Interview with LeeYong-Woo, President of Gwangju Biennale (Korea)

The Gwangju Biennale Foundation was a first in many things: it was the first international biennale in Asia, the first round table, and also the first organization of the First World Biennial Forum. This year Lee Yong-Woo, the founding director and current president of the Gwangju Biennale
held the keynote address at the first General Assembly of the International Biennale Association (IBA), which took place in Berlin at Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

The first Round Table The first Round Table

 Q. The Gwangju Biennale Foundation has announced the theme for the 10th Gwangju Biennale that will take place from the 5th of September to the 9th of November: Burning Down the House.

Would you like to introduce what will be special about the Gwangju Biennale this year?


A. This year, the Gwangju Biennale became 20 years old, so we will celebrate becoming of full age. Amongst many Asian Biennale, we have grown up as the first. Therefore, this year’s Biennial has a special meaning. This year we would like to reflect on the identity of the Gwangju Biennale. The theme of the 10th Gwangju Biennale is called: Burning Down the House. This means a self-motivated revolution and creative destruction. 

May 1980 means a lot for the city of Gwangju and is deeply rooted in the society. “Gwangju Spirit” must be considered again. What happened in May 1980 is not only a historical event from the past, but it affects a lot more to the present day. To bring Gwangju Spirit to the international level, we have planned three different events. The first is a roundtable: already three roundtables were held this year where they discussed Gwangju Spirit to find its identity in a scientific sense, as well as in form of culture and art. We are also in preparation for the official explanation in the form of a declaration on the roots of Gwangju Spirit. Secondly, we have planned performances. They will take place from August 8th anywhere in Gwangju where the citizens, especially young people, often visit. This performance has a subtitle “The year 1980 and after”. Third, there will be exhibitions in Gwangju Biennale Hall and Gwangju Museum of Art.

Q. You worked hard to make the Gwangju Biennale known internationally by sharing with many international critics, artists, and curators. This year, the Golden Lion for the best national pavilion was given to South Korea at the 14th Architecture Biennale in Venice. The media reported that the Gwangju Biennale is a hidden supporter. Can you tell us more about it?

A. (laughs) I would say that Gwangju has ALSO contributed. Min-Suk Cho and Hyung-Min Bae, who received the Golden Lion at this year’s Architecture Biennale in Venice, were curator and main curator at the Gwangju Biennale, which took place in 2011. This time they have exhibited only the documentary materials of the architecture development in North and South Korea for the Architecture Biennale. I think that was something special. The modern history of Korea can be described by the Japanese occupation, the Korean War, the military dictatorship, and democratization. After the Korean War, 80% of Pyongyang – the capital of North Korea, and 20% of Seoul were destroyed. Therefore, there was only construction instead of architecture in Korea. The history of architecture in Korea is very closely associated with the politics of North and South Korea. 100 years of Korean modern history reflects the history of the world. During the 40 years the Korean Peninsula was under Japanese rule – from the Second Japan-Korea Treaty, which was completed on 17 November 1905, Korea has lost a lot. The culture was destroyed and people got used to that time. Then there was the Korean War: after the first and second World War, the Korean War had the third most war victims.

When the jury came to the Korean pavilion, I explained the historical background of the exhibition. They stayed a long time in the pavilion and looked at everything carefully afterwards. A story behind the story: Hou Hanru, one member of the jury of the Architecture Biennale in Venice, said to me: it was the first time he had heard that so many Chinese people died in the Korean War. There were plenty of documentary photographs in the exhibition, particularly of North Korean soldiers after the war going to construction sites with tools in their hand. This caused quite strong melancholy.

Q. What was the occasion that you thought to introduce Korean art internationally? How did you come to Gwangju?

A. I was a journalist in the 70s and was even in Gwangju in May 1980 during the Gwangju democratization movement. That is a direct reason that I feel very closely connected to Gwangju. Then I had to pause for a while to work as a journalist. Next I started writing as an art critic and have learned foreign languages. I’ve listened to AFKN radio diligently. I think this has helped me a lot to learn English, as well as the poems that I have studied during my university time. Later when I was working, I went abroad whenever I had chance, sometimes even without having announced it at work.

Perhaps even back then I thought that I would like to introduce the culture and art of Korea to international society. Many international critics and artists that I know have visited Gwangju, so it became like a platform.

Q. You have been appointed as the first president of the International Biennale Association. Can you tell us anything about it?

A. In 2012 there was the first World Biennial Forum in Gwangju. We did not actually expect many countries to come. But surprisingly, 68 countries participated. Then it happened, and since then Biennale has arisen as the first International Biennial Association. IBA consists of three organizations: Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (IFA) from Germany, Netherlands Foundation for Visual Arts, Design and Architecture (Fonds BKVB), and Biennial Foundation. We have elected board members and set up the policy for the General Assembly and the membership qualifications. There are memberships for a person or an organization. The requirements to become a member is Biennale experiences at least three times, so it must be proven that the Biennale will have a long term view and ability for the future. The first General Assembly of the IBA will be held this year from the 10th to 13th of July.

World Biennial Forum in Gwangju 2012 (1) World Biennial Forum in Gwangju 2012

Q. What special goals do you have with the Gwangju Biennale this year?

A. I have always stressed that the Biennale is different from exhibitions in museums. Nowadays people understand more and more what I mean. Biennale is not just an exhibition but a complex of performance, theater, literature, politics, humanities, social sciences, and more. So, the Biennale is a platform in which everything is historically and aesthetically discussed and treated. Even the curators of the Biennale have to play the role to make people do “acts of culture”. I describe it by ‘visual culture and act`. The Biennale is a place of the act of culture in which culture is thoroughly discussed. This allows the Biennale to stay alive.

World Biennial Forum in Gwangju 2012 (2)  World Biennial Forum in Gwangju 2012 

Q. Do you have a special memory at a Biennale? Do you have any final thought or message for us?

A. There is still a large gap between culture/arts producers and culture/arts consumers. In the economic sense, consumers play the biggest role in the production. But in culture/art production, consumers remain very passive because they think they need expertise for that. This often causes the arrogance of the art producers – so called audience dictatorship. In 2014 I was the director of the Gwangju Biennale and at that time I tried to encourage the participation of the audience. I chose about 60 people as participants from the audience and prepared them with a workshop. They were asked, for example, what they want to see as a consumer of art and from which artist. Even with curators, I have tried different approaches. Normally there is a power relationship between curators who select the artists and artists who are supposed to choose the curators. But the curators should come out of these power relationships and help as mediators between producers and consumers, like a form of governance. Artists and audiences have created artwork as a team and both names were signed to the work. That was quite difficult. Artists asked why their work had to be influenced by the audience -they are just the audience. On the other hand, the audience had something to say: what good is it if the artwork remains in the artist’s room, how can such works contribute anything to the society? All these discussions were documented. I would like to write a book later with the title `participating audience`.


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About the Author /

Youngyee Kim is an editorial board member of the magazine Gulmaru Korea, promoting Korean culture and heritage expressed in various forms in art, architecture, crafts, and performances. She is also a founding member of Art Smart Seoul and a member of the French Korean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, where her specialty is introducing young, talented Korean artists to the international community.

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