“Dear travelling companions, I beg your forgiveness for intruding upon your precious time on this very special journey. I know you must all be going somewhere important. The journey is short, but life is long, and all I want—I, who have no destination, no final stop—is two minutes of your time. Indulge me, fellow citizens, be entertained by my folly.”
Inside a subway car in Gwangju, an elegant oration crafted by Indian art trio Raqs Media Collective can be caught spliced between ads and station notifications on a small video screen. On an endless loop, aired between the start and end points of the city’s one-line subway system. Random seats have been marked with designated roles, such as Agitator, Prophet, Hermit, Pirate, Crowd, or even God.
Autodidact’s Transport is the group’s contribution to Gwangju Folly II, an architectural project between the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and the city government that this year has branched into the interdisciplinary. Eight teams of architect and artist/writer pairs have brought together Rem Koolhaas and novelist Ingo Niermann; Do Ho Suh and his younger brother’s firm Suh Architects; David Adjaye and writer Taiye Selasi; Eyal Weizman and partner Samaneh Moafi; Danish artists’ group Superflex; Ai Weiwei; and designer duo Seok Hong Go and Mihee Kim (who won a Korean design competition for the spot).
Hailing from across the world, the participants represent a diverse spectrum of ideologies that manifest in each of the follies. Given the group’s global scope, the works are surprisingly grounded in Gwangju vernacular—all the while tying in universally relevant topics like the continued failings of the modern democratic model, the apathetic youth, and engaging the disenchanted.
Each team also worked hands-on with locals to realize the follies. Construction companies, small businesses, and residents took part to make the project their own, while most of the follies will be maintained with the help of NGOs.
In an accompanying publication, Hirsch traces the history of the folly through society and popular culture, drawing from its earliest architectural incarnations in 16th-century grottoes up to Buster Keaton’s One Week slapstick centered on prefab housing, and Jacques Derrida’s “Point de Folie.” The book furthers the interweaving elements of the concept with contributions by Caruso St. John and Thomas Demand, Joan Didion, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Minsuk Cho, and a photo book by Dutch photographer Bas Princen.
Raqs took inspiration from the most direct of origins: Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, a noted Renaissance text that thrust the vocabulary into the intellectual’s consciousness. The trio localized the centuries-old source material by casting Korean actors in their videos, armed with the iconic red megaphone of so many protests here and the vibrant colors of traditional talchum masks, a nod to the satirical nature of the folk performance. The walls of the subway car push the work into the digital era, covered in abstract lines intersecting one another to form a transliterated computer “conversation” held between the artists themselves.
The importance of open discussion resonates within each folly. Koolhaas and Niermann met often to discuss the decline of democracy and conjecture on ways in which it could be addressed, at one point even on Skype. Their work, Vote, is an interactive installation in a busy, youthful shopping district that invites passersby to vote “Yes,” “No,” or “Maybe” on a given weekly topic. The folly is situated between the Gwangju Student Independence Movement Memorial Hall and a stretch of fortune tellers, seemingly speaking to both the past and unknown future of the city.
Weizman and Moafi bring roundtable discussion to their Folly, but also the long history of revolutions forming in public centers. Roundabout Revolution outlines Azadi roundabout in Tehran, Cairo’s Tahrir traffic island, Place Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunis, and more. A glass and steel structure offers a space for roundtable talks, with two rotating cameras that record both sides.
The idea of public against authority, inclusion vs. exclusion is seen in Superflex’s Power Toilet. The Danish group recreated an exact replica of the executive restroom inside UNESCO’s Paris headquarters, right next door to where the decision to add the Gwangju Democratization Movement to the world heritage list was made. With a copy of the 1958 blueprints, every detail was faithfully restored for the public facility—except for the exterior, which was left an unfinished concrete to suggest the original’s basement location.
Suh, as a Korean but non-native of Gwangju, took the approach of outsider in his exploratory “In-Between Hotel,” a rentable one-room hotel set on a truck bed. The streamlined accommodation is meant to park in alleyways or between buildings, encouraging interaction with neighbors (from whom he must first gain permission for use of their space) and even stimulate the local economy in a small, yet meaningful way. The work views the whole of Gwangju as the folly site, as opposed to a specific location.
Ai’s Cubic Pojangmacha takes a similar approach, though it also brings attention to the inherent hypocrisies of authority in a reflection of his own precarious relationship with the Chinese government. The mobile food stall, funded in part by the city, defies zoning laws that restrict street vendors. It also confronts the persecution temporal, functional structures like pojangmacha endure, even as excessive, permanent skyscrapers continue to be built and remain unfilled.
Adjaye and Selasi’s River Reading Room upholds human rights activism, with a massive, imposing structure filled with 200 books written by influential figures on the subject. The wood and concrete pavilion, which takes from traditional Korean gazebos, creates a bridge between the river bank with the elevated street.
But perhaps the most personal and understated of the follies is Go and Kim’s Memory Box. Located inside a subway station, the boxes offer commuters typical locker storage for their belongings but also a mini-exhibition space. A portion of the 408 is fitted with glass doors, and residents are invited to fill the lockers with their personal belongings. Picture frames, family tokens, handwritten letters, and knick-knacks convey their stories, in an intimate introduction to Gwangju as the distinction between private and public fades.