Art Censorship Shakes Gwangju Biennale
By Vanessa Woo
On August 18, Lee Yong-woo, president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, announced his decision to resign over the controversy surrounding a satirical painting of South Korean president Park Geun-hye.
Lee’s resignation came after Sewol Owol (2014)—a contentious work by artist Hong Seong-dam that depicts president Park Geun-hye as a scarecrow being controlled by her late father, former South Korean president Park Chung-hee (1917–79), and her chief of staff Kim Ki-choon—was deemed politically inappropriate by the Gwangju City Government. The City Government, which controls the Biennale’s budget, has called for the work to be changed. Originally on view at the Gwangju Biennale’s 20th-anniversary exhibition, “Sweet Dew – After 1980,” at the Gwangju Museum of Art, the Biennale Foundation has decided to postpone the display of the piece until a decision is reached following a scheduled debate on September 16.
This apparent censorship of Hong’s work caused a huge outcry among the artistic community, with calls for the departure of Lee as head of the Biennale Foundation, prompting the exhibition’s chief curator Yoon Beom-mo to resign in solidarity with the exhibiting artists. Many of the 49 artists participating in the show, including Lee Yun-yop and Jeong Young-chang, have withdrawn their works in protest of the censorship.
Yoon particularly stressed the importance of freedom of artistic expression and emphasized the original mission of the Gwangju Biennale, which was established in memory of the spirit of the city’s democratization movement of the 1980s. “Guaranteeing artists’ freedom of expression and the ‘Gwangju spirit’ can’t be separated,” said Yoon. Likewise, artist Hong Sung-min, who collaborated with Hong Seong-dam on a hanging piece, remarked, “I’m not sure what kind of a ‘Gwangju-spirit’ exhibition you can have when you won’t let someone put something up satirizing the president.” Responding to heavy criticism, Lee accepted full responsibility at a press conference on Monday.
One of the founding members of the Gwangju Biennale in 1995, Lee served as artistic director for its 2004 edition and has been the president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation since 2012. This July, he was also elected as the president of the International Biennial Association at the First General Assembly, held at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin. Lee will tender his resignation after the opening of this year’s Gwangju Biennale on September 5.