BUSAN, South Korea – It’s Busan vs. Gwangju. Gwangju is in the lead, but Busan is about to bring out their secret weapon. So get out there and support your local team! You may ask which sport: baseball? Soccer? Basketball? I’m talking about the fine sport of Art festivals. That’s right, Art with a capital A. With large film festivals doing battle in the media for supremacy these days, art festivals are jumping into the fray and competing with one another for the top positions. And this year, the Gwangju Biennale and the Busan Biennale are going head-to-head in an epic struggle for the public eye.
Running concurrently, the two biennales have decidedly different approaches. In this corner, the reigning champion since its inception in 1995 and the first of its kind in Asia, the Gwangju Biennale has six female co-directors who are artists from various Asian countries. They have chosen close to 100 hundred artists to interpret their theme of the “Round Table”, which is described on their website as an "open-ended series of collaborations that require active participation and individual responsibility, resulting in a multiplicity of voice, as well as opportunities for cross-contamination."
In the other corner, the contender, Busan Biennale, established in 2002, is bringing its big guns this year, choosing Roger Buergel as its art director. Roger was the director of documenta in Europe, the number-three art festival in the world. His approach is decidedly different from the standard “100 artists” approach. He garnered 30 international artists and 10 Korean artists, with the thought that quality is better than quantity.
The theme for the Busan Biennale is a “Garden of Learning”, a concept that is just as hard to nail down as the Round Table. The website calls it “a collaboration between artists and audiences.” The garden of learning features a learning council, which is a new concept in participatory art that was formed in Europe over the last decade. It involves groups of local residents as mediators who help the participating artists by asking questions and formulating ideas about how to present the art to the public.
Audience participation is a new trend in art, with both biennales stating it as a core goal. In an art world ruled by conceptual art, the general public is often left behind by concepts that are hard to grasp. This might explain why museums are trying to re-engage the public with their participation. The Busan Biennale features a unique “Learning Council”, which is a collaboration between the artistic director, participating artists and volunteers who share the process of preparing the exhibition from start to finish. This means the average citizen is involved from the start, so the conceptual nature of many of the pieces can be presented in an understandable way. In fact, the majority of the art at the Busan Biennale was made after the artists came to Korea, spent some time here and let their inspirations come from local sources. The exterior and interior have been made to look like a giant construction site, mirroring Busan’s fast-paced growth. There are no pictures on white walls, but rather scaffolds and art intermixed throughout the museum.
Though both shows have their own unique approach and each person will decide for themselves what they prefer, there is no doubt that all of those involved in Busan and Gwangju have invested heaps of hard work into their respective events and you should, if you can, go see them both for yourself.
Lead photo features the work of Norwegian artist Guttorm Guttormsgaard.