The 11th Gwangju Biennale : an Interview with Maria Lind, Artistic Director and Michelle Wong, Assistant Curator

by Carla Ingrasciotta
August 22, 2016
Carla Ingrasciotta
Lind Maria

On the occasion of our Focus on the 11th Gwangju Biennale, we asked artistic director Maria Lind, in collaboration with Michelle Wong, to share with our readers her perspective on the biennial and on the city’s art scene. 

At GB11, attention is directed to artworks and projects addressing the agency of art in terms of “what does art do?” and in particular the aspect of art is its projective and imaginative qualities—art’s active relationship to the future.

Carla Ingrasciotta: Could you tell us something more about the concept “The Eight Climate (What does art do?)”, this year’s biennial theme?

Maria Lind: Imagine that you are walking on a ramp leading from one floor to the next in a big exhibition space. In the corner of your eye you notice something on the long smooth white wall: in one place it looks like cracks, with the wall paint peeling off, and in other places it is a black thread seemingly stitching the wall together. Something is falling apart and is being repaired, at the same time. This is the subtle GB11 installation by Mumbai-based artist Prajakta Potnis who is interested in how we experience space, its evocative qualities. Art sensitizes you to discreet and yet structurally important things, just as it sometimes interferes head on in power structures. I am thinking of Dora Garcia’s Nokdu bookshop for the living and the dead, which is an activiated copy of the legendary Gwangju bookshop which functioned as a meeting place for many who were involved with Korea’s democratization process, not least the 5.18 uprising. Garcia describes it as a “functional fiction”: you can indeed buy books there, thanks to a collaboration with Seoul’s eminent publisher and bookshop The Book Society, but also discuss the role of women in the uprising, attend a poster printing workshop and debate how history is told and used for future scenarios.

Michelle Wong:  “The Eighth Climate”, which is a title and not a theme or a concept for GB11, is another name for the notion of “the imaginal,” which was first developed by Persian mystic and philosopher Sohravardi (1155-91). It is an “inter-world” between the natural and spiritual worlds, a zone of active imagination, in addition to the seven earthly climates identified by ancient Greek geographers. “The eighth climate” was further elaborated by the 20th century French philosopher Henri Corbin (1903-78), who saw it as neither heaven nor earth, but a zone where the imagined, the unreal for some, rubs against reality and actually impacts and changes reality. This, for us, is an interesting parallel to what art does, at its best

C.I.: Among the concerns of GB11 there’s the concept of art as a mediating instrument. Could you explain us in which way do you intend this in the context of the biennial?

M. L. & M. W: The mediating, or mediation, capacities of art is in many folds, and is indeed one of the main concerns of GB11. But not necessarily art in and of itself as a mediating instrument. Sometimes the very meaning of an artwork is how it mediates – how it connects different people, ideas and issues, and through that connection opens up a different perspective that may otherwise be invisible or illegible. Take for example Suki Seokyeong Kang’s sculptural frames, musical notation system, and movements: together they play with transparency and opacity that can also translate to political situations.
Sometimes situations of mediation will be orchestrated with and around specific artworks by others than the artists, for instance discussions on gentrification taking as their starting point the paintings of Inseon Park and the participatory project by Apolonija Sustersic with Dari Bae in the Duamdong neighborhood of Gwangju. But artworks can also be mediated through activities organised as part of them, and also quite literally in them, as with Bik van Der Pol’s collaboration with Gwangju’s May Mothers who will use the artists installation in the biennale hall for their yoga and song classes.
At other times mediation also happens around situations where art is discussed, viewed, and shared, like the Monthly Gathering and Infra-School exemplify. Monthly Gatherings – Wol-rae-hoe – is a series of informal gatherings in Gwangju, on different scales, running January-November 2016 and developed in collaboration and conversation with GB11’s local curatorial associate, Mite-Ugro. The various activities of Monthly Gathering, from Group Readings, to Artist Screenings, Curated Walk, the building of Mite Ugro’s Art and Theory Book Collection, and Art Work in Focus, where two Gwangju based-artists share one of their own works through an open call, are all developed in order to meet the local concerns of practitioners in Gwangju.
The Infra-school is also a similar zone of mediation, only with a more intense focus on the field of education of art, whether it is in studio, or in curatorial. As a programme Infra-School connects curatorial and artistic knowledge to the existing formal and informal educational institutions in Gwangju and beyond, consisting of lectures, presentations, group discussions and seminars by GB11 artists and curators, organised with existing educational institutions in Gwangju such as Chosun University and Chonam University but also in Seoul, for example Seoul National University and the self-organized RAT school of art.

C. I.:  Your curatorial team is very heterogeneous. You all come from different parts of the world and everyone has a particular background. How did you select your collaborators and what is it like working with them?

