The opening of the 14th Gwangju Biennale in South Korea on April 6 might have met with a rainstorm and communication breakdown that led to chaotic arrangements, but it was nonetheless a success.
It wasn’t due to the K-pop glamor brought by Super Junior’s Siwon Choi, who was appointed the ambassador of this edition’s biennale onstage; nor did it have much to do with the strong presence of the opposing Democratic Party, including the mayor of Gwangju, Kang Gi-jung. The real star was the stunning main exhibition curated under the theme of “Soft and Weak like Water” by the Tate Modern’s senior curator Sook-Kyung Lee, the first South Korean-born curator to helm the event since 2006.
Spanning five galleries in the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall as well as four other off-site locations, the beautifully installed exhibition proved more than just a show to impress, but a platform for important dialogues that aim to inspire.
Featuring 79 artists from around the world, the show is divided into four main sections: Luminous Halo, Ancestral Voices, Transient Sovereignty, and Planetary Times. The biennale set in the South Korean city known for its struggle for freedom and democracy might not be overtly political at first glance, but there’s no lack of politically charged yet poetic works that question and respond to urgent issues related to resistance, decolonization, and the environment. The art here is like water—its softness and tenderness can be a powerful mediator that penetrates the hard surfaces to bring about transformation.
Ahead of a full review of this expansive biennial event, we highlight five artists featured in the show deserving of global attention.
Who: Born in 1961 in Chung-ju, South Korea, Oum graduated from Ewha Woman’s University’s College of Fine Arts in Korea before furthering her studies at Akademie der Bildenden Kunst in Munich, Germany, from which she graduated in 1988. She was previously a fine art professor at KonKuk University in the 1990s and has exhibited in Korea, Japan, and Germany. She is the founder and director of art exhibition and education centre Our Eyes. She is based in Seoul.
Work on show: Installation work (2023), featured in the section Luminous Halo at the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall. The work earned the artist the inaugural Gwangju Biennale Park Seo-Bo Art Prize, with a cash prize of $100,000 sponsored by the famed 91-year-old Korean artist.
Why you should pay attention: In her ongoing project “Another Way of Seeing,” Oum traces the journey of the arrival of the first elephant in Korea from Indonesia 600 years ago. is an extension of this project, in which Oum reinterprets elephants through the experiences of the visually impaired individuals and plays them up in enlarged forms. These obscurely shaped “elephants”—some without trunks, others without a proper body—serve as reminders of how “no one can see properly, no one can see the whole. We can only see part of the world,” noted Frances Morris, director of Tate Modern and one of the five judges of the Park Seo-Bo Art Prize. Morris praised the artist for sending a strong message to the world in the post-pandemic era: “It defines life through strong connections transcending genres, and traditions which have been passed down to this day.”
Who: Born in 1987 in Vilnius, Lithuania, Škarnulytė is an artist and filmmaker working between documentary and the imaginary. The award-winning artist is a graduate of Tromsø Academy of Contemporary Art in Norway and her works have been collected by in institutions the Kadist Foundation and Centre Pompidou. She is a founder and co-director of Polar Film Lab and is a member of artist duo New Mineral Collective. She is based between Vilnius and Oslo.
Work on show: (2023), an immersive video installation featured in Planetary Times at the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall.
Why you should pay attention: Škarnulytė made the news by turning down of the GASAG Art Prize last year in protest of Germany’s reliance on Russian energy amid its war with Ukraine. This year at the Gwangju Biennale, the artist might be back in the news for the art she’s made. is an enigmatic and mesmerizing work that features a creature that looks like a mermaid navigating different bodies of water. The mythical creature swims across different rivers around the Amazon, and at one point cuts through the convergence point between the blackwater river of Rio Negro and whitewater of Rio Negro. At times, the mermaid is seen playing with the pink river dolphins, who are residents of the region. Echoing the theme of this subsection, the lyrical nine-minute film captures the beauty and mystery of nature. The mermaid’s navigation through different waters also inspires the way we should act around conflicts and unpredictable circumstances.
Who: Born in Kanagawa in 1980, Mohri is a graduate of the Tokyo University of the Arts and has held solo shows around the world. Her residencies with Asian Cultural Council in New York, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Camden Arts Centre in London have enlarged her global exposure. Her works are in the collections of Centre Pompidou in Paris, M+ in Hong Kong, and Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. She is based in Tokyo.
Work on show: Installation work (2011-23), on view at the glass pavilion of Horanggasy Artpolygon, one of the off-site venues.
Why you should pay attention: The installation artist has been a regular at biennales around the world since 2017, according to our survey last year, and it is not hard to understand why after seeing her work at Gwangju. , which features a set of kinetic sculptures, is an ongoing series. But the artist has given it a new spin, adapting the site-specific work to a local context. By collecting the almost invisible dust and debris from the floor, and sampling environmental elements such as air flow and humidity, Mohri’s work transforms these odd components into a “music score” that is uniquely Gwangju. The artist also links the work to Han Kang’s novel (2016) and the multi-layered history of the city, symbolizing the creation of a “tone of history that was never written.” She’s expecting to show at the upcoming Art Basel in Switzerland with Mother’s Tankstation, with a solo show at gallery’s London space slated to open in September.
Anne Duk Hee Jordan
Who: Jordan was born in Korea in 1978 and grew up in Germany. A free diver since a young age, Jordan’s installation work explores the intertwined relationships between the humans and non-humans, as well as marine life, technology, food, and sexuality. Humor also often has a role to play in the artist’s inspiring and delightful work. Jordan is based in Berlin.
Work on show: (2023), on view at the basement of Horanggasy Artpolygon, one of the off-site venues.
Why you should pay attention: Jordan has created a mysterious yet whimsical world with her elaborate installation spanning three rooms in the basement of this community art center located on Yangmin mountain. The mirrored rooms, doused in black light and fluorescent colors, are filled with obscure objects and creatures that are inhabitants of a unique ecosystem that exists solely in these rooms. There are also robotic, non-human inhabitants that can sense the presence of humans, as they start making joyous moves to greet the visitors. As it turns out, these robotic critters are part of Jordan’s ongoing series “Artificial Stupidity” (2016–), and the work’s title is taken from , a 2019 book by James Lovelock, the late scientist, environmentalist, and futurist who has long inspired the artist’s contemplation of our futures through an environmental lens.
Oh Suk Kuhn
Who: Born in 1979, Incheon in South Korea, Oh studied photography at Nottingham Trent University in the U.K. before embarking on an artist career. He works with photography, a medium he picked to document and investigate the confluence between his personal and collective memories, and the ongoing trauma of the country’s war-torn and colonial history. Oh is based in Incheon.
Work on show: Photography series “Enemy Property” and “Prosperity,” on view at the Gwangju Exhibition Hall.
Why you should pay attention: At first glance, Oh’s subtle photography series may not be the most eye-catching compared to the elaborate installations surrounding his work. But these seemingly uneventful pictures are telling important stories about the history of Korea that has long been forgotten or even unknown to outsiders. The series “Enemy Property” captures the “enemy houses” in Gwangju built by the Japanese during the colonial period that have been transformed over the years from their original state. His images depict enemy houses seen in Incheon and Busan (where the artist created a series and showed at last year’s Busan Biennale). The “Prosperity” series captures longevity symbols found in Korean culture that were in fact created by appropriating patterns and motifs from other cultures, such as Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and even art nouveau. These very still pictures are like time capsules, which Oh has created to process and question the history and narratives that are still affecting Korea today.