experts of cognitive science, architecture, local cultures, and astrology.
Moon stresses that Promise Park is not a park designing project. In this project, the park is like “a symbol for holding history, time, and the meaning and memories of space.” The artist states, “[Promise Park] redefined the park’s meaning as a new platform while questioning the world we had been aiming for all this time. It is a study about the civilization, systems, and power humanity created and our awareness these caused us to lose, and what remains after a failed history, and it is a pursuit of the potentialities of co-prosperity.” The park of Promise Park still grows today.