Beyond the Detail: Censorship at the Gwangju Biennale (Dilettante Army)

A few weeks ago, the Gwangju Biennale (광주비엔날레) censored Hong Seong-dam’s (홍성담) painting Sewol Owol. Many news sources focused on one small part of the painting. With the support of my colleague, Hanna Yoo, I explain and analyze the entire painting in an article for Dilettante Army. See excerpts below and visit Dilettante Army for the full story.

“Censorship and government control is still a major thread at the Biennale, where a painting concerning these South Korean leaders has caused significant upheaval. “Restricting Eyes”: Lee Yong-woo on Gwangju Biennale Censorship by Julie Baumgardner explains why Lee Yong-woo, its cofounder and president, resigned his position—censorship of artist Hong Seong-dam’s paintingSewol Owol. Intended to be part of a commemorative exhibition at the Gwangju Museum of Art (GMA) celebrating the Biennale’s 20th anniversary, the painting is a raw tribute to the tragic sinking of the Korean ferry last spring which killed nearly 300 people, mostly high school students; it is an artwork created in the true spirit of the Gwangju Uprising. When presented to the GMA officials mere hours before the opening on August 8, the officials called a meeting and decided to postpone any decisions until the middle of September. At that point Hong withdrew the painting. In addition, at a press conference Lee stated, “I don’t think it is taboo to satirize a country’s president…Freedom of artistic expression should not be restricted by the government just because they have the exhibition budget under their control” Lee alludes that the government has more say in the Biennale than the public may realize.

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Many online sources written in English, including the Art in America article mentioned above as well as the New York Times, the Economist, and The Korean Herald, addressed the censorship. Most of the visual representations of the mural are just a detail that focuses on President Park Geun Hye (such as the detail used by Art in America). Though the reason for censorship, this image is only a fraction of the entire artwork. With the flurry surrounding the censorship, the entire artwork requires viewing and analysis. After the controversy arose, the artist posted an image of the entire painting on his website revealing a vast, dramatic, and visceral scene. If you can read Korean, the artist explains the painting in detail here.”

Sunday Morning Coffee [Reading List]

Image via Art in America

“Norko Realism” by Travis Jeppesen for Art in America gives an overview of the contemporary art world in North Korea.  Jeppesen explains the style, “This is a socialist, yet also ultranationalist, “realism” that belongs strictly to the Korean people north of the 38th parallel, and cannot be understood apart from their ideology-infused quotidian life, which has existed for a relatively brief span of time (since the DPRK’s founding in 1948).” He also explains the expectations and boundaries that established for the art community in the DRPK (Art in America).

“Is Yellow Fever an Expression of Pedophilic Tendencies?” The main question of the article asks if “Yellow Fever, is it a multicultural symbol or a pedophilic fetish?” Overall, I think there needs to be more research to support the arguments in the article but  this part stood out to me: “The sexualisation of Asian women and the equivalent desexualisation of Asian men is [also] reflected in the American popular culture […]” (Love Love China).

“Defining Racism in Korea” was sparked by controversy regarding racism and the Ebola outbreak; it gives a brief introduction of the roots of racism in Korea. Racism is a complicated topic in most countries and cultures, “Korean racism, however, must be understood differently from its Western cousin, experts say. It is a complex product of the country’s colonial history, postwar American influence and military presence, rapid economic development as well as patriotism that takes a special pride in its “ethnic homogeneity,” according to professor Kim Hyun-mee from Yonsei University” (Korean Herald).

“Wife’s Memory” is a Korean comic (with English translations). (I found it via The Grand Narrative.) The comic is heartbreaking and heartwarming.

On Friday I shared a collection of links as a quick way to get to know what is going on at the Gwangju Biennale this year.

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Not exactly something to read but very important, North Korean exiles will be speaking at a conference next week. “This is the first time that prominent North Korean exiles will speak publicly in a conference about the functioning of this totalitarian state. Some of them have only recently fled North Korea. All of the speakers held important positions in the regime as high-ranking officials, politicians or party cadres.”

