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Gwangju Biennale: Imagined Borders

On May 18, 1980, a civilian uprising against the military government of general Chun Doo-hwan emerged in Gwangju, a historical center for left-wing populist movements in South Korea. Protest marches against Chun’s expansion of martial law escalated into an armed uprising after demonstrators faced deadly use of force from paratroopers deployed to squash dissent. Although the uprising was short-lived, lasting only nine days, it was at the time the country’s only instance of civilians arming themselves and fighting back in defiance of authoritarian rule. Chun’s forces regained control of Gwangju on May 27, after imprisoning, torturing and murdering hundreds of civilians and movement leaders under the pretext of eliminating North Korean agitators.

The Gwangju Uprising (also known as the May 18 Democratization Movement, or 5-18) is often memorialized as the birthplace of modern South Korean democracy, which elected its first civilian president in 1993. The first Gwangju Biennale in 1995 was established as not only a sign of good will and national reconciliation, but also an attempt to resolve South Korea’s history of state violence with symbolic gestures and material investments that would bring about a new era of democracy and globalization. The biennial would be tasked with helping to formalize and professionalize the contemporary art field in South Korea while using art to discharge the nation’s guilt over the events of 5-18.

Hours before attending the opening ceremony of this year’s Gwangju Biennale, Harry Harris, the recently appointed U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, was scheduled to meet with students at Chonnam National University as part of a diplomatic tour of South Jeolla province. A retired four-star admiral of the U.S. Navy, Harris was sworn into the ambassadorship in July after a long vacancy of the position under the Trump Administration. Upon his arrival at the university, a dozen students confronted Harris with calls for the U.S. to apologize for its role in the Gwangju Uprising.

The ambassador’s formal meeting with students was subsequently canceled, just as his earlier plans to visit the May 18 National Cemetery were redirected after local civic groups planned to hold an anti-American rally in response. The irony of a former U.S. military leader paying respect to victims of a massacre once enabled and encouraged by his own government was likely not lost on some Gwangju residents, not to mention the irony of his attending an art biennial about “Imagined Borders” while the U.S. president stokes fears about migration during a global refugee crisis of his nation’s making.

State funding for the biennial means that it remains vulnerable to the vagaries of electoral politics and the left or rightward swing of political administrations. Four years ago, South Korean artist and former political prisoner Hong Seong-dam was censored at the Gwangju Biennale for a mural expressing criticism of former president Park Geun-hye, who now serves a 24-year prison sentence for corruption. Under the current administration of president Moon Jae-in, fewer “restricting eyes” are likely to censor local artists or withhold funding. Improvements in North and South Korean relations presented a hopeful political context for this year’s curatorial theme of “Imagined Borders,” while curator Gridthiya Gaweewong’s Facing Phantom Borders exhibition, which addresses the politics of borders and migration, is a timely counterpoint to South Korea’s own rejection of political asylum for Yemeni refugees in recent months. Even an exhibition of North Korean paintings, which delicately skirts the issue of South Korea’s anti-communist National Security Law, attracted little more than the usual grumblings of the country’s conservatives.

Nina Chanel Abney and anonymous graffiti at the Jeon-il Building. Image courtesy of the author.

An untitled work by American painter Nina Chanel Abney hangs from the Jeon-il Building, a ten-story structure with peeling white paint across the street from the Asia Culture Center, one of the main exhibition halls of the Gwangju Biennale. The bottom half of the banner depicts a group of men in military fatigues standing over a deceased figure laid to rest. Above this scene are two figures raising their hands in a way that doesn’t look so much like surrender as it resembles the linking of arms in defense. There’s a floating pair of hearts, along with a numerical reference to May 18. As if in conversation with Abney’s banner, “LOVE LIFE” in graffiti letters to the left stretch vertically down a stairway of the building.

Bullet holes inside the Jeon-Il Building make these entreaties for peace quaint, if not belated. For nearly 40 years, the use of aerial artillery during the Gwangju Uprising was denied by the South Korean military before a recent government investigation corroborated eyewitness accounts of helicopters shooting at civilians. In the American context, Abney’s tribute to victims of state violence might resonate with any number of examples, whether it’s the murder of black people domestically or foreign civilians abroad. In Gwangju, Abney’s untitled work offers a possibility for transnational solidarity rooted in opposition to governments that collude or are complicit in the death of people.

The abandoned Former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital, an exhibition site for the Gwangju Biennale 2018. Image courtesy of the author.

The Jeon-il Building was once scheduled for demolition before the city elected to preserve and repurpose it as a historical landmark and satellite facility for the Asia Culture Center. Many 5-18 landmarks like the Jeon-il exist throughout Gwangju, resulting in a number of old structures that may seem unremarkable if not for their association with the Gwangju Uprising. The Former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital is one such building, now abandoned and fallen to disrepair. The hospital resembles a haunted house from a movie if not for the actual horrors that took place inside – tortured 5-18 prisoners were once brought to the hospital for forced treatment and additional interrogation. Inside, dim hallways lead to dusty quarters with broken glass and exposed wiring. The ceiling is collapsing in parts and the courtyard is overgrown with weeds. Visitors are asked to wear face masks when entering the building as a precaution against excessive dust.

Kader Attia, “Eternal Now.” Image courtesy of the author.

As part of the Gwangju Biennale, site-specific works by British artist Mike Nelson and French artist Kader Attia draw from animist traditions to create spaces for healing and remembering in the Armed Forces’ Hospital. Attia’s “Eternal Now” is a series of wooden beams from traditional Korean houses, called hanok, propped up with metal plinths inside the hospital quarters. Large metal staples are bolted to the sides of the wood in reference to the injuries and forced treatment of political prisoners. In Nelson’s “Mirror reverb (the blinding of a building, a notation for another),” mirrors are collected from the hospital and arranged inside of a nearby abandoned chapel. A darkened room full of mirrors offers space to honor the spirits of unknown victims once reflected by their surfaces. Quiet reflection, however, is undermined by the Biennale’s timed tours of the hospital. The works are less memorials than eerie Infinity Rooms through which visitors are ushered in and out in a few short minutes.

Manjang funeral banners at the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall. Image courtesy of the author.

Tall funeral banners, called manjang, are the first public artworks to be seen near the entrance of the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall. Created by local Gwangju residents, these banners pay tribute to local artists who once organized an “Anti-Biennale” art festival in opposition to the first Gwangju Biennale in 1995. Banners with political slogans and statements of solidarity once lined the roads to the counter-event held at the Mangwol-dong Cemetery where victims of 5-18 were originally buried. Critiques of the first Gwangju Biennale ran the gamut from its art-washing of the pro-democracy movement’s political legacy to its lack of inclusion of ordinary Gwangju citizens with little context for contemporary art. Several of the original banners are part of an exhibition at the Asia Culture Center, where their origins and content are embraced by the Biennale’s official discourse and history. Thirty-eight years have passed since hundreds died in hopes to see their country topple a dictator and embrace democracy. The sheer size and scale of the Gwangju Biennale are enough to make one briefly believe that art can carry the weight of collective trauma and dispense it as justice, but the colorful hand-painted manjang that once spoke truth to power are reminders that art alone cannot be enough.

The 2018 Gwangju Biennale: Imagined Borders was on view at various venues in Gwangju, South Korea September 7 – November 11th, 2018.