M. L: I was lucky to be able to invite young praticioners to the curatorial team, ending up with an outstanding, varied, group with experience from curating, teaching, research, mediation and self-organization stretching from Tehran (Azar Mahmoudian) and Utrecht (Binna Choi) to Lisbon (Margarida Mendes) and Hong Kong (Michelle Wong). To work with Mite-Ugro and its various members has also been enriching.

C. I.: What about the artists projects of this year? How did you select the participating artists? Could you tell us which are the projects that you enjoyed more?

M. L: The artist projects that form GB11 are put together in a process that unfolded over time and space. 28 new projects have been commissioned with a majority of those artists coming to Gwangju for one or more site visits to explore local skills, materials and competences. With the purpose of trying to make this edition of the biennale more embedded in Gwangju than before. These artists were selected based on their practices being strong and relevant today, according to the curatorial team. Everybody made suggestions and as the artistic director I made the final decision. Some strands or zones of focus began to emerge during this process and other existing works were proposed by each member of the curatorial team, discussed, and finally selected as part of GB11 projects.

 M. W: I have particularly enjoyed working with Doug Ashford and Tommy Stöckel – whose projects are both inspired by Gwangju but found very different manifestations.
Ashford is interested in looking at the sites of resistance and remembrance that are very much part of the sinew of Gwangju’s memory as a place, and I remember assisting him taking photographs on the day before 518, when there were massive celebrations on Guenam-ro. There was this older gentle man in a pastel pink suit, who walked up to the artist, held up the monochrome painting we were photographing with, and stood for a photo. All of that happened without a single word of verbal communication.
The various rocks that are strewn around Gwangju fascinated Stöckel on his first visit to Gwangju in 2015 September. Since then he has developed not only animations of these works that have distinct characters, but also an emoji keyboard that will be functional by the opening of GB11. Apart from this popular, digital component, his rocks will also be in delicate sculptural forms inside the Biennale hall. I find the tension and coexistence between the digital and analog, the proliferation of information and refined containment of artworks extremely fascinating.

C. I.: Gwangju Biennale is Asia’s most prestigious biennial of contemporary art. How did the concept of the Biennale change and develop since its foundation in 1995?

M. L: To me it is amazing that the Gwangju Biennale has become so prominent in the International art world, as a major event to recon with but also as a living memorial to 5.18. At the same time, over the years, the biennale foundation has become somewhat removed from the local fabric, artistic or not. This year we are trying to create contact, and conflict, zones in the city, based on shared concerns between the art works, the artists and people in Gwangju. The response has been overwhelmingly positive from the side of the people with whom we have gotten in touch, as if they have waited for this to happen. So there is a lot to build on.

C. I.: Which kind of reactions are you expecting from Gwangju Biennale’s audience? In which way the city itself can contribute to engage visitors to the biennial?

M. L: I hope that the visitors will be engaged in and by the art works, and their orchestration in space. The works take the temperature of our time and indicate and imagine a few things for the future, something which we desperately need today. I only wish that the entrance was free, or that there was at least one free day per week like in many art institutions across the world, to lower the thresholds. I know what that can mean from my work at Tensta konsthall in Stockholm. People use – in the best sense of the word – an art institution differently if there is no entrance fee. To be able to visit an exhibition many times often changes your experience of art.

M. W: The audience may be surprised by the huge spectrum of contemporary art that form GB11 – from art objects to social practices – and to experience them resonating with one another in unexpected ways in terms of how they are installed. The city itself is a very important part of GB11 – the Curated Walks that are part of Monthly Gathering have especially played an important role in shaping our experience and understanding of the city that would otherwise not be possible if the biennale was only an exhibition within an exhibition hall. These walks honed in on the multiple realities of Gwangju, ranging from old hanok houses to urban redevelopment, to the many ancient and urban myths of Vikings and filled up lakes that are revived in people’s imagination through these walks.

C. I.: Could you tell us something about the art scene in Gwangju? Which are the best galleries and art spaces you would suggest to see for visitors coming at the biennial?

M. L.: The challenge is for the big players to be able to truly nurture art and its practitioners in the city, not only on a representative level but in reality. There is definitely some work to be done in this area. Look at how Vancouver and Glasgow since the 1990s have generated exceptional artists and curators, by connecting directly with the world outside their countries.

M. W.: The fast-growing art scene of Gwangju has the potential to be very diverse – from the mega institutions of ACC, the Gwangju Biennale, to small private museums founded by local residents around Jeungsim Temple Enrance, to artist residency spaces and artist collectives in Daein Market and the nearby Sashimi tower. A lot is to be and can be experimented and seen.

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