Gwangju Biennale & Prospect New Orleans

Gwangju, South Korea is the site of Asia’s first and arguably most influential international art biennial. For most of its 16-year existence it has been expertly run and tirelessly promoted by Yongwoo Lee, who has brought in curators from Harald Szeemann to Okwui Enwezor to serve as Artistic Directors for individual editions. Several hundred thousand people attend the Gwangju Biennale every other year, and over 70% of the 3 million citizens of Gwangju think it’s a very positive thing for their city. The 2010 edition, which will open Sept 2, is under the direction of Massimiliano Gioni, and has the title/theme of ‘10,000 Lives.’

At first glance, the Gwangju Biennale would not seem to have much in common with Prospect New Orleans. Gwangju Biennale is a city-driven initiative that began with a $25 million endowment, and its staff and budget may well be the largest in the world. Unlike other large biennials, its administration and management is extremely stable and professional, and largely immune to the ebb and flow of national politics. It is not particularly concerned with the visual beauty of its host city, nor is it intended to serve as a platform for contemporary Korean artists. What inspires the faith of Gwangju’s citizens in their biennial is something very different.

The important similarity between Gwangju and New Orleans lies in the idea of the biennial as an effort to heal the spiritual wounds of a painful national trauma. Just as Prospect New Orleans would not have come into existence had the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina not threatened the city’s very existence, the Gwangju Biennale is rooted in the events beginning May 18, 1980. Following the repressive 18-year military dictatorship of Chung-hee Park, which had ended in 1979 with Park’s assassination, South Koreans were ready for a change, and a citizens uprising in Gwangju became the regime’s biggest challenge.  By Day Two of what history books now call the Gwangju Democratization Movement, street battles between paratrooper brigades and citizens had escalated into troops opening fire on crowds, and by the time order was restored on May 27, hundreds of civilians had been killed by the military.

The national convulsions triggered by this massacre continued to play out over the next decade, with various presidents coming and going and the level of citizen participation in the political process increasing, until Dec 16, 1987, when Roh Tan-woo became Korea’s first democratically elected president. The following summer, Seoul hosted the Olympic Games, and in a very short time, South Korea became a whirlwind of cultural transform-ation. The country’s strong economy, combined with the rapid growth of cultural festivals, commercial filmmaking, music and television, made the idea of an international contemporary art biennial irresistible to a country that was already expanding in so many areas. That the Gwangju Biennale became the site of Korea’s major contemporary art event was due in no small part to Yongwoo Lee’s appeal to government and business leaders to consider Gwangju as the place where art can play a significant role in a country’s long-term healing process.

Here is where the resemblance between the two projects is strongest. Katrina might not have been the defining trauma of George W. Bush’s presidency, but it was the event that drove his public approval ratings in the U.S. well below 50%, where they remained for his last three years in office. The systemic failure of the federal, state and city governments in the months and years following August 2005 has crippled New Orleans for decades to come, and it is a wound felt by millions of American citizens, tens of thousands of whom have volunteered over the past five years to rebuild hundreds of homes throughout the city. Even today, with the damage of the BP oil spill almost certain to wreak long-term havoc on the bio-systems along the Gulf Coast, New Orleans seems uncannily vulnerable, forever poised at the brink of yet another catastrophe.

Over time, the biggest challenge facing Prospect New Orleans is to develop a sustainable infrastructure that has the level of government and corporate support that the Gwangju Biennale was fortunate to have had almost from its inception. Perhaps it can be read as a positive sign that this year the Gwangju Biennale is sponsoring a four-week International Curator Course, hosting 22 young curators from 15 countries. The topics and speakers this year are quite varied, but the Professor for the full course is Dan Cameron, and the case study for the 4 weeks is Prospect New Orleans. If the Gwangju Biennale is extending this important recognition to Prospect New Orleans, then perhaps government and corporate leaders won’t be far behind.