Did the chorus of curators hit the right note? Gwangju Biennale 2012 review round-up

Though admirable for its pluralism, many critics reported that the six-strong curatorial team detracted from the Biennale’s cohesiveness.

The ninth edition of the Gwangju Biennale, which ran from 7 September to 11 November, 2012, raised eyebrows for its diverse thematic programme. Many commentators found the format chaotic, though some appreciated the fluid connections between the curators’ visions.

Curators of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale. From top left to bottom right: Wassan Al-Khudhairi, Sunjung Kim, Mami Kataoka, Alia Swastika, Carol Yinghua Lu and Nancy Adajania.

Curatorial vision(s)

By far the most defining feature of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale was its multi-curator format. For the exhibition, organisers invited six female curators from different countries in Asia and the Middle East to work collaboratively on the exhibition: Nancy Adajania of India, Wassan Al-Khudhairi from the Middle East, Mami Kataoka of Japan, Kim Sunjung from Korea, Carol Yinghua Lu of China and Alia Swastika from Indonesia.

Instead of working under a single theme, the group decided to bring together six different subsections under the collective banner “Roundtable”, envisioning the Biennale as a meeting of disparate yet interrelated visions and viewpoints. At its opening, the exhibition featured “over 93 artists, artist groups, and temporary collectives from 44 countries“.

Image from the opening of the 2012 Gwangju Biennale.

Writing for frieze magazine’s blog, Biennale curator Carol Yinghua Lu described the curatorial method as a necessary response to the challenges of working with multiple perspectives and backgrounds. In the post, entitled “Curating the Gwangju Biennale“, she said,

In the year or so leading up to the Biennale, we’ve had the opportunity to gather in various locations around the world for openings, meetings, closed-door conferences, symposia and promotional events, trying to come up with a theme for the Biennale that would reflect all of our individual concerns. It turned out to be an extremely difficult and frustrating process – we were to discover more differences among our curatorial approaches and intellectual positions than affinity or curiosity. … Having acknowledged the impossibility of having a singular vision in the set up of our curatorial collective in the early process of us working together has driven us to devise possible solutions: for instance, having six sub-themes under the general title of ‘Roundtable’.

The curators understood the challenges they would face in organising such a diverse exhibition. When asked by The Wall Street Journal whether the Biennale might “be viewed as chaos”, curator Mami Kataoka responded,

Either chaos or interesting entanglement. It doesn’t look like it was curated by one person. It’s sort of a ‘micro-model’ of what is happening in the world today: the different voices, the different values, making all these collisions.

Craig Walsh and Hiromi Tango, 'Home–Gwangju', 2012, mixed media, digital projection, stereo sound.

Contrast without comparison?

Many commentators thought that the pluralistic vision for the Biennale ultimately detracted from the unity of the show. The Korea Times spoke with art critic Lim Geun-jun, who thought the format was “too safe”.

It is obvious that there were not enough discussions among the six curators. They just reprised what they did with familiar artists they have worked with. This biennale does not present a new vision, but imitates the tradition of biennale.

Thematics aside, the collective model also led to practical exhibition problems. Kate Sutton, writing for Art Forum, commented on the coloured dots that were meant to distinguish the separate parts of the exhibition.

In theory, the colour-coding helped connect the work to each curator’s personal sub themes…. In practice, however, this one small design element both pitted the curators against one another in a curatorial land run and undermined some otherwise very articulate works….

Likewise, Anna Somers Cocks, writing for The Art Newspaper, believed that a more unified show would make for a better viewer experience. To her, the most successful segments of the show were those that displayed works separately.

Nancy Adajania and Carol Yinghua Lu, however, wanted their own exhibition spaces, and they are markedly more coherent and therefore enjoyable, demonstrating that a semi-collaborative approach does not help the hapless member of the public understand what is going on.

JuYeon Kim, 'Erasing Memory III', 2012, three tons of salt, eight wooden chairs.

Serendipitous links

Not all critics denounced the collective curatorial model. In contrast to Cocks, Danielle Rago of Abitare thought the most successful thematic subsections were those that shared exhibition space.

While four out of six curators chose to exhibit work in this way (in unison), two artistic directors (Nancy Adajania and Carol Yinghua Lu) opted for solo shows. While the overall sub-themed exhibitions were arguably more cohesive than the group show, the most successful feature of all were the spontaneous connections between pieces and the ways in which certain artworks selected by one curator overlapped with the ideas and themes of another. … It is no longer the individual artist, artwork or the curator but the entirety of the works exhibited and the plurality of discourse(s) produced within and around the works that embodies the spirit of this biennale in the context of Gwangju, South Korea. This democratic approach to curating through a series of perspectives in which each voice is given equal merit and this makes for some of the most interesting moments within the exhibition.

Vertical Submarine, 'The Forest: A Chapter from Monsieur Pain', 2012, glass and wood objects, wooden furniture, lighting and construction.

Excessive “curatorese”

Though a minor quibble compared to the larger questions of biennale format, two writers noted that the rampant use of abstruse language in the exhibition texts detracted from the viewer’s experience. As Romain Maitra, writing for The Hindu, noted,

It is essential to mention here that I often felt it to be a better idea to overlook certain curatorial notes that were unnecessarily abstruse and unreadable due to inordinate use of ‘curatorese’ that helped more to obscure than to clarify.

Anna Somers Cocks of The Art Newspaper had a similar criticism, and encouraged curators to write for the public instead of just to each other. “I challenge anyone to understand what this means,” she wrote in reaction to one of wall texts in Carol Yinghua Lu’s section of the exhibition.

Did you attend the Gwangju Biennale 2012? What did you think: thematic harmony or curatorial chaos (or both)? Leave us a comment below with your thoughts.

PR/KN

Related Topics: biennales and biennialscuratorial practice, art in Gwangjuround-ups

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