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Spring 2006 | v.02 n.02 |

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The 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006 from the Perspective of “Shift of Center”
Kim Hong-hee

Artistic Director, 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006


My presentation starts from discussion of Biennale not only as a possible device for cultural glocalism and cosmopolitanism but also as a new medium for global exchange and learning, and argues that the emergence of biennales in the 3rd world and non-western countries from the early 90’s is a “shift of center.” The 6th Gwangju Biennale exemplifies this contention.

1. Legitimacy of International Biennales

One of the phenomena characteristic of contemporary art scene is the proliferation of mega-size international exhibitions such as biennales. Biennales nowadays function as a stage where cutting-edge experimental arts, including installation, performance, media arts, are exposed as an alternative device to overcome any demerit and old habit of the conventional art world. By finding its significance in the aspect of the "international", biennales provide and capture de-territorialized and nomadic quality of contemporary arts through works by cosmopolitan artists who are continuously on the move in various places of the world generating global ‘hypertext,’ and all the more suggest new visions for globalism that seeks for a possibility of co-existence for all human kind via global networking.

From the experience of past international events in the last half-century, we have realized that globalism is not a substitution for the local but a meaningful encounter between the world and a region, and thus globalism is bound to return to its original root in the end. The old understanding of globalism was based on the concept of changing underdeveloped countries to fit in the cultural and political standards set by the West. However, it is now conceived as "glocalism" whereby non-western countries expose themselves to the west and intervenes into its culture to extend their own cultural context to the world in a meaningful and intelligent way.

Artists who desire to be glocal seek for mutual evolution between the inside and the outside, the self and the other, the West and the non-West by combining their heritages and cultural peculiarities with new technology and with liberal approaches to grasp global languages along with those of their own, rather than taking a passive and exclusive attitude inclined to their racial and ethnic substance and regional values. Biennale is none other than a platform where such works are gathered in one place visualizing phenomena of hybrid, multi-centre, heterogeneousness and multi-culture, thus become a new medium creating another opportunity of mutual exchange and networking.


2. Significance of Shift: from Western Biennales to Non-Western Biennales

International biennales rose to serve as a new impetus from the conceptual background of the third world's discourses or post-colonialism that strive to overthrow old values by criticizing Neo-Imperialist attitude, and to politicize the experience of diaspora, migration, the other, periphery and replacement by realizing a new identity. In this context, the geographical shift from western biennales to non-western, in particular to the Asia-Pacific region, implies a geo-political re-location of the center. 

The Venice Biennale, initiated in 1895 as the first international biennale of the world, has been closely related to cultural and political hegemony and established a prototype of western centered international exhibitions featuring nation-based pavilions -- as if overcoming a country-based exhibition structure. The São Paulo Biennale, which started in 1951 and was initiated in the third world, shed a new light by introducing a new exhibition methodology focused on themes and concepts.

The Kassel Documenta, another representative contemporary art event of Europe, began in 1955 with an aspiration to redeem the past glory of German cultural tradition, and became an open ground for experiments of cutting-edge avant-garde arts with the involvement of Harald Szeemann. Besides the Kassel Documenta, the decennial Münster Sculpture Project (started in 1977) and the Berlin Biennale established to promote young artists in 1998 reveal Germany's enthusiasm to biennales. On the other hand France and the USA’s interest in international biennales is rather passive. Given the fact that these leading countries in art and culture are not really keen on the necessity of international biennales, we may presume what fundamentally urges initiation of international biennales. In other words, contemporary biennales can be understood as a cultural/political device by non-mainstream countries in their efforts to uplift their national status by exposing their own art and culture through international stages, and establish a new identity that overcomes the residue of cultural colonialism with their will for decentralization and globalization.

It can be then understood as a natural phenomenon that non-western countries of the post colonial period have sought for re-arrangement of the hierarchy in the world's art and culture by setting up new biennales. Following the example of San Paolo Biennale, Indian Triennale (1968), Sydney Biennale(1973), Bangladesh Biennale (1981), Havana Biennale (1984), Istanbul Biennale (1987) were inaugrated, and from the 90's, Osaka Biennale (1990), Taipei Biennale (1992), Asia-Pacific Triennale (1993), Gwangju Biennale (1995), Shanghai Biennale (1996), Fukuoka Asian Triennale (1999), Yokohama Triennale (2001) and Guangzuo Biennale (2003), Singapore Biennale(2006) have appeared. The birth of such non-western biennales in the 80-90's manifests the post-colonial will for altering the world's cultural geography and hierarchy by globalizing local cultures through reciprocal exchanges and networking and re-locating the center from the West to the third world.