Gwangju Biennale 2014

Opening Ceremony of the Gwangju Biennale via gwangjubiennale.org

Last week Art in America was the first Western source to reveal first hand information about the censorship of Hong Seong-dam’s Sewol Owol and subsequent resignation of the current president and cofounder of the Gwangju Biennale, Lee Yong-woo. The satirical painting includes criticism of the current president, Park Guen Hye and references the Korean ferry that sank last spring tragically taking many lives. The Korean Herald also covered the topic quoting Mr. Lee saying “‘From an art critic’s point of view, the painting should be on exhibit. I don’t think it is taboo to satirize a country’s president,” said Lee. “Freedom of artistic expression should not be restricted by the government just because they have the exhibition budget under their control.”‘

Among the controversy, some sources were able to shift focus back to the artwork. Art Radar Asia reviewed eight artworks from the Biennale including Minouk Lim’s Fire Cliff 3. I wrote about Lim’s Fire Cliff series when she came to Chicago in 2013. The Economist also touched on some of the artwork and the head curator, Jessica Morgan. Morgan has continued to progress; Art in America just announced  that the curator will be the new director of the Dia Art Foundation.

Sunday Morning Coffee [Must See Art in South Korea this September]

Lee Bul, Bells From the Deep, 2014 in Beyond and Between at Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art

The exhibition featuring the artists who received the 2014 Korea Artist Prize is now on display through 9 November. Chang Jia (장지아), Noh Suntag (노순택), Kim Shinil (김싱닐), and Koo Donghee (고동회) were selected for the prize. I had the honor of visiting Chang Jia in New York this March and got to see her new work in progress. Here’s a film about all of the artists. Around 18:50 might be of particular interest to my family and friends.

The Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art (삼성미술관) in Seoul is having a tenth anniversary exhibition, Beyond and Between, featuring many well known artists from Asia and elsewhere including Ai Weiwei, Lee Ufan (이우환), Kimsooja, Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and others. The aim of the exhibition is to encourage communication with people (e-flux). The online galleries for the exhibition are divided into three parts: Beyond Time, Beyond Space, and Between Art and People. It is open until December 19, 2014.

Mediacity Seoul (미디어시티서울) 2014 began this week. This year’s theme is Ghosts, Spies, and Grandmothers. It runs  through Novemeber 23. You can keep an eye on different events via their website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Doosan Gallery Seoul (두산) presents Minae Kim’s (김민애) Black, Pink Balls (검은, 분홍 공) until October 4. Kim is Doosan’s artist of the year. “In this exhibition, the artist seeks to examine the contradiction that arises when one ceaselessly aspires to deviate from and overturn the established order, but can ultimately do nothing but move around inside this order. Within this deliberative process, she seeks to create new meaning.”

The Busan Biennale (부산비엔날레) theme this year is Inhabiting the World (세상 속에 거주하기). “Inhabiting the world is an active attitude, a sign of vitality, the will to act upon the world and change it, and this energy, this fluidity, characterizes the city of Busan.” The Biennale opens on 20 September. For a list of participating artists, see e-flux.

The Gwangju Biennale (광주비엔날레) opened last week and runs through November 9. This year’s theme is Burning Down the House (터전을 불태우라). The Biennale website gives a brief chronological review of the themes from the past starting with the first Biennale in 1995, Beyond the Borders. I will be revisiting this Biennale in the coming weeks with an article about some controversy this year.

Another iteration of the REAL DMZ PROJECT (리얼디엠지프로젝트) began at the end of last month and will run through 27 September. So far the website for 2014 is quite sparse but it does include basic information about the project such as participating artists. If you’re curious to see more, you can look at the archives from 2012 and 2013.

New York Times did an interview with MOMA curator and Korean native, Doryun Chong, about how to approach viewing art in Seoul. He discusses rapidly changing history, the new National Museum of Contemporary Art, and weighs in on preservation.

For general viewing of art in Seoul, South Korea, see the article I wrote for Art Radar Asia last fall.