MUSEUM 2050 Dispatches

Checking in from Gwangju(s)

Sooyoung Leam

When asked to include a picture of my workplace along with this dispatch, I instantly knew it couldn’t be a single, coherent image. For over a year and a half, nearly across the entire duration of the pandemic thus far, my workplace has been wherever me and my thirteen-inch MacAir found ourselves. The most recent locations have included the lobby of the Seoul National Archive, inside many KTX (Korea Train Express) rides, and at a café next to the Asia Art Centre in Gwangju. It certainly feels like a privilege to even recount these places now, when I recall the days of the most severe lockdowns.

During this period, I mainly worked on a special exhibition project, MaytoDay, organized by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the May 18 1980 Democratization Movement. Variously known as the ‘Gwangju uprising’, the ‘Gwangju massacre’ or simply as ‘518’, the civil resistance (which lasted between 18 and 27 May 1980) against Chun Doo-hwan’s military dictatorship paved the way for South Korea’s democratization. Indeed, the Biennale Foundation was inaugurated in 1995, partly as a product of rapid globalization, and in celebration of the city’s civil spirit. While there have been several special exhibitions organized in the past to commemorate the May 18 Movement alongside the main editions of the biennale, the format was conceptualized quite differently in this case.

As a long-term, iterative project, MaytoDay sought to extend the history of Gwangju beyond its geographic parameters by drawing on resonant histories of other cities around the world, including Taipei, Buenos Aires and Cologne. In practice, this involved supporting and staging different exhibitions in each city in collaboration with invited curators and bringing them together into a single display in Gwangju. Since COVID-19 struck the world at the start of 2020, the project’s future looked bleak, facing daunting uncertainties. However, despite delays, as well as downsizing and minor restructuring, we were able to make the project happen, finding ways to work remotely with trust, patience, and perseverance. Of course, the process was also marked with moments of overwhelming anxiety and frustration. The challenges posed by the pandemic not only exposed the structural vulnerability of arts institutions and society at large, but it also compelled questions about the legitimacy of exhibition-making. Categorization of essential and non-essential workers, and the drastic funding cuts to institutions across the globe seemed to outright test the significance of organizing cultural events in the face of global threats. Why do they matter? What can they do?

In light of this, at least for me, the project represented more than an act of looking back as a collective act of commemoration. It was a way of responding to the present, redefining the potentials of curation and exhibitions. The fact that the project unfolded over several months meant we were able to simultaneously reflect upon the political dimensions of the pandemic as they happened and relate to the contested issues of how to exercise democracy within the context of everyday challenges. Working remotely from home, as well as at the Biennale office, the exhibitions sites, and at all other spaces in between, whether in real or virtual realms, I’ve increasingly come to think of Gwangju – the site and the concept – in plural terms. On the one hand, this plurality could reflect paralleling ideas, unresolved questions, and conflicting conditions arising out of and surrounding the project itself. On the other, it could also harbor my interest in undoing the monumentality of the city’s historic past, as well as the present crisis. And thus, checking in from many Gwangjus, I send my greetings and support to the Museum 2050 community and think of the day we will eventually come out of this ‘long pandemic’.

About the Author:

Sooyoung Leam is a South Korean curator and researcher. She began as the project coordinator of MaytoDay and later co-curatorated its Gwangju iteration, Between the Seen and the Spoken (April 1- May 9, 2021). She was awarded a PhD by the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, for her research on the making and unmaking of sculpture in Contemporary Korean art through the works and writings of artist Lee Seung-taek. Her current academic and curatorial research explores the intersection between performance, archiving and memory with a regional focus.

About the Series:

Museum 2050 has always been about bringing people together through our community’s shared passion for museums and institutional development. As the world slowly and carefully starts reopening, we are checking in weekly with various members of our broader network to share personal reflections, anecdotes and musings about how they and their institutions have been operating in the face of this pandemic. In these incredibly difficult times for all, we hope that these brief vignettes from around the world bring us closer together, and remind us that even when the world stops and museum doors close, we still persevere.

Installation view of Between the Seen and the Spoken, Former Armed Forces’ Gwangju Hospital. Courtesy of Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Photo by Swan Park