TAXI DRIVERS IN KOREA DON’T TALK MUCH, and with the fear of confusing them even further, I’ve learned to just hand them my phone and help as they put on their reading glasses and try to zoom to my destination. While being transported around Gwangju and Seoul earlier this month, I thought of last year’s hugely popular South Korean film A Taxi Driver and Chia-En Jao’s 2016 video Taxi—but, really, the first thing you notice in those cities is that Google Maps does not work. You can search for your destination and see your position, but the App cannot provide you a route. This, upon further research, is because security restrictions bar exporting mapping data to foreign companies due to potential threats from North Korea. So you learn to trust your gut, pick a path and go—or at least use the local Naver Map instead.
This North-South connection serves as backdrop to the Gwangju Biennale and its theme of “Imagined Borders,” borrowed from Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections of the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983). The show’s title also conjures the first edition of the Biennale in 1995, “Beyond the Borders.” Twenty-three years later, despite initial optimism in the transcendence of those boundaries, and hopes of global citizenship, borders remain a very real reality—literally a nearly two-and-a-half mile stretch of land at the 38th parallel—that divides the peninsula, affecting the plight of millions of refugees and immigrants around the world.
Gwangju is one of the oldest and most-attended biennials in the region, and its twelfth edition is deeply connected to the past. As usual it’s a massive affair: eleven curators, seven exhibitions, and one hundred and sixty-five artists from forty-three countries, a main exhibition in the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall and Asia Culture Center, and a new program called the GB Commission, stretching all the way to the Former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital—to say nothing of the institutional partnerships, Pavilion Projects, stationed in a handful of other venues in the city. As biennale curator David Teh posited, “If biennales are devoted to the present, what happens when a biennale remembers?” But particularly, what happens when the global phenomenon of biennales confronts a local, specific site that is steeped in history and memory? What happens to a biennale that remains deeply rooted to place? How do artists and curators respond to that?
The Biennale was inaugurated as a memorial to the May 18 Democratic Uprising in 1980, a massacre of Korean civilians protesting military dictatorship, which stirred a national democratic movement. And so civil resistance and Gwangju’s history is intrinsic to the Biennale. Simon Leung’s performance Rehearsal for 9 Collective Movements, 2018, staged outside of the Asia Culture Center, with movements inspired by physical gestures, namely “squatting” with its conflicted meanings of resistance but also compliance in 1967 Hong Kong “leftist riots,” works similarly to the demonstrations in Gwangju in 1980s, changing the civil dialogue of its city, and yet hauntingly familiar even today.
“We have to go before it gets dark!” shouted one of our guides as we were ushered out of the Asia Culture Center for the Former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital. While on the way, stuck in traffic, I wondered if it was also ghost month in Korea (the whole lunar month of July), when the gates of the underworld open for wandering ghosts and spirits. “Stay away from water,” my mother would caution me, as it’s one of the many places that ghosts will zhua-jiao-ti— find substitutes in order to reincarnate. A SoCal Shanghainese friend laughed when I told her this, and said, “We don’t have ghosts in China. They’ve banned them . . . haven’t you heard?”
The Biennale Foundation’s Bella Jung chimed in. “During the protests in 1980, people were sent to the hospital and then sent back to the field to be tortured, so doctors would fabricate medical records so the patients could stay longer,” she said. “The city really didn’t understand why we wanted to use this space.” Entering the hospital, shards of glass crackled underfoot, the windows were all mostly broken, and vegetation had reclaimed the building. Almost immediately, a colleague from Japan started talking about building codes and regulations for exhibition spaces like these. We would soon learn that Mike Nelson had removed mirrors from the former hospital complex and reconfigured them in the church on the other side of the hill, for Mirror reverb (the blinding of a building, a notation for another), 2018, crossing from a site of injury, wound, and death to one of faith and reverence. Wooden beams and metal plinths were erected and laid across the seemingly vacant rooms of the hospital for Kader Attia’s Eternal Now, 2018, which called to mind his film installation Shifting Borders, 2018, in the Biennale Hall, wherein psychologists, healers, mediums, and historians speak about the healing of collective trauma, while chairs, vintage prostheses, and shoes from the hospital take residence beside the videos.
The sheer volume of works overwhelmed, and with only two days to see all the venues, jumping between fragments of speech, pauses, and translations, and with local and international press huddled around each curator, I found myself feeling disoriented. Not having much time to sit with the pieces, I latched on to certain ones, particularly those more narrative-based. I was especially drawn to the lived stories in biennale curator Gridthiya Gaweewong’s “Facing Phantom Borders,” a show focusing on geopolitics and migration. The flight routes of Tiffany Chung’s fabric map of the globe of Vietnamese refugees connected the dots between different locations to various camps in Asia. Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s paintings interweaving personal history, family archives, and his father’s memoirs also stood out. I spent time thinking again about the pastor and founder of an orphanage along the border of Burma and Thailand, who was a member of the lone troop of the Nationalist army from the Chinese Civil War in Hsu Chia-Wei’s Huai Mo Village. (I previously interviewedhim for artforum.com.). Finally, topping my lists was Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Nameless & the Name, 2015–18, the story of the triple agent Lai Teck, an alias of the Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party from 1939–47.
Unable to see much on the first day, I returned to the Exhibition Hall the day after the opening. The international and local crowd had left for the biennial in Busan and the Hall was quiet. Shuttling between the Hall and Asia Culture Center, the guide on the bus talked the entire way, only turning to us to say “First time in Gwangju?” I could only make out a few words in his lengthy speech, such as bu-dong-san (real estate), which sounds almost identical in Mandarin, Taiwanese, as well as Japanese, but the way he spoke about the city (I presume) stirred me. He had a spirit that was unmistakable, which underscored the theme of the trip for me: To go forward one must always look back. — Daphne Chu