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Gwangju Biennale marred by politics

Chief resigns in controversy over satirical painting of President Park Geun-hye

Aug. 18, 2014 - 20:25 By Korea Herald
President of Gwangju Biennale Foundation Lee Yong-woo announced Monday he would resign over controversy surrounding a political painting rejected for an anniversary exhibition of the biennale.

“I am taking full responsibility for what happened regarding the special exhibit that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Gwangju Biennale,” he said during a press conference at his office in Gwangju on Monday. He said he would submit his resignation letter after the 2014 Gwangju Biennale opens on Sept. 4.

His resignation came after the decision by Gwangju Biennale’s decision to “postpone” the display of a painting by artist Hong Seong-dam, which portrays President Park Geun-hye as a scarecrow controlled by her late father President Park Chung-hee and presidential chief of staff Kim Ki-choon. 
President of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation Lee Yong-woo speaks at a press conference on his resignation at his office in Gwangju on Monday. (Yonhap)

The satirical painting entitled “Sewol Owol,” a 10.5-meter-wide mural, was to be showcased in the special exhibition “Sweet Dew ― 1980 and After” that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Gwangju Biennale. The painting sparked controversy over its satirical depiction of President Park, prompting the Gwangju City Government to demand that it be changed. Amid boiling controversy, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation decided to withhold the painting from the exhibition.

The artistic community and civil society called for the resignation of the head of the biennale foundation, citing that the decision was a “violation of the freedom of artistic expression and creation.”

The exhibition’s head curator Yoon Beom-mo resigned on Aug. 10 over the decision, saying artistic freedom was so valuable that it was irreplaceable. Yoon stressed that the protection of the freedom of artistic expression goes in line with reviving the spirit of Gwangju. According to the Gwangju Biennale’s website, the Biennale is founded in memory of the spirit of the democratization movement of the 1980s.

“From an art critic’s point of view, the painting should be on exhibit. I don’t think it is taboo to satirize a country’s president,” said Lee. “Freedom of artistic expression should not be restricted by the government just because they have the exhibition budget under their control.”

Lee was one of the founding members of the Gwangju Biennale and served as artistic director of the 2004 biennale exhibition. He has been the president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation since 2012. The Gwangju City Government. offered 2.5 billion won ($2.4 million) for this year’s exhibition, which kicks off in September, and 1.2 billion won for the special exhibition held prior to the biennale.

In protest, Japanese artists from Okinawa announced they would withdraw their artworks from the special exhibition. One of the works is the highlight of the exhibition, a piece by German artist Kathe Kollwitz, who is known for her anti-war images.

A group of Japanese artists and the director of Sakima Art Museum, which loaned Kollwitz’ work to the Gwangju Biennale, wrote a letter on Aug. 12 urging the Gwangju Biennale to bring back the painting.

“We strongly request the Gwangju Biennale display the painting of artist Hong Seong-dam and respect the purpose of the exhibition. Otherwise we don’t see a reason to participate in an exhibition that is losing its founding purpose.”

“The Gwangju democratic uprising requires the equal attention along with the Battle of Okinawa and problems associated with the U.S. military base in Okinawa,” the letter said.

By Lee Woo-young (