Highlights of Gwangju and Busan Biennales by Katie Yook

The opportunity to travel to South Korea with videoclub came at a very timely moment in my curatorial career. I was about to open Phantom Limb (phantomlimb.info), an exhibition I co-curated with Kathy Cho at Cody Dock in East London that brought together Korean diaspora artists Dylan Mira, Jette Hye Jin Mortensen, Joan Oh, Tiffany Jaeyeon Shin and Zadie Xa.

My visit to South Korea – and the artworks at Gwangju and Busan biennales that stood out to me the most – were undoubtedly shaped by my current research, curatorial and personal preoccupations with the histories and subjectivities of Asian diasporas.

At Busan Biennale, Taiwanese artist Chin Cheng-Te’s American Pie (2016) comprised historical documents relating to the United States’ relationship with South Korea and Taiwan during the Cold War, a complex military and political history that contributed to their diaspora populations in the United States. Joo Hwang’s Minyo, There and Here (2018) is a four-channel video showing members of the Korean diaspora singing Korean folk songs, reflecting the ways diaspora populations hold onto traditional aspects of culture.

At Gwangju Biennale, Singapore-based artist Ho Rui An’s Asia The Unmiraculous (2018) presented media imagery of Asia in the setting resembling a real estate office. The fourteen posters offered analysis into media imagery Time magazine covers and yellow peril journalism, representing the Western imaginary of Asia in relationship to the economy.

The biennale’s section, “Returns” curated by David Teh, explored the Biennale’s archive, where I learned about “THERE: Sites of Korean Diaspora” curated by Yong Soon Min in 2002. The exhibition looked at how “diaspora could be a key concept for understanding Korea itself – histories of diaspora tend to encompass political, ideological and territorial conflict, and might thus reveal more about a nation’s past and present more than its official narratives do.”

Growing up with the sense that the diaspora carried negative connotations in South Korea – and that I was too Asian for America and too American for Korea – motivated me to create a unique space for Korean diaspora artists living in Europe and North Korea to explore identity through the exhibition Phantom Limb. Learning about Yong Soon Min’s project in 2002, as well as being able to connect with new art networks and organizations during this trip to Korea, encourages me to continue to build bridges between transnational Korean populations.