The Gwangju Biennale Has Abolished Its Park Seo-Bo Art Prize After Just One Edition Amid Protests

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The Gwangju Biennale art prize named after Dansaekhwa master Park Seo-Bo has been cancelled after handing out its first award just a month ago amid protests that the artist had little to do with an event that was built upon the South Korean city’s pro-democracy spirit.

“The Gwangju Biennale Park Seo-Bo Art Prize is discontinued,” said a spokesperson of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, organizers of the top biennial in Asia, in a statement to Artnet News on Thursday.

“In response to opposition to the Gwangju Biennale Park Seo-Bo Art Prize that has emerged recently, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation sought diverse opinions from the art community regarding the award’s subsequent operational plans and continued discussions with [Park’s] GIZI Foundation.”

Oum Jeongsoon Gwangju 2023

Oum Jeongsoon, Elephant Without Trunk (2023). Winner of the first (and last) Park Seo Bo Art Prize at the 14th Gwangju Biennale, 2023. Courtesy the artist and Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo: glimworkers.

The news emerged on Wednesday when the 91-year-old Park wrote on his Instagram that he has reached the agreement with the biennale foundation to abolish the art prize, which was established based upon the $1 million donation he made via his GIZI Foundation. The sum is being divided into 10 awards of $100,000 for the next 10 editions. The foundation also announced to the international press on the same day that it has appointed French writer and curator Nicolas Bourriaud as the artistic director for next year’s 15th edition, without mentioning the abolishing of the art prize.

“The Gwangju Biennale is cluttered with the Park Seo-Bo Art Prize issue. Since it was announced in February last year, there was sufficient time to collect opinions. Had there been a lot of objections, I would have found another solution,” the artist wrote in his Instagram post, translated from Korean into English.

Objection to the award, however, was not the most obvious until the opening night of the 14th edition of Gwangju Biennale on April 6. A small scuffle broke out during the opening ceremony when a protester chanted slogans and distributed flyers calling for the abolishment of the art prize as it “tarnishes the Gwangju spirit.”

Gwangju Biennale was founded as an initiative to commemorate the 1980 Gwangju Uprising against the military regime and the massacre. The establishment of the award was in-line with organizers’ ambition of further enhancing the event’s status as Asia’s answer to Venice Biennale. The exhibition will celebrate its 15th anniversary next September.

Gwangju Biennale 2023

Gwangju Biennale 2023 exhibition hall. Photo: Vivienne Chow.

But protesters accused Park of “stealing” the biennial with the $1 million donation as the artist remained silent amid the country’s decades of political struggle while pursuing his art. “He was a thorough aesthetic modernist who lived for his personal glory,” protesters said in the flyer, calling the organizers to establish other prizes such as one named after the late artist Oh Yoon, a key figure of Korea’s Minjung art movement (People’s Art) in the 1980s, or pioneering media artist Nam June Paik.

The protester was quickly escorted out of venue and Park, in a wheelchair, handed the prize to South Korean artist Oum Jeongsoon, who was chosen as a winner for her installation work (2023), featured in the main exhibition titled “Soft and Weak Like Water” curated by the Tate Modern’s senior curator Sook-Kyung Lee.

“It is regrettable that the problem was raised on the day of the event,” the artist continued, adding that it had been his dreams to provide support for the younger generation. “I think I will have to proceed with my last dream in a different way.”

The Gwangju Biennale Foundation said it will strive to “establish a more progressive award system” after soliciting opinions from various communities. The money donated by Park, excluding the $100,000 prize money that was already handed out, will be returned to the GIZI Foundation, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation said.

The Gwangju Biennale runs through July 9.

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