Vera Mey was one of 24 professional curators and architects selected from 280 applicants to attend the 2011 Gwangju Biennale International Curator Course in South Korea. Participants from 19 different countries took part in the four-week immersive learning course, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Vera shares her experiences of the course, the Gwangju Design Biennale and South Korea’s arts scene.
It proved to be a fruitful time to be in Gwangju, as the biennale coincided with many other arts events including the Asian Arts Space Network Symposium, the art fair Art Gwangju 2011 and the International Design Forum as part of the Gwangju Design Biennale.
The course was divided into workshops, group study, field trips, lectures and participation with the Gwangju Design Biennale Installation. Generally our schedule involved a six-day week, with classes and activities commencing at 10am and finishing at 7pm.
Aside from our engagement with the Korean arts scene, we were introduced to other aspects of Korean culture and history, such as visiting public gardens, Buddhist temples, memorials and of course, the Korean nightlife. We were learning and living together in an exciting and foreign context, where the art scene exhibits an enormous sense of optimism.
It was mind-blowing to see an art scene where public and private funding is amplified. I believe this is in part to do with the status of the arts in South Korea. Art is considered a valid economic and social industry that is integral to identity, wellbeing and diplomacy.
As part of military strategy to decentralise Seoul, the government is creating industry-specific regions, with Gwangju being identified as the cultural capital. The amount of faith, pride and understanding that the arts are an effective political and social tool is an inspiring and effective model, which many of us yearn for in our respective home nations.
The status of the arts in Gwangju has been influenced by the popularity of the biennale, which amasses an audience larger than the Venice Biennale and Documenta each year, mainly comprised of South Koreans.
The Gwangju Biennale Foundation itself is a machine, producing a world-class biennale every year, which alternates between art and design. The annual budget for each biennale is roughly $10 million to $12 million.
This year’s design biennale was centred around the idea “Design is Design is not Design”.
An impressive sight was seeing the public interact with the biennale. The opening night had a summer carnival atmosphere, with performances, a DJ set on an outdoor stage, and celebratory noodles for everyone.
Public participation within the exhibition was encouraged through social media such as Twitter, where visitors could tweet in their responses to objects by labeling something with the hash tags #design or #notdesign.
Displays ranged from the elaborate designer cutlery Slow Food (cutlery specifically designed to make eating difficult), to life-size photographs of different sportspeople, which looked at the idea of athletic bodies as design.
A particular highlight was seeing artists’ works amidst design projects. It was also refreshing to see an experimental curatorial model. The space was cleverly used and architecturally heavy through the inclusion of different interactive projects such as the On-site Hub (2011) by nOffice, an academy-style auditorium purpose-built for the biennale, as well as Sweet Parliament Home (2011) by Andres Jaque Architects in collaboration with Universidad Europe de Madrid.
The audience was encouraged to engage in a rigorous and critical questioning of design and design practices, which is perhaps something that can only happen through a design biennale and – with the impressive scale of the projects –something that could only happen in Gwangju.
South Korea shares similarities with New Zealand, as both are fairly outward-looking and conscious of the way the international community perceives them. My lasting impression is that South Korea is the welcoming of international connections to enrich their sophisticated arts scene.
Vera May’s trip to South Korea was partly funded by a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.
1. DJ Spooky, MIT professor Ute Meta Bauer (who was guest lecturer during the course) and Vera Mey
2. Sweet Parliament Home