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Historic Modern Art in Korea

Asia’s oldest contemporary art fair is on now in a unique city…with an unforgettable history.

Last week marked the beginning of the two-month (-ish) Gwangju Biennale, a well-known contemporary art event held in South Korea every two years.

Organizers claim it’s the oldest contemporary art fair in Asia, having launched back in 1995 and now in its 8th run. This year’s show is themed10,000 Lives,’ and aims to be ‘a sprawling investigation of the relationships that bind people to images and images to people.’ To accomplish this unique goal, despite usually being a modern-focused fair, the 2010 biennale includes the works of over a hundred artists whose work was realized between 1901 and 2010, and includes contemporary pieces mixed with ‘historical works, found photographs and cultural artefacts.’

The Korea Times reported from the event last Friday, which takes place in and around Gwangju city’s Jungoui Park, noting several times the sheer size of the large-scale exhibit, which features ‘more than 9,000 images by 134 artists from 30 countries’ spread through ‘5 massive (though well organized) galleries, plus a national and folk museum.’

And despite the fact it’s an all or even several-day commitment to attend, the paper concludes that the show is a worthy and ‘thoughtful introspection that points toward the paradoxical desires and weaknesses of man.’

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The Gwangju Biennale also has a historical significance that’s directly tied to the location it’s held in, for it was founded 15 years ago in memory of the civil uprisings of the 1980 resistance to the Gwangju Democratization Movement. Since, the city has been remembered as a symbol of South Korea’s pro-democracy resistance. On the Biennale’s launch, Gwangju’s then mayor was quoted saying he hoped the event would help to ‘clarify misconceptions regarding the history of Gwangju…a city of light that uses art to brighten the dark reality of Korean separation.’

Meanwhile, Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director for this year’s exhibit, who also happens to be the youngest ever to head it, spoke on the topic in a recent interview, pointing out that certainly, the city’s history plays a role in his theme for the show, which is about images and ‘their many lives.’ Said Gioni, ‘It’s also an exhibition about how we make images to hold onto what we are losing and in a city like Gwangju, where the uprising (a failed 1980 revolution that was crushed by the army) wiped away a generation, I think images have become a tool with which people remember what they lost.’

Gioni also asserted that his hope for the show overall is that all visitors this year will each find something—a life—they themselves can identify with, because the 10,000 Lives is ‘not just about the lives in the show, but also the lives that come to see the show.’