Skip to content
Water World: At a Charismatic and Incisive Gwangju Biennale, Artists Navigate Crises

On Thursday night in Gwangju, South Korea, as hundreds took their seats on a plaza for the opening ceremony of the city’s storied art biennial, dark clouds loomed overhead. Midway through, rain poured down on the assembled business titans, curators, artists, and politicians. Many stayed put, donning ponchos and brandishing umbrellas. When things got really bad, they sought cover nearby, and watched as the Lebanese artist Tarek Atoui and the South Korean instrument maker In-seok Seo conjured beguiling rumbles and rhythms from an array of percussion equipment onstage.

No one wanted to let the rain win. This celebration had been a long time coming. The previous edition of Asia’s most important biennial, in 2021, was a painfully low-key affair. It ran for only a little over a month, after two Covid delays, and because of South Korea’s strict travel quarantine, almost none of the selected artists got to see it. (They missed a smart, dreamy show.) Only a fraction of the hundreds of thousands that typically attend came.

This year, the Gwangju Biennale’s artistic director—Sook-Kyung Lee, a curator at Tate Modern in London—has clearly prepared for big numbers. Her show, which opens today and runs through July 9, is airy and judiciously paced, giving each of her 79 artists room to breathe. Will the public flock to it? Let us hope. This is a crowd-pleasing and crisply coherent affair. Even as it broaches thorny topics, it is unafraid of a good time, teeming with visual, conceptual, and even tactile delights.

You can grab a crayon and trace the glide of your arm along paper stuck to a wall, a “Bodyscape” by the South Korean living legend Lee Kun-Yong, then stroke a life-size sculpture of an elephant, slightly abstracted and covered with white wool, by Oum Jeongsoon, also of South Korea. Next, revel beneath the 16-foot freestanding tower of a painting that Thailand’s Thasnai Sethaseree has contributed, with garish blobs of color atop images of Bangkok, a metropolis overflowing with energy. No, sorry, you cannot mount the tall, evil-looking metal chairs that Seoul’s Chang Jia has arrayed in a circle, but you can at least imagine the sensations they impart. Each seat rests above an old-timey wheel adorned with foot pegs and feathers—a carnival ride, an industrial machine, and a medieval torture device all in one.

All this crackling ambition and easy accessibility are a relief. First reading the show’s focus—“to imagine our shared planet as a site of resistance, coexistence, solidarity and care,” per an introductory text—I blanched. It sounded like a well-worn approach, repeating longstanding fixations of the curatorial class. Its title, “Soft and Weak Like Water,” also sounded familiar, echoing the New Museum’s 2021 triennial, “Soft Water Hard Stone.” (It alludes to the Tao Te Ching’s assertion that “there is nothing softer and weaker than water, and yet there is nothing better for attacking hard and strong things.”)

In fact, “Soft and Weak Like Water” is a stirring and original show, surpassing its stated aims. It shows artists fighting to keep traditions alive, passing on knowledge via art and ritual, and digging through wreckage to try to make something new. Fairly often, they succeed.

Scenes of catastrophe and trauma pile up. A camera glides over the skeletal remains of architecture standing in water, in Larry Achiampong’s Reliquary 2 (2020), as a father speaks in a voiceover to his children about being separated from them during a Covid lockdown. The Seoul-based collective IkkibawiKrrr screens footage of the World War II-era military ruins on Pacific islands, as war again looms in the region. In a serene, elegiac, and somewhat ponderous hour-long film by Naeem Mohaiemen, a man and a woman are alone in an abandoned hospital in Kolkata, and she is dying.

As an old world decays and crumbles, artists are directing discarded materials toward new ends. Outside the Gwangju National Museum (one of the biennale’s four satellite locations beyond its central exhibition hall on that rain-soaked plaza), the Cambodian sculptor Sopheap Pich has planted silver trees that he hammered together from slices of recycled aluminum. They are bewitchingly realistic, and almost appear to dance.

