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The Gwangju Biennale charts uncertain new waters

Founded in 1995, with the aim of commemorating the history of Gwangju as a bastion of Korean pro-democratic civil resistance and honouring the lives lost in the Gwangju Uprising on 18 May 1980, the Gwangju Biennale is unusual among international biennial exhibitions due to its explicit commitment to liberal politics. The 14th Gwangju Biennale (until 9 July) takes as its tagline ‘soft and weak like water’ – a phrase inspired by the classical Chinese treatise Tao Te Ching in which Laozi proposed the paradoxical power of the soft and subtle to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. Artistic director Sook-Kyung Lee, senior curator of international art at Tate Modern, has invited 79 artists to respond to this Taoist idea of bringing about change through pervasive gentleness.

The artworks are for the most part installed in the numerous cavernous exhibition spaces of Gwangju Biennale Hall, where the main exhibition is divided into four thematic sections: ‘Luminous Halo’, ‘Ancestral Wisdom’, ‘Transient Sovereignty’ and ‘Planetary Times’. But as is so often the case with this kind of large-scale exhibition, most artworks elude such attempts at curatorial pigeonholing, forging relationships with one another that bring visceral themes to the fore.

Guadalupe Maravilla’s Disease Throwers – large-scale sound sculptures intended to alleviate emotional and physical ailments – also treat performance as therapy. Maravilla came to United States as an unaccompanied, undocumented child refugee of the Salvadoran Civil War; later in life, a stage-3 cancer diagnosis led him to experiment with his Mayan ancestors’ tradition of healing sound baths. At the centre of his elaborate assemblage sculptures are gongs that Maravilla plays during impromptu performances, with the resulting sonic vibrations an effort to instill in viewers (and himself) a sense of bodily calm and stability.