3. The 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006

Theme of Biennale

On considering the theme of the Biennale, my intention was to suggest a most topical and timely discourse in relation to the vibrant circumstance and dynamic change of contemporary Asia. With the theme of “Asia,” the Biennale could provide speculative discourses and aesthetics on Asia and undertake an investigation in the search for an Asian identity from the spectrum between substance and fantasy of Asia.1

The entity of Asia is gradually uncovered in the dynamics of international hierarchies that are constantly re-arranged and re-formed. Asia is now considered as a powerful economic community rather than a region for political conflicts, and is becoming the breeding ground for consumption and brand goods. Another prominent aspect of Asia, along with the globalist concept of economics that countervails its modernist political ideology, is the prosperity of urban culture and construction of new cities. Asian countries are joining the wave of modernization and globalization through construction of new cities that require for cultural revisions and new life styles. These rapid mutations of Asia towards new cities and contemporary nations, which can be observed through the examples of many cities that are going through urban development and transformation of cultural identity such as Gwangju, Seoul and Busan in Korea and Tokyo, Yokohama, Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, reflect its will for contemporization.

Asia is on the move. It ceaselessly flows, refusing to be confined to a fixed identity, and expands beyond boundaries. It could be said that Asia as a unitary entity does not exist and only traces, fantasies and implications of Asia prevail. As Hong Kong action movies are quoted in Hollywood, and again Hollywood movies are borrowed in the movies made in Hong Kong and Korea, Asia escapes its own boundaries and floats around the world as multiple signifiers of merchandise, culture, art, knowledge, information, marriage, travel, etc.  A new fantasy for New Asia is founded from the phenomenon where change, reformation and the quality of flexibility and dynamism itself become the nature of Asia. This is not a fabricated fantasy from the westerners as the other, but a fantasy as a subversive illusion of the collective unconscious due to its indefinable quality, ambiguous boundary between reality and unreality and the fact that its substance and entity cannot be physically conceived.

Thus the title is “Fever Variations”, which alludes the cultural abundance and variety of Asia expanding to and affecting the world like a fever.  The main goal of the biennale is to illuminate and re-interpret the world contemporary art from the standpoint of Asia that is currently going through such energetic changes and transformation.2


Exhibition Structure

The Biennale is composed of 2 bodies: the one is the two-chapter comprehensive exhibitions that will visualize the effects of this origin narrative as the main feature of the Biennale. The other is a citizen program and a special exhibition that will accompany the former. Titles of the two-chapter exhibitions are: “The First Chapter_Trace Root : Unfolding Asian Stories” and “The Last Chapter_Trace Route : Remapping Global Cities.”

"The First Chapter_Trace Root : Unfolding Asian Stories" takes a diachronic approach tracing back to the root of the Asian sprit in the context of contemporary art culture. This exhibition intends to track the process and procedure of the modernization and globalization of Asian art, in pursuit of re-locating its position in the global context and deconstructing the dichotomy between Western and Eastern arts. By interpreting the scope of Asian art beyond its regional, racial, and temporal definitions, the exhibition presents contemporary experimental paintings that blur the boundary between Eastern and Western styles, and also highlight the spirit of Asia immanent in Western avant-garde art. It strives to understand the historical stages of contemporary art and even to foretell its future prospects, illuminating the flow of exchanges and mutual influences between West and East.3 

Whereas “The First Chapter_Trace Root” exhibition is organized in a way to show the epitome of the museum exhibition, “The Last Chapter_Trace Route” will feature a distinct characteristic of the biennale: anti-museum practice. Taking Asian cities as its theme to capture the phenomenon of Asia in process and on the move, the last chapter employs a synchronic method to network global simultaneity and concurrence, and traces their routes.

The last chapter, aiming not only for creativity but also for the generation of new discourses, plans to collaborate with various cultural institutions and the residency programs of alternative spaces in relevant cities with the goal of realizing a 'Mobile Residency Program.'  The primary objective of the Biennale, which seeks a symbiosis with Gwangju city's other cultural projects, actualizes through this project that thematizes CITY itself by stimulating alternative spaces that are both observers and symbiotic components of their cultures.

