This powerfully moving biennial explores the human impulse to make images as surrogates and substitutes for our selves and our unruly passions, fears, and desires. Carefully pacing out works by 134 artists from 30 countries, curator Massimiliano Gioni constructed coherent, thoughtful juxtapositions that stand in sharp contrast to the ramshackle, improvisatory character that often attends such large-scale affairs. If some visitors feel that this eighth edition of Gwangju is more like a museum exhibition than a biennial, it should be noted that “10,000 Lives” crosses too many boundaries and fills too much space—100,000 square feet—for any museum to take on.
As the show progresses through a series of thematic constellations, unusually potent connections between the banal and the horrific provocatively play out. Images made with the intention to heal—such as Guo Fengyi’s extraordinary ink drawings of bodily energy fields and Emma Kunz’s obsessive geometries in pencil and crayon that are to be used as guides in healing rituals—meet their dark opposite in Thomas Hirschhorn’s installation Embedded Fetish (2006), which incorporates graphic images of the victims of suicide bombings. In a quieter register are photographs from Tuol Sleng prison, documents created in service to the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal practices.
Examples of such works not originally produced as art—carved wooden Kokdu talismans, E. J. Bellocq’s turn-of-the-20th-century photographs of prostitutes with their faces scratched out, and Namhan Photo Studio’s portrait of Princess Park Chanjoo—are found throughout the exhibition. Gioni’s judicious inclusion of these objects is an important reminder that professional artists are not the only image makers of esthetic and social significance. Many artists make the same point by incorporating such material into their work. Dahn Vo’s plainspoken presentation of fascinating vernacular objects resonates with stories of displacement, trade, and translation.
The inclusion of collector-curator Ydessa Hendeles is especially appropriate as she has long made exhibitions juxtaposing contemporary art with historical photography and uncanny objects from popular culture. With the installation Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002, featuring some 3,000 vintage photographs of people holding teddy bears in all manner of poses and situations, Hendeles seamlessly merges the roles of cultural historian, collector, curator, and artist. The collective power of the photographs and their highly attentive installation imbue the teddy bear with the power of a totem.
In many works here it is the physical practice of making images that carries meaning. The intensity of the repetitive act of Tehching Hsieh punching the time clock on the hour for his One Year Performance 1980–1981 is captured in a series of stills and a film. Artur Zmijewski—long important for the very direct way in which he explores the negotiation of cultural and physical differences—presents a remarkable video of blind volunteers making paintings of things in the world that are beyond their ocular perception. The physical gestures of the painters attempting to communicate their experience are utterly palpable, abstract yet urgent. In Warhol Flowers (1990) Sturtevant is not making simple appropriations of images but repeating the physical gestures of making things.
The power of “10,000 Lives” derives from Gioni’s audacity in undertaking an exhibition about a subject big enough to matter to a broad audience yet specific enough to provide illumination into the individual artists and their works.