In early 2022, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation announced the launch of an art award named after 91-year-old artist Park Seo-bo.
The purpose of the award was to “contribute to creating a healthy art environment” and "elevate the status of the Biennale,” according to the foundation's press release.
The award was made possible thanks to $1 million of prize money donated by Park, South Korea’s leading contemporary artist who pioneered Korea’s famous art genre, "dansaekhwa," since the late 1960s.
The foundation emphasized that Park's efforts to promote lesser-known Korean art on the global stage align with the Gwangju Biennale's mission of introducing Korean art to the world. The foundation said it would award an artist or collective every Biennale throughout 2042, giving each winner $100,000 in prize money.
However, the award's announcement, which lacked context and a clear explanation, came as a surprise to many, and ultimately led to chaos, leaving lasting scars for nearly everyone involved and exposing the foundation's unprofessional management.
Some wondered why the foundation had decided to resume the Gwangju Biennale art prize when it had stopped giving out the “Noon Award” in 2016, only six years before. An official from the foundation told The Korea Herald on Tuesday that "we stopped the (Noon Award) at the time to focus more on exhibitions." This explanation did not make sense.
Some Gwangju-based artists put on demonstrations on the opening day of the 14th Gwangju Biennale on April 5. Complaints continued for over a month from regional artists who formed the so-called “Group of Artists and Citizens to Abolish the Park Seo-bo Art Prize.” They claimed Park does not suit the “Gwangju spirit, which is the key point of the Gwangju Biennale, therefore the prize insults Gwangju and its citizens.”
The “Gwangju spirit” or “spirit of May” stems from the city’s history of fighting against threats to freedom and democracy in 1980, specifically the May 18 Gwangju Democratic Uprising against former President Chun Doo-hwan’s notorious military dictatorship.
Although the Gwangju Biennale is rooted in the Gwangju spirit, some started to raise questions as to whether the 30-year-old biennale should be confined by the Gwangju spirit and whether it should expand the discourse to a wider theme as Asia’s top biennale. The protest to defend the identity of the biennale is understandable, but it also begs the question -- why can’t we look beyond the Gwangju spirit?
Nevertheless, it is evident that the foundation should have undertaken more thorough discussions and conducted a more careful evaluation before establishing an award under the name of a living artist and assigning the award the nickname of the “Golden Dove,” which bears a striking resemblance to the "Golden Lion" of the Venice Biennale.
The foundation tried to belatedly calm protesters by releasing a statement that the prize was established to support artists who share Park’s sincerity -- but this did not work.
On May 10, Park then wrote on social media that he would withdraw his name from the prize. “I would have tried to find another solution if I knew there were many conflicting views (about the prize),” the artist wrote. An official from the GIZI Foundation established by Park told The Korea Herald on Friday that the donated funds had been returned to the foundation, except for the inaugural prize, and that Park is looking for other ways to help artists.
One of Park's goals in life was to establish an art award, the artist wrote on social media, adding that another of his goals was to support younger artists financially.
The foundation released a statement on the same day, declaring “This is a press release about the Park Seo-bo prize” in an email with a file attached. In the file, it simply mentioned the foundation had decided to cancel the prize after aggregating a “variety of opinions from the art circle,” noting that it will come up with “ways to improve the award system.”
The foundation issued no apology over the confusion caused by already awarding an artist with the inaugural prize, nor did it provide a concrete plan regarding their award system for the near future. What's more, it showed no respect for the artist who donated $1 million to the foundation.
The actions of the foundation can be aptly described with a Korean expression: "like a snake crossing a wall." The phrase is often used to depict an evasive attitude in which one overlooks an error or mistake and attempts to complete a task without addressing the underlying problems. In other words, it implies a lack of responsibility or accountability.
The Gwangju Biennale claims it is Asia's largest and longest-running biennale. If so, their attitude to resolve conflicts should be more delicate and reasonable.
The 14th Gwangju Biennale is taking place under the theme “Soft and Weak Like Water," curated by artistic director Lee Sook-kyung, and will run through July 9. All eyes are on the next year's biennale, which will mark the event's 30th anniversary