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All power to the public! - The 5th Gwangju-Biennial: the audience's exhibition

Gwangju-Biennale, Exhibition Hall, 2004

The audience, who are they? Starting with this question, the Gwangju-Biennial in South Korea attempted not only to challenge the traditional relationship between art and its beholder. It aimed to turn the relationship completely upside down. Central to the curatorial concept was the role of the public as a pivotal player in the process of organising the Biennial. Given that the democratisation movement following the 1980 Gwangju massacre - the resistance/uprising against the military dictatorship came out of the fine arts scene with surprising force - was the impulse behind the organisation of the South Korean Biennial in 1995, the involvement of the public in the Biennial could be viewed as a worthy attempt to establish direct democracy in the Art State (Market).

The Biennial theme: A Grain of Dust A Drop of Water, provided plenty of opportunity for activist dialogue about environmental and human rights issues. It also prompted, with poetic simplicity, existential excursions about nature's cycles, the interplay of birth and death, as well as the meaning of small, inconspicuous things. The Theme Exhibition was divided into three areas to textually reflect the intertwining of creation and extinction: the first on the theme of Dust, the second on Water and the third on Dust and Water. However, not all work was clearly connected to the theme and by the third exhibition area, the clarity of original concept had somewhat lost its focus.

Saparov Khakim & Leonid Sokov,
2004, forged iron, scrap metal,

In an attempt to liberate the beholder of art from his role as a passive consumer, the curators of the Gwangju-Biennial invented the concept of the Viewer-Participant, the avant-garde of the new audience generation. In a reprogramming of the ethnographical concept of participatory observation, the organisers created the participatory observer, the audience member as an active player in the art production process, thereby also giving him a kind of claim on the end art product. On the basis of demographic statistics and visitor studies, 60 representative people from 42 countries were chosen in total to be participatory observers. Following a collective workshop, so-called working groups were formed, made up of artists and participatory observers, with each artist matched to an observer-participant. The pair's task was to agree on an approach to the theme of the exhibition A Grain of Dust A Drop of Water and to produce an artwork together.

Ko Un & Bul-dong Park,
Immortality: from Chin-pa-zung to Salim-yuk,
2004, mixed media,

In many cases, the collaboration turned out to be very productive. However, there were also several partnerships where artist and participant regarded each other with indifference and apathy, as was the case with Ko Un & Bul-dong Park. The first words that passed between the artist Bul-dong Park and Ko Un, the most well-known poet in Korea by far, were the following: "Bul-Dong Park, do what you like. We don't need to meet up again, it won't achieve anything!" After several failed attempts to persuade Ko Un of the virtues of the concept of the participatory observer, Park decided to go it alone and created the installation, Immortality: from Chin-pae-zung to Salim-yuk, hanging accompanying poems by Ko Un next to the work - this also a commentary on the incidental, indifferent coexistence of the artist and author. The installation deals specifically with the Biennial theme: Next to a field of coal briquets, partly mouldered by dust, tree trunks rise heavenward like memorials. The Korean word 'Salim-yuk' means breathing in the fresh air of the wood, 'Chin-pae-zung' means silicosis. Whilst contemplating the pile of coal, you experience nature, industry and recreational society merging and conflicting with each other. Nature itself, as a decomposition product, has initiated a process of industrialisation, which, on the one hand, coats man, nature and the environment in dust and ashes, but which, on the other, promotes a prosperity, which makes it possible for large sections of society to have clean air and water at the cost of others. Park's installation shows quite plainly that eternal life is not a question of immortality; it is a question of decay and disintegration.

Richard Rhodes & Jim Sanborn,
Critical Assembly,
1998 - 2003,

The partnership of Richard Rhodes and Jim Sanborn is an example of an extraordinarily successful collaboration between artist and participatory observer. Richard Rhodes, the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, turned out to be an ideal partner for scientist - artist Jim Sanborn, providing him with material and a sounding board for ideas. Sanborn's successful attempt to show radioactive rays in uranium autographic pictures is both an aesthetically interesting and enthralling experiment about national security policies. The artist collected uranium samples from the ore mines, which supplied the material for the construction of the first atomic bombs in the forties, today more or less open to the public, and placed them on a high-grade, light-sensitive film. A few weeks later, due to their own radioactivity, which exposed the film, the uranium samples had photographed themselves. Sanborn's experiment is not only a warning to those responsible for national security, demonstrating just how easy it is to obtain uranium, it is also a reference to the fact that nature itself, in the way that it wastes away, radiates and decays, is one of the most ingenious producers of art.

Solomon Obeng & El Anatsui,
Waste Paper Bags,
2004, installation

Despite the success of several collaborative projects between artists and participatory observers, there is still some doubt as to whether the curators achieved their goal of destroying the hierarchies between artist and beholder and artist and curator. The strategy of bringing in a Viewer-Participant as a collaborator for the artist was essentially too contrived to allow the public to really participate in the process of creating art and resulted in more of a pseudo representation. In spite of the fact that both artist and participatory observer are immortalised as creators of the work - both are accredited -, when walking around the exhibition, the Viewer - Participant remains a surprisingly faint figure in the background, an invisible muse, eclipsed by the artist. This impression of an imbalance is broken only upon opening up the catalogue, which provides the reader with plenty of material about the process of developing ideas for the Biennial and about the collaboration between artist and participatory observer. If the organisers had really wanted to make participatory observer and artist equal partners in the presentation of their work, they should have displayed a documentation of the process, a record of the dialogue that passed between the two during the creation of the work. However, this did not happen, and the visitor - who was not directly involved in the exhibition and looks on just as before with estranged eyes, brought no closer to the artwork, even through the mediation of the Viewer-Participant - is for the most part denied the enjoyment of understanding the production of art - as a process of collaboration.

Text: Dr. Birgit Mersmann

Translation: Rebekah Smith


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