One of the top tourist draws in Gwangju is the museum complex which includes the Gwangju National Museum, Gwangju Art Museum, Gwangju Folk Museum, and hosts the Gwangju World Kimchi Cultural Festival and Gwangju Biennale. As it so happens, when I was in Gwangju, both the Kimchi Festival and the Gwangju Biennale were happening.
I thought the Kimchi Festival was mildly interesting. There were many vendors. Some were, of course, selling premium kimchi, others featured ‘the best food of Jeollanam’, others sold premium kimchi ingredients (such as fancy salt) for people who wanted to make their own kimchi, and others were simply selling snacks at reasonable prices.
There were also kids activities, such as a booth where kids could draw with crayons, which as far as I could tell had nothing to do with kimchi.
There was also an exhibit which hyped up how important kimchi is to Korean culture, celebrating that UNESCO listed kimchi and kimjang (kimchi preparation) as an intangible cultural heritage, and even had a little exhibition about other UNESCO listed intangible cultural heritages in the world.
There was also a stage, with various live performances.
The most impressive thing was just how many people were at the festival. I reckon most of them are local people, and that they were happy for an excuse to release the stress of everyday life in industrialized, workaholic South Korea, and play with family and friends.
I visited the Gwangju Folk Museum, which documents life in pre-industrial Jeollanam, including the clothes they wore, the types of houses they lived in, how they got food, cultural and religious practices, etc. Since Jeollanam is the warmest part of the Korean peninsula, lowland Jeolla people did not have to do as much to counter cold winters as other Koreans, and this was reflected in traditional architecture (though highland Jeolla people did face very cold winters like most other Koreans). The diet consisted mainly of rice and vegetables, along the coast people ate a lot of fish. The main industry in the highlands was harvesting timber.
I thought the folk museum did a good job of presenting an overview of life in pre-industrial Jeolla-nam, and I enjoyed the overview of different aspects of old life in Jeolla-nam.
I also went to the Gwangju Art Museum. It has an excellent collection of avant-garde artwork from around the world, with an emphasis on political artwork, which suits Gwangju’s past. One exhibition focused on art by artists who are trying to bring democracy to their countries. For example, there was a documentary about recent protests in Russia (including Pussy Riot), and they had on display a toy protest. Since people were not allowed to gather and hold up signs, they put toys on the streets and had the toys hold up signs, since ‘dropping a toy on the street is legal’. Eventually, the regional government declared that the toys were not permitted to protest because ‘toys made in China are not Russian citizens’.
I remember there was a mural-style painting, Sewol Owol crowded with many images and symbols, depicting the sinking of the MV Sewol, with both the original and the revised version. The Gwangju Museum of Art had a statement “The Gwangju Museum of Art strongly protests the censorship of this painting by the Gwangju Biennale and the City of Gwangju”. I also saw that all of the art by Ohura Nobuyuki had a tag saying ‘I strongly protest against the censorship of Hong Sungdam’s work’. This article has more information.
Even though there was a lot of political art, not all of the art is political, though all of it was modern. I remember an exhibit of work by a Korean artist who has spent most of his life in Japan.
Overall, I thought the art both displayed technical skill and had a message. Agree or disagree with the message, it was not the kind directed vagueness in futile search for a meaning that some contemporary/avant garde artists wallow in – the artists have an actually have something they want to communicate with people.
And that brings us to the Gwangju Biennale itself, an art exhibition which is held ever two years. In 2014, the theme was ‘Burning Down the House’.
First of all, it’s big. It’s practically an art gallery in warehouses – and some of the art installations are huge, as in several times taller than an average human adult. It features work by South Korean artists – which tend to be about South Korea’s painful political past – as well as works from around the world. Some works are new, and some are old.
Photos inside the exhibition of the Gwangju Biennale were not permitted, but there is an online gallery presenting the works from the 2014 ‘Burning Down the House’ Biennale. Some of the works which left an impression on me (and which you can learn more about from the online gallery are:
– Battlefield Realism, by Xiaodong Liu (of course I’m interested in this one, I’ve lived in a part of Taiwan with a significant part of military infrastructure, and I’ve been to Kinmen, which is depicted in this artwork)
– Choi Seung Hee, by Suknam Yun (depicting a famous Korean dancer, Choi Seung Hee, who disappeared in North Korea)
– The Island, by Eduardo Basualdo
– Octopus, by Yoshua Okon (it’s video of a reenactment of the Guatamalan Civil War in a Home Depot parking lot in southern California)
– The Ozymandias Parade, by Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz (you could hear the music from this installation all over Gallery 1)
– Prison Painting 11, by Gulsun Karamustafa
– Recalled, by Tetsuya Ishida
– Season of Change, by Yamashita Kikuji
– Sliding Doors, by Carsten Holler
– Torture, by Young Soo Kim
– We Are Not Your Monkeys, by Anand Patwardhan
I only had two hours to see the Biennale, so I was in a teensy bit of a rush.
Even if you only browse through a few works in the online gallery, you can tell that this is a collection of very bold art with a leftist slant. I saw an awful lot of art exhibitions while I was travelling around east Asia in 2014, and the Gwangju Biennale was definitely the one with the most energy and punch.