Gwangju, South Korea
September 7 - November 11, 2012
By Tom Phillips Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips
Art and protest are inseparable at the Gwangju Biennale, a unique and celebrated arts festival in South Korea. It commemorates the Gwangju Democratic Uprising of 1981, when students here led a revolt against a military coup. The uprising ended with a military crackdown and the massacre of hundreds of civilians. But it did not end the protest movement, which culminated in 1997 with the election of the once-imprisoned opposition leader, Kim Dae-Jung.
The Ninth Biennale now underway in Gwangju is a playful,audience-friendly show that sprawls through five huge galleries and spills out into the courtyard, where passersby are invited to play on 14 ping-pong tables with polished mirror-like surfaces. The exhibition has many themes, but running through all of them is the subversion of power. The function of art here is to undermine all forms of oppression: personal, economic, cultural and political. And it does this best through the subtle, irresistible force of entertainment.
The Biennale is full of delights, such as musical instruments made from broken weapons - pistols and AK47s fashioned into flutes, drums and a zither by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes, with a local Gwangju band to perform on them.
There's also a multi-media walk through the maze of immigration barriers. "Welcome to Xijing" is a collaboration among artists from Korea, Japan and China - three nations with a long history of stress and conflict. Xijing is a whimsical fiction of a country, where immigration rules are decided by children. Among the rules: communicable diseases are OK, but people who are too sharp-minded and make the natives feel insecure are not welcome. The exhibit ends with a film showing a series of nonsensical hangups between borders, each ending in a limbo of indecision.
Not all the pieces are whimsical. One of the most formally impressive is a big installation by Korean-American Michael Joo (photo above). He uses 108 riot-police shields to form a sloping overhang, from which are suspended 108 clay objects, artifacts from life such as telephones, trays, cinder blocks and animal carcasses. This nether world looks like a tomb, with the floating objects representing aspects of a life buried under heavy security. There's also a panorama of childhood sport reduced to competitive slavery, a wraparound photograph of a "football school" by Austrian artist Joseph Daberning. It shows a hot dusty soccer field surrounded by cinder-block walls, topped with a chain-link fence and guarded by two middle-aged thugs.
But the show begins and ends with play: ping-pong in the courtyard, and in the last gallery, a hundred bicycles and tricycles, painted in bright colors by New Zealand artist Scott Eady. The space is open for children and their parents, who perch on a wall to watch their kids zoom around, blithely unaware that they are crossing the line between life and art, between natural delight and the delight that comes of contemplation.
And oh,about those ping-pong tables: it took a while to realize that these mirror-like tables, with a double net in the center, are an image of Korea itself, split in two by a DMZ, where a divided family exchanges offensive and defensive moves. To see
oneself jumping around in the polished surface is a lesson in how unwittingly we take part in the games nations play.
And so delight becomes a weapon, a way of mocking the manipulators who would set us against each other for their own purposes. The same principle applies in a work of art that has erupted from Korea and swept the world in a paroxysm of silly delight -- PSY's irresistible music video "Gangnam Style." On Korean TV you can see dark-suited businessmen and World Cup speed skaters joining the fun; everyone is dancing that bow-legged jaunting step, like a rodeo cowboy on a rocking horse. On the surface it's making fun of trendy young Koreans trying to act like Americans. But the satire is broad enough to include Americans themselves, hip-hop dance, music videos, commercialized sex, the whole western world and its wannabe followers across the Pacific.
Almost everyone's doing it, but one person I can't imagine dancing Gangnam Style is Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee, who is now herself the leading candidate for President of South Korea. She's not about to join in a mockery of the U-S ties that created and sustain the power of the South Korean military.
It's impossible for a foreigner to predict what will happen in or after the Korean election December 19. But several veterans of the Gwangju Uprising told me there's no way that young Koreans will be willing to fight for democracy, as they did in 1981. The next Gwangju Biennale might well take place in an atmosphere where protest is once again a risky affair.
Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips
Photo: "Indivisible" by Michael Joo
Courtesy of the artist