The 2016 Gwangju Biennale (September 2–November 6) has officially begun. Art director Maria Lind, who hails from Belgium, has prepared an exhibition entitled “The Eighth Climate (What does art do?),” an exploration of the social role of the artistic imagination. She shared with us the stories behind this year’s biennale, giving her take on the curatorial process, the content and her collaboration with a diverse team of curators. This interview was first published in “Biennales in Korea,” a special supplement of Hong Kong’s ArtAsiaPacific magazine produced by the Korea Arts Management Service in partnership with ArtAsiaPacific.
After I was invited a year ago, I assembled a curatorial team with Binna Choi, Azar Mahmoudian, Michelle Wong and Margarida Mendes. We convened in Gwangju in September 2015, along with around a dozen artists, to do site visits. We encouraged the artists to produce work locally and let themselves be embedded in Gwangju through whatever skills, tools, materials or technologies are available in the city.
Over the course of the winter, more people were invited to Gwangju, all in all 25 artists—Apolonija Šušteršič, Amalia Pica, Hu Yun, Bernd Krauss, Ahmet Ogut, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, Gunilla Klingberg were some of them—people who represent strong and relevant practices today. In this work we started to see certain patterns, or strands, which we then emphasized with further invitations primarily of existing work. This came from a desire to place art center stage: to look a lot at what the work does and, specifically, art’s capacity to say something about the future, in and of itself, as a seismograph, whether the artists are conscious of that, or not.
Walid Raad recommended this text by Henry Corbin from 1964, Mundus Imaginalis. What Corbin proposes, and what the Iranian philosopher Sohravardi said in the 12th century, is that the “eighth climate” is a zone that, in addition to the seven climates that the ancient Greek geographers identified on earth, is both concrete and abstract. It is connected to reality, in the sense that in the eighth climate there are real effects but it is also full of imagination, or the “imaginal.” It’s very important that this idea was not the guiding light but it is a title that describes well our approach to this biennial: to place art center stage and to think about how it operates. It appeared as a very interesting parallel to how contemporary art is operating, in Nabuqi’s evocative sculptures of rudimentary landscapes and architecture, Siren Eun Young Jung’s video with young women enacting the roles of men in the gukgeuk theater tradition where only women appear on stage and Fernando García Dory’s participatory performance in and about a rice field in the outskirts of Gwangju, to name a few examples.
Among the interests we saw, for instance, are what we have called the “right to opacity,” namely abstraction; “above and below ground,” artists interested in landrights, gentrification, natural resources, also what is happening above and below ground; and “the image people,” artists who are interested in representation and signification through two-dimensional images, which is also very much in line with social media and digital technology. Another strand has to do with the span from the molecular to the cosmic—how artists look at the minutest and also the vastest distances that we can imagine.
One space will correspond to one strand or pattern—that is the abstraction one—but for the rest, they will be intermingled. Some artists work in venues in the city and yet others have found their own locations, but most of the work is in the Biennale Hall, which will be structured in such a way that each gallery, each floor, will have a different atmosphere, a different climate. One will be very dense with work, another will be rather sparse; one will be quite dark and another quite bright. So the experience of the show is important, how you articulate the encounter between visitor and artwork.
Mite Ugro have a space in an old market in the city center and in January we began what we called our Monthly Gatherings. Our events respond to what Mite Ugro feel is needed in Gwangju. One format is artist screenings. We are starting a book collection, based on donations, from which we do collective readings of texts. We are doing “Artworks in Focus,” for which two artists at a time introduce one artwork to a group consisting of Biennale artists, the curatorial team and people from the local art scene.
For “Infra-school,” we are plugging ourselves into existing educational institutions both in Seoul and in Gwangju, with lectures, workshops, crits, et cetera. It ranges from university, like Seoul National University, to a self-organized art-education school called the RAT School of Art. Among those schemes are all ideas about wanting to talk about work, about art, about placing art center stage.
As much as we are attaching ourselves to Gwangju, we want to be connected internationally. So we have appointed around 100 Biennale Fellows: these are small and medium-scale visual art organizations that we feel contribute significantly to the ecology of the art world, or to the biotopes of art, places like the Showroom in London, AIT in Tokyo, Para Site in Hong Kong, also in Korea, Pool, Work on Work, and Ruangrupa in Jakarta, Clark House Initiative and CAMP [in India]. They will participate in “Forum,” which happens September 2–4 and includes keynotes and even a hike in the hills. It will be a lot about working conditions and values, in parallel to what the mainstream is cherishing, and developing strategies about how we can support one another.
To think about meditation. This is a concern of mine since before Tensta—which is really to focus a lot on the work. To think about how you can tease the most out of artworks through identifying shared concerns, between artists and artworks and people working with them, and how to share them with individuals and groups who were previously not familiar with them.
※ This article is published as part of a collaboration between ArtAsiaPacific magazine and Korea Arts Management Service. It first appeared in ArtAsiaPacific 's special supplement “Biennales in Korea”, No.100, Sep/Oct 2016.
HG Masters is currently writer and editor-at-large for ArtAsiaPacific magazine, after previously serving as managing editor. Since 2008, Masters has edited the ArtAsiaPacific Almanac, an annual review of contemporary art in 53 countries from Turkey to Taiwan. Masters studied at Yale University, and was the recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation Creative Capital Arts Writers Grant in 2011. He is based in Istanbul.