Arts Review — To Tomorrow: The 2019 Gwangju Design Biennial Exhibition

This year's Gwangju Design Biennale will be held until October 31st under its theme 'Humanity: Humain + Community'.

In walking through the heavy, black curtains that separate the Gwangju Biennial Museum lobby from the initial space of the exhibition, one is faced with excellence. So little separates the two worlds that are so dissimilar sensorialy. The experience is akin to slipping into the wizardry land of Harry Potter through the workaday London Victoria Train Station door. 

Once inside, it is easy to imagine oneself within a passage in a cave and in leaving the natural light and vast openness of the lobby behind. The walls of the room-cum-antechamber form an arch just over one’s head and eerie sounds fill the air. The path is barely discernible in the dim light from an array of images that are projected onto the walls. 

These signifiers seek to communicate to the viewer the earliest of human messages. The hyper-organicity of their shapes and patterns call up the notion of time and immemorial, or on a more personal note, the sacred “Dream World” of Australian aborigines. All together, the images are mystifying and calming in equal measures.

In contrast, the next space has an extremely high ceiling and is the size of a large warehouse. The space is dark, although not as dark as the cave. The senses are engaged again in a play of images. The dialogue is less intense than that of the previous images but equally involving. The story now encompasses people in movement. Animated figures of women, men and children walk the walls of the room. The figures are faceless and decidedly unremarkable in appearance. Some stride with noticeable purpose, whereas others are seemingly less driven. This drama may be a portrayal of how humans are caught in the embrace of the march of time.

The section that follows is brightly lit and uplifting. Personally, memories of the happy times in nursery school, Humpty Dumpty and other pleasures are all-consuming. They provide an admittedly sentimental response to the yellow plastic globes in their myriad of sizes that form the central point of this installation. To celebrate the whimsical in an accessible and current fashion was surely the ambition of the artist who so playfully introduced her “emograms” to the visitor. She used fonts in the dearest manner in the design of faces for her little creations. However, most important is how the sincerity of her project belies the latter’s cuteness. At least one face mirrors a feeling that some at the proverbial dinner table would be aghast to hear discussed.

A large, silver metal-plated globe rests on the floor of the small, very dark, adjacent room. This arrangement, together with the simplicity of its handmade construction, imbues the work with a certain solemnity. It welcomes the viewer who approaches it with a soft illuminating glow. In contemplating the piece, it would be easy to imagine oneself in the presence of a Buddha.

In short, the human capacity of design speaks again. The exhibition’s ode to Bauhaus provides a further example. The chronology of this historic design movement reveals its historic project. To combine antique pieces and new pieces adds depth to the richly adorned display. Indeed, the seduction of the viewer is complete. Consequently, one finds oneself in an intimate exchange with modernism in its purest expression.    

At the same time, one might wonder whether masculinity, however subconscious and genteel, should consider its values to rank that of intelligence and purity. The sensuality of the furniture bears resemblance to that of agile, nude, male bodies in a forest that have caught one’s eye by chance.

All in all, there are numerous, smaller pieces on display whose vitality is staggering.  Others are awe-inspiring in the simple beauty of their work, whether they are drawings of bicycles and motorcycles of tomorrow or traditional-Korean-painting-inspired patterns that adorn luxury purses. It is a challenge to draw the line between design and art as categories.

To conclude, Gwangju Design Biennale Exhibition 2019 was brilliant in its conception and execution as a compassionate act to urge humanity ahead. Perhaps, hope does exist.

Tickets to the event cost 13,000 won for adults, 6,000 won for teenagers and 4,000 won for children aged 4-12 and can be purchased online here.

Photos courtesy of W.I. Archie

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W I Archie
This review is by W.I. Archie who has been teaching English in Korea for many years and is grateful for having had the opportunity to do so. Although he is from Toronto, he likes to specify “that is inner-city Toronto”. At present, he is pursuing graduate studies in art theory and practice at the EHESS in Paris, France.

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