Where Reality Meets Imagination

Where Reality Meets Imagination


Margarida Mendes and Azar Mahmoudian, joint assistant curators of the 11th Gwangju Biennale, talk to Ahmad Minkara about the importance of community, context and cultural reach in their project.




Profound and thought-provoking, the question ‘What does art do?’ is likely to produce a range of responses that will be as varied as they are entertaining.


But that won’t worry Margarida Mendes and Azar Mahmoudian, joint assistant curators of the 11th edition of the Gwangju Biennale (GB11). Having decided, with their colleagues, Maria Lind, Binna Choi and Michelle Wong, to title the event ‘The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?)’, both of them will be more than happy to think they helped start a conversation on this fascinating subject and watch it grow.


“Among many issues, and in light of the focus on infrastructure in many parts of the world, we are asking whether art itself has been somewhat forgotten,” Mahmoudian explains. “We are trying to approach art in terms of what it does – as something that is mediated.”


Founded in 1995, in recognition of the spirit shown by the Gwangju Democratization movement in the civil uprising against the 1980 repression, the South Korean event today represents Asia’s longest-running biennial of contemporary art.


A rich melting pot of ideas and starting points, the 2016 edition will explore myriad themes when it opens on September 2nd, ranging from art’s embeddedness in various contexts to its potential as a vehicle for connecting dots between activities and people near and far.




The first part of the title, ‘Eighth Climate’, gives GB11 an added dimension which, Mendes and Mahmoudian note, has its roots in the writings of Henry Corbin, the French Orientalist and philosopher. Corbin was himself fascinated with the work of Shahabeddin Yahya Sohrevardi, the 12th-century Iranian philosopher who founded the School of Illumination, which drew upon Zoroastrian and Platonic ideas.


To Sohrevardi, the Eighth Climate represented a state one might reach using imaginative capacities, a step up from the seven earthly climates and “somewhere between reality and imagination”, Mendes explains. “It’s not a total fantasy, it has real effects,” she says. “The key in relation to the biennial is the space of potentiality.”


Mahmoudian elaborates further. “The Eighth Climate evokes art as a seismograph, detecting change before other means of observation, whether the artists are conscious of it or not,” she says. “This allows for slightly different, and perhaps ambiguous and conflictual perspectives on how art engages with what lies ahead of us.”


Both assistant curators are quick to point out that the biennial’s title is just that – a title - allowing plenty of scope for interpretation and inspiration.


According to Mendes, the artists working at GB11 use the research they have brought with them from around the world to generate organic growth while addressing topical issues, such as climate change or urban gentrification.


“A shared concern between them grows into six strands,” Mahmoudian says. “A strand is a line of art shared organically and addressing a common issue.” Mendes adds that the exhibited works separate those strands, but without restricting them to a fixed framework.


Participants include Ahmet Öğüt, a conceptual Turkish-born artist living and working in Amsterdam, who has produced two animated stories in the manhwa style about the challenges facing young boys in Istanbul. In one of the stories, the artist links the death of the boys at a protest in Istanbul back to South Korea, where the tear gas that choked them was made. The Korean artist, Joungmin Yi, who lives in Seoul and is also taking part in the biennial, adopts a quasi-philosophical methodology in her work, going for walks and taking photographs before painting, which she does using traditional Korean ink.


Another contributor, the Madrid-born artist and agroecologist Fernando García-Dory, is working with a local community in Gwangju to save and reclaim the last rice field left in the area.


Such practices are in keeping with the embeddedness that Mendes and Mahmoudian have been keen to champion in Gwangju, which is South Korea’s sixth-largest city. While the Biennale Hall in Jungoui Park is GB11’s primary hub, a real effort is under way to engage the local community, with other venues, such as the non-profit Mite-Ugro, a multi-cultural place established by the local young artists and curators, also set to hold seminars, workshops and exhibitions. “We are engaged on both a macro and micro-scale,” Mendes says.


The exhibition at the 11th edition of the Gwangju Biennale: ‘The Eighth Climate (What Does Art Do?)’ runs from September 2nd to November 4th.

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