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Korea's Unique Biennials to Be Held in the Second Half of 2023

The second half of 2023 will be filled with biennials covering a wide range of mediums and topics. Here are some of the most unique biennials in Korea.

Exhibition view of Sea Art Festival 2021, Busan. ⓒ Busan Biennale Organizing Committee.

In the second half of 2023, the Korean art scene is expected to become vibrant with various events. Notably, the country’s most significant art market will return to COEX. Frieze Seoul and Kiaf SEOUL, which created a buzz in the art scene when they were first held last year, will open their second joint art fair this year, starting on September 6 through September 10. 

However, it is not just the art market that is bustling. While the Gwangju Biennale and Busan Biennale are among the most renowned events representing Korea, there are numerous distinctive biennales that focus intensively on various mediums and themes.

In the latter half of this year, the Seoul Mediacity Biennale will showcase media art and works with transgressive genres. The Gwangju Design Biennale will focus on design, and the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism will reinterpret Seoul through the themes of urbanity and architecture. Additionally, the Daegu Photo Biennale will delve into the medium of photography, and Busan’s Sea Art Festival, centered around the theme of the sea, will also take place.

Exhibition view of Seoul Mediacity Biennale 2021. ⓒ Bang Yukyung.

The Seoul Mediacity Biennale, one of Korea’s representative biennales, is hosted by the Seoul Museum of Art. The 12th Seoul Mediacity Biennale titled This Too, Is a Map will take place from September 21 to November 19, 2023.

The Seoul Mediacity Biennale finds its roots in the exhibition Seoul in Media, which focused on media art with Seoul and media as its theme and was held three times from 1996 to 1998. Inspired by this exhibition, the biennale was first held in 2000. Now, the Seoul Mediacity Biennale aims to evolve into a large-scale international contemporary art event that explores and traverses various genres.

This year’s event is curated by Rachael Rakes, who previously worked as a public program curator at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht. A total of 65 individuals and teams, including artists, writers, researchers, musicians, and choreographers, will take part in the exhibition. The exhibition will be held at six locations: the main branch of the Seoul Museum of Art, the Seoul Museum of History, Seoullo Media Canvas, SeMA Bunker, SpaceMM, and Sogong Space.

The exhibition This Too, Is a Map is presented as a map as a means to reinterpret concepts such as diaspora, migration, language, and boundaries. In today’s world, we experience both physical and cultural migration. The biennale perceives the societal boundaries arising from migration through the “mapping” presented in the exhibition, exploring the possibilities for communication through art that transcends geographical territories. The exhibition aims to offer insights into the physical and psychological movements of diverse individuals as expressed through artworks. In essence, This Too, Is a Map seeks to reveal the dynamics and networks formed outside geographical territories to comprehend the functioning of contemporary diaspora, showcasing a global aesthetic for artistic and political communication, including transnational connections, invisible dedications, and encoded data.

Installation view of the Sky Pavilion at the public urban green space in Songhyeon-dong, Seoul. Photo by Lee Choong-woo. ⓒ Maeil Business Newspaper.

If you are curious about the city of Seoul and have an interest in urban architecture, why not visit the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism?

The theme of the 4th Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism to be held is Land Architecture, Land Urbanism: City of mountain ranges, waterways, and wind breezes: drawing of Seoul’s Next 100 years. The exhibition is overseen by BCHO Partners’ representative architect, Byoungsoo Cho, and takes place in the vicinity of Songhyeon-dong and the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism Exhibition Hall.

Initiated in 2017, the Seoul Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism addresses various issues related to rapidly growing cities. Its primary goal is to examine global urban issues through Seoul, a densely populated city, and explore diverse alternatives.

This year’s focus is on presenting a master plan to transform Seoul into an eco-friendly city, taking into consideration its natural and topographical features as a high-density urban area. The exhibition aims to showcase the potential and significance of Seoul as a future city. It comprises five parts: the Thematic Exhibition, the Seoul 100-Year Masterplan Exhibition, the Guest Cities Exhibition, Global Studios, and On-site Projects.

A particular highlight of the event is the installation of a 12-meter-tall Sky Pavilion at the public urban green space in Songhyeon-dong. The Sky Pavilion signifies a meeting place with the sky, allowing observers to appreciate the mountainous terrain and topography of Seoul’s surrounding areas, including the Bukhansan and Inwangsan Mountains, from various angles. Additionally, the structure emphasizes the connection between nature and the city of Seoul, inviting visitors to climb its stairs and experience the elements of mountains, rivers, wind, and light.