At the rustic Horanggasy Artpolygon art space, tucked away on a sylvan hill, there are humble hanging pieces that the late Jeoung Jae Choul made by stringing together castoff objects (fishing floats, anonymous plastic bits) that he found along the coastline of his native South Korea. They seem slight until you see the detailed maps that he painted on paper to record his discoveries with tender attention. And in the main hall, the Polish-Roma artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas has rendered lucid scenes of everyday life with clothes donated by family and friends.

Children—our only real hope—are stars in this show. They conceive a play in a theater workshop that Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi recorded in a spectral five-channel video, they discuss being bullied as they hug in a film by the Dutch artist and “cuddle workshop facilitator” melanie bonajo, and in a potent video installation by South Korean Soun-Gui Kim, girls read poems by women writers from the Joseon Dynasty as fearsome waves crash alongside.

Water is everywhere in “Soft and Weak Like Water,” to a degree that some works feel redundant. Robert Zhao Renhui investigates the history of an unnamed stream in his hometown of Singapore in an intricate constellation of video and sculpture, while Taiki Sakpisit trains his video camera on a section of the Mekong River with a violent history. Alan Michelson cruises New York waterways to shoot footage that he projects atop oyster shells, and Emilija Škarnulytė crafts a lush video that that captures an unidentifiable being from overhead as it glides along the surface of water. Individually, these are sharp works; together, their effects are blunted. (Ditto for the surfeit of mediocre painting on view.)

But just when the situation is becoming too controlled and predictable, you find an artist engaged in the kind of freewheeling, genre-busting action that too rarely finds a place in these august showcases. Anne Duk Hee Jordan has bathed the tiny basement rooms of Horanggasy Artpolygon in black light and installed kinetic sculptures—goofball underwater robot animals that start moving when you enter. One is a long phallic form (a sea cucumber?), slowly rising. Over at the Mugaksa temple, Hong Lee Hyun Sook is climbing a nearby mountain in a short video that follows her hands as she finds her way. (Touch and hands recur in the biennial: hugging, experiencing elephants, or communicating the nuances of American Sign Language in a characteristically crystalline piece by Christine Sun Kim.)

One of the most exhilarating pieces was being brought to life at the main hall on Thursday afternoon. As onlookers filmed, the New York–based Guadalupe Maravilla used padded mallets on the gongs that hang in his inimitable sculptures, which suggest thrones or sacrificial altars, made of wood, steel, and objects that he collected while retracing his path as a child in the 1980s, migrating from El Salvador to the U.S. border. He was unleashing torrents of sound. He views these works as “healing machines,” and as his sonorous tones wash through you, you believe it.

This idea—that artworks can be conduits for healing, or at least point the way toward repair—is a central premise of “Soft and Weak Like Water.” Betty Muffler, an Aboriginal Australian artist, has provided richly patterned paintings, white acrylic on dark linen, that refer to her work as a ngangkari (traditional healer), and Buhlebezwe Siwani has built a sprawling multimedia installation that draws on her efforts as a spiritual healer in South Africa, with song, dirt, and ropes that allude to the belts worn by Zion church members, tying them to their ancestors. Like so much of the art in this year’s exhibition, Siwani’s display is about how culture can create communities, and how it can help those communities connect to their pasts. Those are goals that carry special resonance in Gwangju, whose biennial was established as a memorial to the citizens who rose up in 1980 against the South Korean military dictatorship and were killed.

The danger in positioning any artwork as means of remembrance, or activism, or healing is that it gets reduced to that, a mere tool with a confined function. But wandering through this year’s show, taking in its calls to preserve the natural world, enjoy our bodies, and redress history’s wrong, what I sensed, more than any single message, were heartening dashes of hope, the result of artists gamely meeting their moment, channeling the thrill and dread of being alive today.

That feeling was especially present in Arthur Jafa’s video LOML (2022), a compact masterpiece that is a tribute to the late writer Greg Tate. As at least two overlapping songs play (they are hard to make out), the screen is largely black, but a fragment of amorphous light keeps flickering about, undergoing quicksilver changes: a portrait of something that is refusing to be pinned down. Hope was in the air on Thursday night, too, as two artists stood on a stage, unspooling strange new music—sounds that few had ever heard before—as the rain kept falling.