The Biennial Questionnaire: Jessica Morgan on the Gwangju Biennale

5 September through 9 November 2014

By Helen Sumpter & Louise Darblay

Minouk Lim, FireCliff 3 performer with Big Baby, 2012. Photo:Cameron Wittig, Walker Art Center Courtesy the artist Lee Bull, Abortion, 1989. Performance, Dong Soong Art Center, Seoul. Courtesy: Studio Lee Bul. Jane Alexander, Installation view of the exhibition, 'Surveys (from the Cape of Good Hope)', 2012. Photo by Paul Hester. © Jane Alexander / DALRO Jessica Morgan portrait. Photo: Olivia Hemmingway/Tate Photography

ArtReviewHow did you approach your curator-ship of the Biennale when deciding on its overall structure, themes and balance of artists? And with this being the tenth edition, how did you look over the history of the event as well as to its future?

Jessica Morgan The selection of artists and the structure developed very naturally from the theme, which was conceived in response to my research in Korea. Once the title was established, it acted as a composite of various ideas (it was intentionally broad); the language of the title and the associations it carries allowed for subtly different concepts to emerge. Artists were very much the starting point for the Biennale, so their approach, works and input certainly helped form the exhibition.

The significance of the anniversary is perhaps reflected in the many new works the artists are making specifically for the context of Gwangju, and in the reappearance of a couple of artists who have shown before, such as Allora & Calzadilla and Sung Hwan Kim, whose presence refers to an institutional history.

AR The title for the Biennale, Burning Down the House, is taken from the 1983 song by the band Talking Heads. Can you explain this reference and the themes the title relates to?

JM When Talking Heads were debating the title and chorus of Burning Down the House, members of the band remembered being at a Funkadelic concert where George Clinton and the audience swapped calls to ‘burn down the house’. This hedonism by the P-Funk crowd on the dance floor was then turned into an anthem of bourgeois anxieties by the New York-based band. This dual meaning of pleasure and engagement serves as the defining spirit of the Biennale, fusing physical movement with political engagement.

Burning Down the House also explores the process of burning and transformation, a cycle of obliteration and renewal witnessed throughout history, evident in aesthetics, historical events and an increasingly rapid course of redundancy and renewal in commercial culture. The Biennale reflects on this process of destruction or self-destruction – burning the home one occupies – followed by the promise of the new and the hope for change.

AR It must be challenging when composing your narrative, as you can never know exactly whatthe artists will produce, especially considering the impressive number of commissions (more than 30). Could you explain how you have dealt with this?

JM The artists making new works include those I have worked with on previous occasions, though the majority are artists I am working with for the first time. It was important to include some artists familiar to me that I admire enormously and with whom I am able to learn and communicate. These provide a curatorial anchor for the many developing conversations we are in the midst of. Fortunately the artists asked to participate were all keen to think about the many facets offered by the theme and context of the tenth Biennale.

ARIt is quite unusual for a biennial to take place in a single location, most of them being spread across different venues in a city. This can be an advantage in maintaining coherence throughout the show; conversely, it runs the risk of wearing out the visitor because of its scale. How are you approaching this challenge?

JM In fact the Biennale is always in the Biennale Halls, so the scale of these spaces will not change. Rather than going out into the city, we are bringing the city to the Biennale, as more than 400 citizens will be involved in the production of the many performance works that animate the exhibition. The spaces of the Biennale also extend into locations in the park surrounding it, offering a good antidote to the interior intensity of the exhibition.

ARThere will be something quite theatrical in how you are designing the exhibition, marking the entrance and exit of each room by a performance or installation. Could you give some examples?

JM The exhibition treats each of the five large-scale spaces as connected but independently atmospheric zones, their entrances and exits defined by new commissions and existing works by Allora & Calzadilla, Jack Goldstein, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Koo Jeong-a and Piotr Uklanski that draw attention to the transitional experience of entering into the Biennale through actions, performances and artworks that animate and incite. Koo Jeong-a is making a wall that will move and vibrate, simu-lating the effect of an earthquake, as you exit Gallery One. As you leave the Biennale Halls, a ghostlike performance by Gonzalez-Foerster will occupy Gallery Five. In the midst of the Biennale, as you enter Gallery Three, the announcement of your presence will be made evident by the performance work of Pierre Huyghe.

AR The Gwangju Biennale has a strong historical and symbolic background, as it was established to commemorate the 1980s pro-democracy uprising against the then government, and as a way to move forward from there. More than other biennials, then, it is rooted in a specific political and local history, while also having the international vocation of a biennial. How do you produce a show that offers a new resonance on this local history, within a global perspective?

JM The location of Gwangju is of course very different to the touristic centres of other biennials, such as Berlin, Istanbul or Sydney. Curatorially it offers a strong framework to work with (and against), and personally I am drawn to limitations or structures that can help to define a project. This exhibition is by no means about the Gwangju Uprising, but the contemporary politics of Korea are such that the region that Gwangju is situated in still occupies a fraught position within the larger geographic landscape. For that reason the site of the Biennale has current resonance for Korean socioeconomic and political reality, and to ignore this would be an omission.

ARCan you talk about some of the works that make reference, either directly or indirectly, to that socioeconomic and political reality – for example South African artist Jane Alexander’s installation that relates to state control and freedom, Minouk Lim’s new work, the Edward (and Nancy Reddin) Kienholz installation and the inclusion of artists Lee Bul, Young Soo Kim and Neungkyung Sung, whose works from the 1980s were made in direct response to those events?

JM There are a number of works that draw attention to parallel situations in other parts of the world. The works of Kienholz, Alexander and Gülsün Karamustafa reflect on periods of militaristic control and the consequences for civil liberties, Brenda Fajardo’s work is included in part to connect the shared histories of the Philippines and Korea (both experienced Japanese occupation and US military occupation). The works of Lee Bul and Young Soo Kim were crucial for addressing the physical, bodily impact of oppression – not only through torture, which both works refer to, but also the physiological and psychological impact of living in a time of mistrust and accusation. Minouk Lim is one of a few artists in the exhibition who look to historic moments that have not yet been fully recognised, not so much to archive and document but rather to point to the contemporary relevance of these moments and their continued significance for the present day.

ARIn recent years biennials and other major art events have themselves become the site for protest, for example in Sydney in relation to sponsorship, Istanbul in relation to public space and Manifesta in Russia in relation to censorship and human rights. How have you approached this possibility, either in terms of work – such as wanting to include Picasso’s painting Massacre in Korea (1951) –or in other areas?

JM I am still very disappointed that we were not able to bring Picasso’s work – which has never been shown in Korea. This Biennale is not in the public space of the city aside from the Biennale Square, which is a well-used site by the local population. Unfortunately I think one of the challenges for a curator who does not speak the language is that entering into the urbanscape becomes extremely difficult.

The Gwangju Biennale arose out of protest, and although there may be an aspect of institutionalised memorial around the events that took place, its contemporary position is still one that is marginalised within the country, so perhaps the Biennale occupies a different position that cannot be directly compared to the biennials you mention.

ARWhat do you see as the local versus global functions of the Biennale in terms of audience? Gwangju, as you say, is not a major tourist destination, and yet it is an increasingly international event.

JM The vast majority of visitors come from Korea, not outside. For that reason it was essential to me that the exhibition speak in some way to this Korean audience. If an international audience comes, that is wonderful, of course, but in reality I think the Biennale is for Korea. 

The 10th Gwangju Biennale runs from 5 September through 9 November 2014 

This article was first published in its current form in the Autumn & Winter 2014 issue of ArtReview Aisa (having previously appeared in an abbreviated version on