“Restricting Eyes”: Lee Yong-woo on Gwangju Biennale Censorship

Aug 26, 2014 11:16 am

The Gwangju Biennale, slated to run Sept. 5-Nov. 9, is now without its cofounder and long-time president, who has resigned in protest over a case of censorship. Lee Yong-woo has granted A.i.A. his first interview with the Western media since announcing his resignation.

“Sweet Dew—Since 1980” (through Nov. 9), an ancillary exhibition at the Gwangju Museum of Art (GMA) celebrating the biennale’s 20th anniversary, was to include a satirical work by South Korean painter Hong Seong-dam. The painting in question, Sewol Owol, was created in response to last April’s Sewol Ferry disaster, which resulted in the deaths of some 300 people, mostly high school students. It depicts South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, as a scarecrow being restrained by her father, former president Park Chung-hee, and presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choo. Also on the scene are space aliens and angry protestors lunging at the current president with broken rifles.

When the piece was first revealed to GMA officials, just hours before the Aug. 8 opening, according to the biennale foundation, the museum called a meeting with foundation leaders to discuss whether the painting should be included. At the meeting, it was decided that the question should be deferred to a public forum on Sept. 16. The artist then withdrew the painting.

“Burning Down the House,” the biennale’s main exhibition, which begins previews next week, is directed by Tate Modern curator Jessica Morgan. It will include works by more than 100 artists, such as Sterling Ruby, Minouk Lim, Steward Uoo, AA Bronson and Renata Lucas.

“I am taking full responsibility,” said Lee in an Aug. 18 press conference announcing his resignation. He will leave his post Sept. 4. While the city government provides financial support for the event—$2.4 million for this year’s edition of the biennale proper, $1.3 million for the GMA anniversary exhibition—it purportedly exercises no curatorial control, according to the biennale foundation’s website.

The censorship is ironic in view of the biennale’s theme of cyclical destruction and renewal, particularly with reference to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, a violently suppressed protest against the military regime of Chu Doo-hwan. The Gwangju Biennale website states that the event was founded in accord with the ideals of the 1980s democratization movement.

Lee wasn’t the only member of the Biennale to call it quits. On Aug. 10, “Sweet Dew” curator Yoon Beom-mo issued a statement, reported in the Korea Herald, in which he argues that that the “spirit of Gwangju” involves protecting artistic freedom, which “is so valuable that it is irreplaceable.” The biennale foundation notes that he has since returned to his post.

A group of Japanese artists from Okinawa have also spoken out, saying, “We strongly request the Gwangju Biennale display the painting of artist Hong Seong-dam and respect the purpose of the exhibition. Otherwise we don’t see a reason to participate in an exhibition that is losing its founding purpose.”

Lee talked to A.i.A. via e-mail about the need for free expression in South Korea’s young democracy and the future of the exhibition he cofounded.

JULIE BAUMGARDNER Why is it essential for art to remain uncensored, especially at the Gwangju Biennale?

LEE YONG-WOO It is vital that art move past efforts to normalize and standardize. This has to start with freeing itself from a self-censoring attitude that excludes ethical and moral self-examination. The Gwangju Biennale has upheld these principles for the last 20 years. In Gwangju, the phrase “Gwangju spirit” has taken hold—less because of the institutionalization of democracy than because of a promise regarding the hundreds of people sacrificed in resistance to an oppressive power in 1980. 

BAUMGARDNER Why is this instance of censorship particularly troubling?

LEE First, this reflects the way that a provincial municipality gets subordinated to a more powerful central government. Also, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation depends on the provincial and central governments for support, which makes up roughly 37 percent of our total budget. I am acutely aware that this is quite high in comparison to other biennales. In the case of Korea, the idea of the central and local governments’ policy of “funding without interference” is very much emphasized on the outside. Internally, however, there are many restricting eyes.

On the other hand, because it is exceedingly conscious of these financial issues, the biennale is now in danger of losing the people’s trust. This is an even greater problem.

BAUMGARDNER Do you want your other curators to stand in support with you? Are you expecting their resignations as well?

LEE That is not the case. Even though I am myself a curator with 30 years’ experience, it is up to the remaining curators here to take responsibility for the exhibition to the end. Even the curator [Yoon Beom-mo] who resigned has returned.

BAUMGARDNER If the painting goes on exhibit, will you rescind your resignation?

LEE My resignation will not be reversed. I believe that the attitude of those responsible in this institution needs to be clear. There have even been attempts by a select few local artists in Gwangju to disparage my resignation. And if this situation seems greatly magnified when viewed as a single moment in history, it’s no exaggeration when connected to the bigger picture.

BAUMGARDNER How do you think the biennale will fare now that you are no longer at the helm?

LEE The autonomy of the Gwangju Biennale is strong. Because it was founded on a history of the people’s strife, it carries within it powerful genes. I believe the people of Gwangju are sagacious. And because the biennale is such a loved entity, its survival cannot be affected by any single person’s actions. I’m just one of the biennale’s cofounders. Because I have been in office for so long, I believe now is the time for a more reformative person.