The last chapter will create global networks between some 15 cities in Asia, Europe and the Americas, the cities with major Asian immigrant communities actively synthesizing regional culture with Asian heritage. Cites in Asia, Middle East and the US start from Gwangju and Seoul networking other cities such Shanghai, Tokyo in Asia, Beirut, Syria in the Middle East, and New York and LA in the US. European cities comprise Paris, Berlin, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Vilnius, whereas Latin American cities include La Paz, Buenos Aires, and Caracas.4

"The Third Sector_Citizen Program : 1.4 Million Torches" is designed as a scheme to link the Biennale to the citizens of Gwangju and the general public. This program accentuates the site-specificity of Gwangju while conceptually and practically joining to the two-chapter exhibitions. Lastly, a Special Exhibition titled “Color of East Asia” will further enrich the Biennale, while providing a contrast to the main exhibitions. It presents diverse items of traditional folk art, and everyday objects which represent the traditional world view of East Asia. Through the theme of color, this exhibition will help visitors focus on the variety and differences within traditional Asian visual culture. 


3. Conclusion

What is expected from Asian biennales incuding Gwangju Biennale is international network which offers an opportunity to directly correspond and exchange information among neighboring countries. Asian countries have been previously familiarized to each other mainly through limited channels offered by the west, and thus eventually led to a non-democratic communication centering on the western context.5

Asian Biennales including the Gwangju Biennale purport to expand the cultural heritage of Asia and tie significance to the contemporary world and highlight its dynamic change beyond the conventional notion of Asia and narrow-minded Asia-centrism or nationalism. Stressing the power and dynamics of Asia on one hand, and encompassing universal issues beyond regional confinements on the other hand, Asian Biennales will hopefully lay a foundation where Asia will be established as a possible new epicenter for the world’s contemporary culture.


Figure 1. Gwangju Biennale Hall.
Credit: 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006.


Figure 2. Michael Joo
Credit: 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006.


Figure 3. Choi Jung-Wha.
Credit: 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006.


Figure 4. Whang In-kie.
Credit: 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006.


Figure 5. Kim Jong-ku
Credit: 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006.


Figure 6. Shin Ji-Cheol.
Credit: 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006.



1 The Gwangju Biennale was founded in 1995 for the purpose of promoting the city's cultural traditions and socio-political identity in the global context through art and culture. With a 10-year tradition, the Gwangju Biennale is now preparing for its 6th edition, aspiring to be a leading Biennale in Asia that will function as a center for contemporary art where new experiments are tried and novel artistic discourses are shared and exchanged.

2 It is also notable that the Gwangju Biennale 2006 stresses on the local characteristics and site-specificity of Gwangju city. The city of Gwangju, aspiring to be an Asian cultural hub city, will function as a geographic metaphor illustrating Asia's continuous change and dynamism. The dynamic relation between Gwangju and Asia is generated out of a narrative of 'from here,' whereby Gwangju reaches towards Asia and the world, and Asia and the world in turn gather in Gwangju.

3 Featuring 5 sections, tentatively titled “Myth and Fantasy,” “Nature and Body,” “Trace of Mind,” “History and Memory,” and “Past in Present,” which are to delve into Asian aesthetics and tradition of visual cultures reflected in works of artists, this exhibition will invite some 50 international artists including Lee Ufan, Michael Joo, Choi Jung-Wha, Whang In-kie, Kim Jong-ku, and some other artists from Korea. Works in various media and concept from the 60’s Fluxus to the contemporary will manifest the thematic concept of the exhibition.

4 Starting from Gwangju and Seoul in Korea, this exhibition will create connections with other Northeast Asian cities as well as cities from other continents The exhibition will invite some 50 international artists- including Korean Park Chan-Kyong, Jo Seub, Flyingcity, Shin Ji-Cheol from Korea  - to reside in relevant cities for a while to run workshops and on-site projects.  The outcome will be finally shown at the Biennale exhibition.

5 Inventing hypertexts through inter-activity beyond territorial boundaries, the Asian network stimulates the economic demand of the “Hanryu (Korean Wave)and enhances its cultural impact. The infrastructure of the “Hanryu” will be further stabilized by geographically and culturally expanding the network that has been already constructed. Considering that the “Hanryu” effect might fall into declination unless supported by strong and consistent strategies, the cultural event such as biennale will be able to suggest a way to strengthen the “Hanryu” through its exemplary practices of tracing root and networking route as exemplified in the 6th edition of Gwangju Biennale.

The URL for the Gwangju Biennale 2006 is http://www.gb.or.kr



Kim Hong-hee is the Artistic Director of 6th Gwangju Biennale 2006. She is an Art Historian, Art Critic and Curator, and Director of SSamzie Space, an alternative art space in Seoul, Korea. She was also the commissioner for the Korean Pavilion in the 50th Venice Biennale (2003). Her books include Discourse and Sites of Modern Art I, II (2003), Nam June Paik, Happening, Video (1999), and Feminism, Video, Art (1998).


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