NZ curators explore Gwangju Biennale

Four New Zealand curators teamed up to attend South Korea's Gwangju Biennale where they got a taste of South Korea's contemporary art scene, made connections and explored ideas for collaboration. In this article, curator Melanie Oliver describes the biennale and why it is important for New Zealand arts practitioners to be exposed to large international arts fairs. Joining Melanie at Gwangju Biennale were curators Abby Cunnane, Amy Weng and Sophie Davis. The four curators were supported to attend the biennale through the Asia New Zealand Foundation Arts Practitioners Fund.
Five curators sitting at a bar in a cafe

Melanie: " was really enjoyable and helpful travelling with other curators and artists... nobody minded looking at art all day every day!"

In 2012 I was fortunate to participate in the Gwangju Biennale International Curatorial Course, so it was a great opportunity to return a decade later for this year’s Biennale and also spend some time in Seoul.

South Korea has many institutions that are grand in scale, such as the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, where I caught up with a fellow participant of the 2012 Gwangju course, Leeji Hong, now a Curator at the Museum.

The Gwangju Biennale is a large-scale international exhibition of contemporary art hosted in Gwangju – the city known for, among other things, the May 18 Democratic Uprising.

At the Biennale, artists and curators often reflect on this historical moment, as well as a wide range of other issues and concerns. It’s always a wonderful gathering of artists and the discussion surrounding the exhibition is rigorous as well as connected to the local community. Gwangju is a beautiful place with a long history as a cultural region and known for delicious food too!

The whole Biennale exhibition this year was exceptionally inspiring. The theme, Soft and Weak like Water, borrowed from the Daoist text, Dao De Jing, meant that the works were gentle yet powerful, beautiful and addressing important ideas. The layout was interesting, with fibrous wall materials and open construction, creating exhibition spaces that were more welcoming than the usual white-wall gallery.

A woman touching a large elephantine sculpture

The Physics Room director Abby Cunnane interacting with Elephant without trunk (2023) by Oum Jeongsoon, the winner of the inaugural Gwangju Biennale Park Seo-Bo Art Prize

Some favourites for me were the Disease Throwers of Guadalupe Maravilla, an installation from Candice Lin called Lithium Sex Demons in the Factory, ceramic works by Noé Martínez, a video work from Taiki Sakpisit and another from Taloi Havini, as well of course as the works of Yuki Kihara and Mataaho Collective. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg as there were numerous elegant and articulate works, all presented in an engaging way.

I think the theme of the exhibition picked up on our current milieu very well – the soft or quiet nature of works acknowledging that recent times have been difficult for many and while we need to feel encouraged and connected, there is strength in perseverance.

The problems we face today, around inequality and climate change for example, are not easily fixed and will take ongoing commitment from each of us to work towards a better future, one step at a time. Rather than aggressive tension, this exhibition advocated for change through persistent action.

It’s important to see what’s happening in the international context and particularly in Southeast Asia, given our proximity, history and relationships with the region.

Three woman at an outside venue with stone buildings surrounded by cliffs and adorned with colourful paper lanterns

Amy and Abby with artist Suji Park, visiting Tapsa Temple

It’s also fantastic to see Aotearoa artists succeeding in these settings, and to be able to consider what might be exciting or relevant for audiences at home.

It was really enjoyable and helpful travelling with other curators and artists too. It meant we could set up meetings with professionals at a range of institutions and have good conversations about the many exhibitions that we saw. It’s fantastic to travel with other people who don’t mind looking at art all day every day!

Five women (curators) standing in front of an installation of strips of orange tape

Curators and artists in front of Mataaho Collective's work Tuakirikiri at the launch of the Gwangju Biennale

Overall, I was introduced to several new artists and ideas for exhibition practice and design, such as from the amazing new Seoul Museum of Art Art Archives for example, and I hope to apply these experiences here in Aotearoa.

The Foundation's arts programme aims to bring Asia into the mainstream of New Zealand arts by inspiring New Zealand arts professionals to grow their connections and knowledge of Asia. It also supports the presentation of Asian arts in partnership with New Zealand arts organisations and events.

Our Arts Practitioners Fund provides support for experiential opportunities for individual New Zealand-based arts practitioners to deepen artistic and professional connections with Asia, including residencies, work placements, research tours and exchanges.