South Korea’s Jeju Island is best known as a holiday and honeymoon destination, welcoming both domestic and international tourists (who do not require a visa). That changed in July 2018, when the hostility that greeted the arrival of fewer than 600 Yemeni refugees threw a spotlight onto the rise of rightwing nationalism in South Korea. Other locals were sympathetic, pointing out that many South Koreans found themselves in the same situation during the Korean War and under Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship, and resisted calls to withdraw the island’s visa-free status. In a video interview, the CEO of Jeju-based Global Inner Peace, one of the aid organisations supporting the refugees, said that, ‘In today’s global age, where everything’s connected, we can’t pretend these issues aren’t our problem anymore’.
Just over a hundred miles north of the island, those issues are one of the themes tying together the 2018 edition of Gwangju Biennale, 23 years after it was established to commemorate the atrocities of the 18 May 1980 Gwangju Uprising (known locally as 5.18). Walking through the biennale, it’s difficult not to think of the global currents that have and are carrying people away from their homes and families into unknown territories. Displacements in time and geography offer one way of processing its seven sections, located across the sites of the main biennale hall and the Asia Culture Center and organised by 11 curators who present a total of 165 artists from 43 countries.
The memory of what is past or has been lost, then, acts as an Ariadne’s thread when navigating this biennale. It helps when weaving between more allusive works, such as Tanya Goel’s Vanishing Sites (2012–), in which the artist documents the impact on civic life of demolished government housing projects in New Delhi by collecting their fragments, here arranged on the floor of the exhibition space in Clara Kim’s section, ‘Imagined Nations/Modern Utopias’; and more direct addresses to the plight of asylum seekers, as in Agnieszka Kalinowska’s single-channel film Draughty House (2009). Cordoned off by an accompanying rope-and-paper sculpture, The Fence (2009), and shown in curator Gridthiya Gaweewong’s ‘Facing Phantom Borders’, Draughty House was made in collaboration with displaced people from the Eastern Bloc, Africa and the Middle East who had sought refuge in Vienna.
How do you hold the experiences of refugees and crises of war in remembrance when these global events are continuing to play out? This collapsing of past and present is dramatised in works that incorporate archival elements, including found documents and footage, artwork as well as filmed interviews and recollections. Vietnamese-born Tiffany Chung presents several works centred around her research into the history of Vietnamese refugees, among them reconstructing an exodus history: flight routes from camps and of ODP cases (2017), a large fabric map of the world onto which Chung has handstitched the routes taken by those fleeing persecution between 1975 and 1996, following the end of the Vietnam War; the unwanted population: a pilgrimage to the off-shore islands (2014–), a collection of found footage displayed on tablets hung beside Chung’s map, showing children dragged off boats and separated from parents, protests against the arrivals and the water-hosing of refugees who refuse to climb down off roofs. Played on loops, these works present back to the viewer scenes that have become familiar in today’s media – a different time and place, the same injustices.
Archival documentation and artworks come together in ‘Returns’, a section dedicated to the biennale’s history and conceived as a space in which to reflect on its role in the city. Alongside material dating back to the first Gwangju Biennale in 1995, there are newly commissioned artworks and works first exhibited at previous editions. Rather than confining these to a single space, curator David Teh has positioned them throughout the other sections, offering moments of pause – points from which to find your way again.
There is irony in the title of ‘The Art of Survival’, curated by Man seok Kim, Sung woo Kim and Chong-Ok Paek, by far the largest exhibition of the seven (it contains 82 artworks). Amidst its overwhelming size, Kang Yeongyun’s brightly coloured manjang (Korean funeral streamers), titled Between sky and land 4 (1995), presents one of those moments of respite and recollection. The banners were originally installed during the Anti-Biennale of 1995 at Mangwol-Dong Cemetery, intended to honour the victims of 5.18 and to protest against what the organisers believed to be a state-funded project insensitive to the city’s traumatic history. Teh tells me he had intended for the banners to be distributed across the city, to be shared by everyone. We talk about how the legacy of the Gwangju Uprising has shaped the biennale and the perception of the city more widely, and whether the biennale could or should separate itself. To which he replies, “How can you not talk about 5.18?”
Kader Attia’s deeply affecting contribution to the Gwangju Biennale Commission – a new section by four artists distributed across the main venues and two external sites – comprises two works. At the dilapidated former Armed Forces Hospital, wooden sleepers punctured with silver staples are installed in the recovery rooms; in the biennale hall, pairs of prosthetic legs are seated on wooden chairs, between which four monitors play the same video at different points. For this latter work, Shifting Borders (2018), Attia visited countries in East and Southeast Asia to record interviews with shamans, priests, victims of trauma, psychologists and academics that engage with the role of animism and shamanism in processing loss and trauma. A doctor announces, “I don’t think a psychiatrist is the only one who can heal”; a shaman channels the spirit of the father of two grieving daughters and gently wipes away their tears with a white cloth; the video cuts to found footage of a mass funeral at Mangwol-dong Cemetery.
Teh is right, in that 5.18 carries significance beyond its particular location in time and place. The phrase represents victims of war and the importance of memorialising not only their individual lives but the struggle for freedom and democracy. 5.18 is still happening. The psychiatrist isn’t wholly right: trauma can’t be healed, but it can be acknowledged by acts of remembrance.
Gwangju Biennale: Imagined Borders, various venues, Gwangju, through 11 November
From the Winter 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia