In Gwangju, Korea, a curated biennale points to the various possibilities of looking at images — familiar or unfamiliar
“To live is to be photographed, to have a record of one’s life, and therefore to go on with one’s life oblivious, or claiming to be oblivious, to the camera’s nonstop attentions. But to live is also to pose. To act is to share in this community of actions recorded as images” — Susan Sontag in Regarding the Torture of Others
If you are part of the select group who fly privately to scheduled viewings at major art expositions (think Basel, or Venice), then Gwangju, in South Korea, might yet not find a place on your itinerary. That’s because the debut five-day Art Gwangju 2010 would not have been worth the carbon residue, being no more than a weak sibling of New Delhi’s India Art Summit.
For us in India, there was also the yawning absence of our home-grown artists with exceptions such as Shilpa Gupta or Bose Krishnamachari. But that absence was even more visible at the parallel, but more important Gwangju Biennale, comprising works by 134 artists and 9,000 objects which curator Massimiliano Gioni took a month-and-a-half just to hang. Given the theme — the elegiac quality, Gioni explained, of repression, rebellion, protest, loss — the inability of the artistic director’s team to find representative voices from India was inexplicable.
Yet, despite this lacunae, collectors (and professionals) in India would do well to see how a show can be held together with surprising elegance and confidence.
For an Indian viewer there are many things that evoke images of nostalgia, even of familiarity — a Korean student killed as part of a pro-democracy movement brings to mind the image of an Indian student immolating himself during the Mandal riots; the soldiers posing for studio photographs ahead of going off to war would find a resonance in the hundreds of thousands of similar images in India that they leave behind for parents, wives, sweethearts and children as their regiments head for postings close to the border; the worst atrocities of the Khmer Rouge are evoked in Partition photographs, or politically-motivated riots and clashes between state and civilians that continue to this day.
It is then that the scope of the Gwangju Biennale strikes you. It is, in a sense, almost a history of portraiture, of the deliberate history — and this is interesting because of the intimacy it brings to the show — of the millions of anonymous people who have featured in these photographs, whose presence, or absence, matters to only a handful of people, but who have left their stamp (and image) behind almost as a heroic gesture. These are photographs that range from those of those dear to us (an entire section of 3,000 photographs, for the Teddy Bear Project, consists of pictures of people, or families, that include a teddy bear, and could take days of evocative viewing) to the condemned (such as the pictures shot in Cambodia’s Tuol Sleng Prison of prisoners ahead of their executions).
Labelled 10000 Lives, there is much that is thoughtful, a little that is amusing, and enough that is heart-rending, but mostly what the biennale brings about is a way of looking at the explosion of images that make up our lives. We segregate them on a daily basis, filing them appropriately in our memory, or in more physical space, letting others sieve through into oblivion. But each of those images tells us multiple stories, and it is these that you take away when, at last, you walk out. Images, for instance, of Ye Jinglu, the Chinese who had himself photographed every year for 62 years, and in another interpretation, Tehching Hsieh, who had himself photographed on the hour, every hour, for a year (his growing hair and the time clock in the background the only indication of this maverick activity).
There are videos and sculpture and paintings and installations, but in the end, what you walk away with are polychromes of those images. Massimiliano Gioni has achieved a way of viewing that we could do well to understand as we file away the clutter of pictures in our albums and on Facebook, in newspapers and on the Internet. For that alone the trip to Gwangju, whether in a private jet or by cattle class, is worth it.
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.