Gwangju, South Korea – Gang Byung Hyun, a bespectacled 65-year-old man, has visited the ongoing Gwangju Biennale held in this South Korean city several times. He usually spends around three hours at the contemporary art exhibition, but mainly goes to see one work, which spans the bustling, concrete square out the front, and occupies two rooms within the gallery halls.
He watches the nearly 45-minute video installation in its entirety. But what he mostly gravitates towards is the artwork’s two dusty shipping containers with locked doors that occupy the busy courtyard. Inside these containers lie the remains of people executed during the Korean War.
The main reason Gang returns to the biennale and to those containers is because, he said, “My father might be in there.”
The 10th edition of the Gwangju Biennale, which takes its title from the Talking Heads’ 1983 song “Burning Down the House,” is a boldly curated politicised show featuring 103 artists from 38 different countries, and will run through November 9.
With works ranging across five galleries, the biennale’s art director, British curator Jessica Morgan, formerly of the Tate Modern in London, has brought together an collection of international artists with the largest group coming from Asian countries, and in particular, from South Korea with 20 artists.
Asia’s leading biennale was created as a commemoration to the pivotal 1980 democratic uprising in Gwangju, which saw the brutal killing of protesters, with estimates of the deaths ranging from 200 and running into the thousands.
The biennale’s works, which include 35 commissioned projects, draw from the titular theme to interrogate ideas of conflagration, protest, destruction, transformation, and even revelry. Smoke-patterned wallpaper with changing colour gradations, created by designers El Ultimo Grito, covers the walls throughout. Many works are powerful commentaries, from Pakistani artist Huma Mulji’s hide-covered human form that probes the issue of missing people in oppressive regimes, to Tetsuya Ishida’s exquisite paintings of human-cyborg forms, which bring to mind alienation in a technologically numbing world.
Art uniting stricken communities
|Minouk Lim’s powerful work Navigation ID brought together communities who lost family members in massacres that occurred 30 years apart [Annette Ekin]|
Gang was a participant in South Korean artist Minouk Lim’s powerful work Navigation ID, for which Lim brought together communities who lost family members in massacres that occurred 30 years apart – in the events of 1980 in Gwangju and during the Korean War, in which an estimated two million people died.
While the events of 1980 have become enshrined in documentation, films, and even the biennale, far less is known or acknowledged about how, during Korea’s civil war of 1950 to 1953, South Korean forces killed an estimated 100,000 people for being suspected communists and sympathisers by summary execution.
Before Gang was even born, his father, a farmer, was rounded up with other suspected communists and executed. Over the decades the truth about these massacres was suppressed.
In 2005, under liberal President Roh Moo-hyun, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which lasted five years, investigated these killings, and families received compensation. For years, Gang, who is the president of the Jinju Civilian Massacre Family Association, has tried to draw proper attention to the tragedy, and agreed to participate in Lim’s project so that people might know about this chapter in South Korea’s history.
Gang said he believes his father belonged to the Bodo League, a so-called re-education programme under South Korean President Syngman Rhee, whose members were massacred. He only learned this from hearing his neighbours gossip when he was about 10-years old. His mother never spoke about this and for decades refused to believe her husband was dead. Gang said his mother left food outside their home every day for 30 years, hoping her husband would return, until one day she lost hope.
Gang’s neighbours called him “Bbalgangyee”, a slur meaning “communist”, and he said this stigma stayed with him. He was ostracised and even after coming to Seoul for a time, struggled for years to get a job because of his perceived communist ties.
It is the persistence of this stigma, and the 2012 presidential elections when anti-communist rhetoric and public hostility flared again, that got Lim interested in this project.
“I was looking at what was the origin of this kind of labelling,” said Lim, speaking at her studio in downtown Seoul. She started looking into the pre-war Bodo League. “It is still untold history, still unsolved history and we all think we know this story,” she said.
The ‘sacredness of human beings’
At the biennale opening, two shipping containers were brought to the pavilion. Family members of the Korean War victims wore blindfolds and, led by the youth in their family, carried human remains to the shipping containers. Many of the families had excavated the remains themselves. The blindfolds, said Lim, alluded to that fact that they are “still hostage to the tragedy”, and can’t properly bury their families not knowing to whom the remains belong.
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Lim, who grew up in Seoul and spent a decade studying and working as an artist in Paris, often questions society, politics, and the tensions between community and individual, place and memory, through her interdisciplinary practise. A professor at Korea National University of Arts, Lim’s works regularly feature collaboration and elements of protest.
In Navigation ID – Hole-in-Chest Nation, she presented more than 1,000 canes hand-carved by Eui Jin Chai and a series of wearable sculptures inspired by his work, including a huge black Korean flag to mark those who’ve died.
Chai survived a massacre in 1949 by hiding under his dead older brother and younger cousin. In the corner of a room stands Chai’s twisted canes. Lim said that Chai, an artist in his own right, goes into the forest daily and forages for tree branches and roots, gnarled and human-like, to turn into canes.
“I think what he lived [through] is so cruel, so unbelievable, so impossible to believe,” she said. “He’s still looking for the human beings in the forest … this is my logic as an artist.”
In the documentary, Navigation ID – From X to A, the Gwangju mothers listen to testimonies, and how, when the army came to kill, the pro-communists had already left, and instead innocent people were slaughtered. At a cobalt mine, the mothers learn about the military, trying to conserve bullets, tied people in groups of eight, and shot one man whose fall was enough to pull the others into the mineshaft. After a visit to a Jinju container, one woman is heard saying she’s lived there for 25 years and had no idea about any of this.
Han Sunghoon, a professor at the Institute for History and Space at Yonsei University in Seoul, has researched these massacres since 1999. He worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission during its five-year operation, and advised Lim on her project. He said the killing of suspected communists, mostly civilians, during the civil war has never occupied a place in public discourse – it’s a “distorted history”.
Han said he sees Lim’s work as pioneering for the discussion and questioning of these massacres, and allowing a platform for the communities to share their pain. “The fundamental role of art is opening eyes of people about the problem,” he said.
Lim said her motivation for this project is to bring dignity and understanding to these two groups. “I want to insist,” she said, on the “sacredness of human beings”.
When Gang goes to the biennale, he watches the two-channel work and the containers, observing people’s reactions from a distance. He notes how many people look. Not enough people watch the entire video, he said, and they only spend about five, or at the very most, 10 minutes with it.
“It is not enough time to understand the whole story,” he said.
For Lim, the issue is an urgent one as the victims’ family members are now old and are disappearing – and with them the testimonies and memories. She said she wants to alert people to this disappearance.
“If we do not remember [the tragedy],” she said, “it happens again.”