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    Spring of Democracy

    The May 18 Democratization Movement is celebrated as one of the only instances in the 20th Century where ordinary people took to the streets paving the way to democracy. The 10 day uprising, which lasted from May 18 to May 27, 1980, evidenced people’s ability to self-organize spontaneously, first in the heat of the moment and later in the democratic governing of the city and in resisting the military’s return. Although the military returned to Gwangju on May 27, these 10 days inspired the people to shape broad resistance across the country in opposition to the dictatorship in South Korea during the 1980s. This led eventually to demonstrations in Seoul and other South Korean cities in 1987 that would usher in democratic elections. Later, in the 1990s, through the exceptional process of transitional justice, some of the perpetrators who took part in the Gwangju Massacre were finally convicted of treason and sedition. The May 18 Democratization Movement of 1980 and its memory of what a people’s movement can achieve serve as a continued source of inspiration.

    The Gwangju Biennale Foundation was established in 1995 by the Gwangju municipality to commemorate the importance of this movement that took place in their city. Over the years, the biennale has commissioned exhibitions and works of art to remember these deeply traumatic 10 days. Spring of Democracy brings together works from various iterations of the biennale, but also from its satellite and May 18 Anniversary exhibitions.

    Organized across two floors, this exhibition presents works of art juxtaposed with archival materials documenting the 1980 uprising. Starting on the third floor, viewers are invited to walk back in time, weaving their way between photographs taken by Korean journalists during the uprising and works of art that revisit various moments of this important civic movement and its resonance in contemporary South Korean society. Works of minjung art, such as Hong Sung-dam’s woodblock prints (1980s) or Yeon-gyun Kang’s Between Heaven and Earth I (1981), document the first-hand experience of these intense days of brutality, literally depicting the blood on the streets. Art works made in the 1990s and 2000s for the Gwangju Biennale such as Navigation ID, From X to A (2014) by South Korean artist Minouk Lim and Dust to Dust (2014) by Romanian artist Mircea Suciu, would draw from diverse archival materials creating their own language of the archival.

    The second floor juxtaposes different languages of archiving and dissemination, ranging from a selection of historical woodcuts from Gwangju curated by critic and art historian Jinha Kim to Suntag Noh’s reflection upon memorialization through funerary photography. In the center of the room is an archive-like workstation featuring artist Seung Woo Back’s A Mnemonic System (2018), a series of images printed in the newspaper between August 27 to November 9, literature on the uprising, footage and photographs by German journalist Jürgen Hinzpeter whose film South Korea at the Crossroads brought this brutality by the military to televisions in West German households but also to the Korean foreign workforce sent abroad. An extensive dossier compiled by the American journalist Tim Shorrock introduces the role that the American government played in South Korea’s military dictatorship. The featured documentation of the uprising now resides with the May 18 Archive, but also can still be found in private collections.

    Gwangju Story (1996), stills by South Korean photographer Heinkuhn Oh taken on the film set of A Petal (1996) that re-enacted the uprising, are found across both floors. Also to be seen across both floors are Escaping Gwangju (2002), posters of a fictional film about a low ranking solider in the South Korean army attempting to escape the memory of torture.

    Spring of Democracy encourages the viewer to not only review the Gwangju Uprising as a historic moment in the past, but also to use this 40th anniversary as an opportunity to look towards the future of democracy. Presenting works of art alongside historical documentation allows different perspectives of the uprising to unfold, dissolving the fine line between history and memory.

    Title Spring of Democracy
    Curator Ute Meta Bauer
    Assistant Curator Kathleen Ditzig
    Dates June 3 – July 5, 2020 (Closed on Monday)
    Venue Art Sonje Center
    (03062) 87 Yulgok-ro 3-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul, Korea
    Free admission  


    Ute Meta Bauer is a curator and since 2013, has been the Founding Director of NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore and a professor in the School of Art, Design and Media. Prior to moving to Singapore, she was Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA. She was a co-curator of Documenta11 on the team of Okwui Enwezor (2001/2002) and the artistic director of the 3rd Berlin biennale for contemporary art (2004). In 2015, she co-curated with MIT List Centre for Visual Art Director Paul Ha the US Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale featuring video and performance pioneer Joan Jonas, which received Honorary Mention for best National Pavilion by the Biennale’s International Jury. Bauer was also a member of the Gwangju Biennale International Jury in 2006, and in 2011 taught its International Curator Course. In 2012 she was Co-Director with Hou Hanru of the World Biennale Conference No.1, jointly organized by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and the Biennial Foundation at the Kim Dae Jung Convention Centre, Gwangju.

    Kathleen Ditzig is a curator and PhD Candidate at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, School of Art, Design and Media, where she is supervised by Ute Meta Bauer. She researches Cold War exhibitionary histories of Southeast Asia and writes about the Cold War’s contemporary resonances. She was most recently a research fellow in the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories Project: Connecting Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia organized by Cornell University and Dhaka Art Summit.