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Conversation  |  President, Gwangju Biennale Foundation and International Biennial Association

Yongwoo Lee

In Conversation with
Ines Min
Seoul, 6 August 2014

It’s a milestone year for Yongwoo Lee. He was recently elected president of the International Biennial Association at the group’s first general assembly in Berlin last month, which was the result of years of planning with global art figures. This is not to mention this year marks the 20th anniversary since he founded the Gwangju Biennale, which opens its 10th iteration on September 5. A major figure in the contemporary Korean art world in the last two decades, Lee helped coordinate the Whitney Biennial in Seoul in 1993—the first time the American event traveled abroad—before establishing the Gwangju Biennale just a couple years later. Its design counterpart followed in 2004 and the architecture-focused Gwangju Folly first opened in 2011, as part of the foundation’s expanding reach into the cultural conversation.

Today he moves seamlessly between his roles as global networker, facilitator (he presides as editor of the art quarterly NOON

, among his many other duties), and radical in the local art scene, pushing the envelope with Gwangju’s increasingly prominent status and provocative ambitions. But it’s his work with the IBA that looks to be most game changing, representing the first active, international network of biennale practitioners. “We try to be self-critical, because there has been such a proliferation of biennials in the last 20 years,” he says. He spoke with Ocula about what defines a biennale’s success and how this year will serve as a turning point in Gwangju’s future.

You were just elected president of the International Biennial Association for the next three years. What do you hope to achieve in that time and what were some goals discussed at the first general assembly?

There were a lot of voices. There are lots of smaller and beautiful biennials, not only big, global-scale exhibitions, trying speak out with very strong political agendas. And they’re also trying to link with the major biennales, because they have no budget and they don’t have enough space to present a discourse. They want to have a strong alliance between biennales because there are countries still suffering under regime of dictatorship or oppression…they want to be united. So the association is not just a conceptual association, it’s a place where they can really participate with a vote. So the IBA will, in the end, form a kind of biennale alliance that can protect members, first and foremost, and the biennale entity as well.

Dissecting what a biennale is was a focus of the first general assembly and is an idea at the forefront of a lot of discussions today. Although there are myriad aspects to a biennale today, what do you think a biennale needs to do to be successful?

Differentiations between biennales are important, first of all, because a biennale isn’t just a global-sized exhibition—it should be able to access any kind of context that can be delivered in the name of citizens, in the name of art practitioners, in the name of discourse. All 200 or so biennales are trying to differentiate themselves from one other. And unlike the museums or other art institutions, biennales have a strong motive in founding their own event. For example, at Gwangju Biennale we have very strong motivation: the civil uprising of 1980. So we’ve even had a kind of manifesto, since the beginning of the biennale. Or the Kobe Biennale in Japan, which was founded with a spirit of civil participation and helping each other out, after the earthquake in 1996. In order to help heal the wounded heart, they decided to start an art event, which was the Kobe Biennale. So most of the biennales in the world have motive, which is very different from other existing art institutions.

There are biennales with a history and a budget. For example, the Gwangju Biennale is one of the major biennales, they say, which means we have history and we have a professional team, we have a certain budget with which we can realise our goals. But then there is Land Art Mongolia, a biennale that doesn’t really aim to attract a big audience, for example, because the biennale itself takes place in the Mongolian steppe. So it’s a biennale almost without an audience, but it’s a very beautiful biennale. And although they have a very limited number in attendance, it is still taking place. Not for the audience, but they’re just looking for a beginning. I’m sure they have very beautiful ideas, beautiful dreams to realise in the Mongolian steppe. I can’t really imagine what that is going to be in the future, but it sounds very beautiful. They have their own goals. And although that Mongolian biennale is running without much of an audience, we can’t say it’s a failure or that it’s unsuccessful. They have their own aims.

Sometimes biennale makers seem to be utopian or visionaries, but in the end they have to face reality. They suffer from the shortage of many things. But that’s the biennale. Most museums have a building, have a space, and sometimes have a collection. They are expected to meet a certain expectation of visitor figures. But biennales are still considered an alternative space, an alternative event…that is their appeal.

In terms of differentiation, the Gwangju Biennale does have a very specific history. Is there ever any worry that the subject might become tired? It’s obviously still a very strong message, that spirit of fight and revolution.

In the 20 years since the start of the biennale, we have always tried to reflect on that history of Gwangju and the civil uprising. But today, we are transforming that issue into a much more evolved form of artistic practice. We found that what happened in 1980 isn’t just historical record. We think of it as a value. We’re trying to convert those historical events into a kind of value-oriented practice, which is really a core idea for the future of the Gwangju Biennale. Although we have been very much focused on what happened in 1980, in the future it will be reinterpreted as a new way of thinking…It’s clear that the Gwangju Biennale was born with the spirit of the civil movement. But in the future, that spirit will melt into the history, and then we’re not going to repeat that discourse directly. But it’s an important value for the next generation, for the citizens, and also for the direction of the Gwangju Biennale as well.

This year’s theme of Burning Down the House is quite provocative and a lot of the new commissions will be a bit sensational. Was part of selecting that theme a call to action for the world, in terms of waking up to what’s going on around us?

The title is very much political, in a way. And Burning Down the House is a reflection of the history of the 1980s, as the song is by the Talking Heads. Burning down the house is like productive destruction for the future. We love that idea. Burning down what? Our mast. Political mast, spiritual mast or psychological mast. And after, we hope to be able to have a new way of thinking or new vision of the future. It is a kind of catalyst that will bring us to a certain level of reformation. The theme might be seen as radical, but it can also be a very much poetic representation of the political situation we face today.

What are some of the components of this year’s biennale that you’re most looking forward to?

This biennale will include a lot of performances. Performance is not just body-oriented representation, but frames a physical language to give tension or pleasure. It brings participation into the context of the biennale. Also we’re turning 20 this year—technically an adult. So there will be a special 20th anniversary project [separate from the main biennale] that has three elements: exhibitions, lecture series, and performances. The opening of the 20th project will be August 8, and in the morning we will have a roundtable titled “The Groundbreakers.” We are inviting a number of curators who really made art history with their provocative exhibitions. For example, Kasper König, Hou Hanru, and Okwui Enwezor. —[O]

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