Exhibition view of the 9th Gwangju Design Biennale. ⓒ GWANGJU DESIGN BIENNALE.

Another one of Gwangju’s biennials is the Gwangju Design Biennale. While the Gwangju Biennale, which focuses on contemporary art, may seem a bit intimidating to those unfamiliar with art, the Gwangju Design Biennale might feel more accessible due to its emphasis on design.

Starting in 2005, the Gwangju Design Biennale was initially hosted by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation until 2013. From its 6th edition in 2015 onward, it has been organized by the Gwangju Institute of Design Promotion (GIDP). The Gwangju Design Biennale serves as a platform for discussing the value and future of design.

The title of this year’s exhibition is Meet Design, which is directed by Professor Ken Nah of the Department of Industrial Design at Hongik University. The exhibition is divided into sections focusing on Technology, Lifestyle, Culture, and Business, showcased at the Gwangju Biennale Exhibition Hall as well as various locations throughout the city.

Among the four sections, the Technology section explores the theme of “design-led warm and flexible technological implementation,” introducing concepts such as the Internet of Things (IoT), wearable robots, and future mobility. Additionally, award-winning designs from the Red Dot Design Award are exhibited. The Lifestyle section highlights design in everyday life; the Culture section presents the intersection of culture and design, including K-Culture and K-Design; and the Business section showcases innovative designs from global corporations.

Installation view: Josée Pedneault, 'Naevus,' Daegu Photo Biennale 2016. Photo by Design Jungle.

A biennale centered around the medium of photography is also being held in Korea. The Daegu Photo Biennale, which began in 2006 and is celebrating its 9th edition this year, has been reflecting on the role of contemporary photography and the originality of photographic art. Unlike previous editions, this year’s overall biennale is organized under the leadership of an artistic director, ensuring a harmonious connection between all the exhibitions that comprise the biennale. In the past, the artistic director only curated the main exhibition, and the rest of the exhibitions were organized by the Daegu Arts Center.

This year’s Daegu Photo Biennale, titled Again, with Photography, appointed Associate Professor Park Sang-woo from the Department of Aesthetics at Seoul National University, who specializes in photographic aesthetics, as the artistic director. The exhibition will take place at the Daegu Arts Center, Daegu Art Factory, Kyungpook National University Museum, and throughout the city of Daegu.

The theme of this year’s Daegu Photo Biennale, Again, with Photography, aims to highlight the intrinsic essence of photography, focusing on its characteristics, such as light, sensors, optics, instant capture, and enlargement in contemporary visual arts. The main theme of the exhibition explores the unique, expressive capabilities of photography in modern photographic art and contemplates the forgotten power of photography. The special exhibition delves into the unpredictable nature of photography, while the invited exhibition reflects on Daegu’s photographic history. Additionally, the special exhibition compares the past and present of Daegu’s residents.

Installation view: Lee Seung soo, 'Where Should We Go,' Sea Art Festival 2019, Busan. ⓒ Busan Biennale Organizing Committee.

If you are looking to enjoy an art exhibition by the seaside, Busan’s Sea Art Festival is a must-visit. Hosted by the City of Busan and the Busan Biennale Organizing Committee, the event takes place at Ilgwang Beach in Busan.

The theme of this year’s exhibition is Flickering Shores, Sea Imaginaries, and it is directed by Irini Papadimitriou, a curator based in Greece. The exhibition features the works of approximately 30 Korean and international artists.

The term “Flickering Shores” refers to the delicate vulnerability and beauty reflected in the water. At the same time, it signifies the dangerous situation of the sea that flickers irregularly like warning lights due to numerous issues such as cruise tourism, wind power generation, deep-sea mining, overfishing, nuclear testing, rising sea levels, and pollution. While the sea has provided us with valuable resources, it has also been exploited by humans in various ways. This complex relationship between the sea and humans calls for reevaluation. Consequently, “Sea Imaginaries” endeavors to explore shared values and contemplate alternative futures and visions that coastal cities and communities can draw upon. The 2023 Sea Art Festival provides an opportunity to view the sea from new perspectives, delve into themes of coexistence and community, and generate various ideas for the sea’s recovery through the lens of art.

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