The 2011 Gwangju Biennial: Challenging Notions of Design

by the-biennial-project 29. October 2011 08:43

by Dee Mason for The Biennial Project

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The definition of design, according to Merriam-Webster is “to create, fashion, execute, or construct according to a plan”. Design biennials, massive arts events that showcase the design prowess of particular cities or regions, have appeared at a rapid rate since the 80s. There are more than one hundred events occurring each year around the globe, primarily during the September design “season”, with the Biennial Foundation in Athens, serving as the non-profit overseer for many of them. In the sea of biennials, the Gwangju Biennial in Gwangju, South Korea, has emerged as a biennial to watch. With a reputation for showcasing innovation, and a markedly less commercial feel, the Gwangju Biennial is attracting worldwide attention.

Purposes and Goals

If you are in Southeast Asia this fall, or have the funds available to take some Tripbase flights to the region, make the time to visit the Gwangju Biennial to view the thought provoking, intelligent works on display.

Launched in 1995, the purpose of the Biennial was two-fold. The goal of the event was to both showcase Asian design, with a focus on South Korean designers, and to attempt to somewhat mitigate Gwangju’s reputation as an intolerant, militaristic stronghold. The site of the 1980’s massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy students, Korea’s sixth largest city has been struggling to redefine its image ever since. The 2011 Gwangju Biennial, which began September 2nd and runs until October 23rd is co-curated by Ai Weiwei, a dissident Chinese artist who was freed from prison in August after worldwide outcry, and award-winning Korean architect Seung H-Sang. Unlike some of the more commercially focused Biennials, like those in Venice or London, the Gwangju Biennial is more directly invested in art that pushes boundaries, either politically or aesthetically. This year’s theme is “design is design is not design”. A rather existential theme compared to festivals in Europe or the US, the Gwanju Biennial’s focus has resulted in a number of challenging works that clearly reflect both Ai Weiwei’s interest in politically motivated art and Seung H-Sang’s eye for form.

Exhibitions

The Biennial is divided into four separate exhibitions. The “Named” exhibition showcases works that are a reflection of a move towards multi-disciplinary “total environments”, and an active movement away from static ideas of the individual designer versus the collective designer. The “Unnamed” exhibition showcases works that challenge the ways we define design and the idea of the designer, in an effort to explore what design can accomplish and how boundaries can be redrawn. The purpose of the “Communities” exhibition is fairly straightforward. The exhibition seeks to answer the question, “What is design?”. Finally, the “Urban Follies” exhibition explores the ways in which design evolves, influenced by the environment, and urban environments, in particular. Some of the works on display in the “Unnamed” section include the pamphlets handed out during the Egyptian uprising with instructions on how to effectively carry out acts of civil disobedience and plans for IED designs used in Afghanistan and other countries. South Korea is a plastic surgery capital, and there is video of the plastic surgery procedure used by mixed martial artists to reduce the amount of bleeding caused by blows to the head and face. The “Urban Follies” exhibit houses such interesting pieces as Atelier Bow-Wow’s pergola with a six-storey periscope.

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Unlike many other Bienniales, the government funds the Gwangju Bienniale. Consequently, there are no commercial ventures displaying their latest innovation in exchange for their sponsorship dollars, or technology companies vying for attention with flashy displays. Instead, the Bienniale is focused on presenting work that makes us all question where design comes from, what it means, and how it fluid it truly is.

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