The 2011 Gwangju Biennial: Challenging Notions of Design

by Dee Mason for The Biennial Project


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.


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.


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.

But Seriously Folks……..

Ok, we know that you, our fans, are used to a fun, art-oriented Blog post from us - and as you know, we generally aim to please.

But this week we feel that it is important to chime in and voice our support for Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Boston. 

Anna, Laura and Eric are all Americans living in the northeast of our fair country. We all feel the pain of barely keeping our heads above water.


Living here in The USA we notice how year after year life seems to get harder. We mourn the loss of ‘The American Dream’ which we took for granted and thought would always give us the chance to live decent lives.

Jobs have been lost, debt continues to pile up, and insurance rates keep rising while the services they provide seem almost non-existent.

Is anybody else shocked when they receive un-managable bills for things like the dentist or the veterinarian? Good health for our mouths and pets used to be a given - now they seem like unattainable luxuries. The list of economic grievances goes on and on.


Personally all three members of the Biennial Project have very real American stories of our own economical difficulties over the past few years.

We are not just the Jet Set International Art Rock Stars you know us as.

In reality we also work at other jobs simply to provide life’s basic necessities. None of us are starving or dying of poverty like a lot on our poor little planet, and with that in mind we are grateful to the lives we currently lead, but…..

Anna is a nurse who for the last 19 years has worked with the impoverished Spanish speaking population of Boston. Last spring she lost her job and now she is having the fight of her economic life trying to keep her house.

Eric works as a photographer. Work is scarce and the photography industry pay rate has not seen any increases in the past ten years. He also lost his home and is back to being a renter.

Laura is a real estate broker. There is not much to sell at the moment and her husband lost his employment and had to take a job three hours away from Boston for a lot less money and a whole lot more hours.

We all have parents who spent their life savings on complicated and inattentive medical care.  All of us have post graduate degrees and vocational training but we are always stressed out and feel like we are barely getting by.

The lists can go on and on.


Instead of complaining, we, The Biennial Project see that it is time to take action.


We, the Biennial Project stand with the brave and honest Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Boston organizers who are protesting against social and economic inequality, corporate greed, and the influence of corporate money and lobbyists on government.


You will see us at the gatherings; we will donate our time and resources to keep the organizations going and hopefully educate people on what is going on economically and what we can all do to make it better.


Let’s get this party started……

Occupy Wall Street


Occupy Boston


Photos by Leigh Hall and Eric Hess





Posted on July 11th, 2011 by Bo Petran

I’m in Venice – at last – and, with its subtle mists and roaring crowds, it does not disappoint. I have seen my first ineffable sunset and have had the various parts of my anatomy shoved by an indifferent attendant into an impossibly packed vaporetto. So I’m in Venice and pretty indiscriminately happy, wandering around the ‘back-behind’ of mobbed St. Mark’s Square, escaping from the sun and heat and screaming masses of people, who, as Henry James observed a century ago, should immediately leave and let me properly enjoy all this alone, when I happen on the big red “Biennale” pennant outside an old building, church, whatever, and enter, mostly just to get a rest.

The place is dim, quiet, cool, and a bit of a ruin, stripped to its architectural bones, former function unrecognizable.  I climb the stairs to the loft and settle into a room-sized beanbag, and all I want or expect is about 15 minutes of peace.  Luckily not to be had.

As I become accustomed to the light, I see around me people transfixed by a large screen cycling into a new showing of Singapore’s ‘The Cloud of Unknowing,’ which turns out to be the trippiest experience one could possibly have without aid of hallucinogen or other radical brain alteration.  And no one already present is leaving.

The video cycles through six apartments in a low-rent neglected urban high-rise, showing its largish occupants, 4 men, one woman, and some vegetation, at various mostly ordinary occupations leading up to – what is this? — their envelopment by cloud emanating from various parts of their apartments, from the bookcases, appliances, furnishings.

It’s a wonderful set of contrasts between the ‘nothingness’ of the cloud and the persistent bulkiness of the humans (and possibly the plants as well), the mundanity of their quotidian existences and the magical things that happen to them as they’re being engulfed, the silence of the solitary, monastic modern high rise cells otherwise known as apartments, and the joyous uproar of a drummer exuberantly banging things from a zone somewhere between monastic gongs and pure rock and roll.

As the cloud descends, dreaming man is sucked into white-sheeted bed, drummer is subsumed by torrential rains, and moss-filled apartment just plain luxuriates … I think.

What’s it all about?  I’m not sure it’s really necessary to know this but the title of the video refers to a 14th century mystical Christian tract of the same name, and references a whole lot of Renaissance and later cloud imagery, and, now, the amorphousness of the digital universe, adroitly intertwining the twin threads of baroque and minimal that have so dominated contemporary art for the past several years.

Giving away the end – since it’s not likely to be in the local multiplex any time soon – as the screen fills with luminous cloud turning to pure light, the dark-ribbed old wooden loft begins also to fill with all-obscuring cloud.

Spectacle, you say?  You bet.  And I’d see it again.  And, what’s more, it’s stayed with me and resonated this past month as no blockbuster movie has ever been able to do.

One other point, about going to Venice.  Getting there cost an obscene amount of money and was a hard thing to decide to do in these times.  For anyone who still contemplates the purchase of, say, that big screen TV or latest i-thing, using the logic that these things are tangible and lasting whereas some vacation will be over in a matter of weeks,

my advice is to go for the real lasting thing, the trip.

True, I saw some really bad art, ate some mediocre food, was roasted, stomped on, and drenched by torrential rains, but this show alone (and it wasn’t alone in its wondrousness, ref. Swiss, German, Polish, and British Pavilions) was worth the price of admission. When the electronic objects are nothing but additions to the recycle bin, I’ll still have the Biennale and the aging Disney marvel that is Venice.