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Exhibition Review

The 13th Gwangju Biennale: ‘Minds Rising Spirits Tuning’ creates hybrid spaces for techno-shamanism across the South Korean city

Sanghee Kim

May 04, 2021

Directed by curators Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala, this year’s Gwangju Biennale titled ‘Minds Rising Spirits Tuning’ (Apr 1 - May 9, 2021) was postponed twice due to the Covid-19 pandemic - first from September 2020 and then from February 2021. What is finally on show is a hybrid platform for artworks that challenges the current status quo in terms of our global social structure. The Biennale feels both dedicated to spiritual intelligence and connected to technology; it is a collaboration between the human and non-human, demonstrating how the two can co-exist. 


‘Minds Rising Spirits Tuning’ is spread across four venues in Gwangju: Horanggasy Artpolygon, Gwangju Theater, Gwangju National Museum, and the main Biennale exhibition hall. Eazel has picked five installations that fitted best with the concept of techno-shamanism, a theme that stood out the most in this year's Gwangju Biennale. The five installations are from Horanggasy Artpolygon and the main exhibition hall, but other venues also included attention-worthy works that are related to spiritualism and technology, or both. 


At Gwangju Theather, Judy Radul's Warmer Than the World Around Us (2021) challenges the audience's senses through a recording of musical performance using a thermal camera that is sometimes used in ghost hunting. In Gwangju National Museum, Gala Porras-Kim questions the ethics around museum collections such as deceased bodies, which are acquired by awakening the dead without their permission; and the spirits not being able to decide their final resting place. 


There is no particular order to see the presentation but Horanggasy Artpolygon sets the perfect tone for the rest of the biennale with its newly commissioned works, Songs for Dying (2021) by Korakrit Arunanondchai and a new installation work titled Madre Drone (2020) by Patricia Domínguez; both works are at once commemorative and ritualistic, a theme that runs throughout the Biennale. 


Songs for Dying (2021) takes the audience deeply into the undersea world through its intimate, blue-filtered setting, which reflects the colour of the video work. Also occupying the space are a giant sea turtle and a mythical dragon, spanning an entire wall. The video work is divided into four elements: memories of Arunanondchai’s grandfather, the South Korean Jeju uprising of 1948, protests in Thailand and a sacred union in the forest, held by a group of mourners. Arunanondchai’s films often explore the concept of “epistemic murk” - a term coined from Michael Taussig’s 1987 book Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, and referring to the space between truth and fiction or the real and imagined. The “murk” in Songs for Dying (2021) is associated with ghosts that represent decentralised humans who are held in a suspended space of mourning, lamenting both personal and societal issues. 



Korakrit Arunanondchai, Installation view of Songs for Dying, 2021
Courtesy of 13th Gwangju Biennale, 2021   



In Songs for Dying (2021) the sea is a staple behind many different kinds of death: Arunanondchai’s last moments with his grandfather are poignant, yet the body is surrounded by a beautiful flower ritual before his soul is freed into the sea, to return to nature. A violent massacre on Jeju Island is equally surrounded by the ocean’s waves. Although the two events may not seem related, the sensibility of the calm water bridges the two while the film’s sea turtle narrator speaks for all of the fragile ghosts as a storyteller, or a medium. 


If death can be seen from objective and subjective perspectives, Arunanondchai’s Songs for Dying (2021) shows both: the decomposition of the physical form and the cosmic interpretation of death, and the sea – as a natural force and spiritual character – is present throughout.



Patricia Domínguez, Installation view of Madre Drone, 2020
Courtesy of 13th Gwangju Biennale, 2021  



Chilean artist Patricia Domínguez’s Madre Drone (2020) is a series of altars and shrines that come together as a mini-temple, offering a techo-healing facility that taps into the idea of communal activism and ethnobotany. In this, the installation thoughtfully deliberates the boundaries between indigenous ritual and contemporary wellness programmes. Installed in the basement of Artpolygon, local plants growing outside can be glimpsed through windows tinted yellow, green and pink, creating a serene yet otherworldly atmosphere.  


Madre Drone (2020) is filled with transcultural references: a holographic fan depicting the jarro pato, a ceramic duck-jug that symbolises mourning in Chilean indigenous traditions, roses pointing to traditional Chilean herbal remedies, and a pair of boxer shorts printed with emojis, contemporizing the installation. 


Central to Domínguez’s work is the comparison of ancestral and contemporary healing practices, and in Madre Drone (2020) the two are connected via the use of technology and as they sit together surrounded by the nature of Yangnim Mountain. In this highly visual installation, every layer of meaning may not surface immediately, but slowly arises amongst the artist’s “temples of extractivism”.



The audience are welcomed into Gallery 2 of the Biennale hall by the relentless drumbeat rumbling out from Sonic Driving (2018–21) by Yin-Ju Chen and shaman Li-Chun Lin (Marina). Since the Paleolithic era, Shamanic drumming has transcended people into an extraordinary state of mind to grieve and heal, and here in 2021 in Gwangju, the work continues.


Sonic Driving (2018–21) is a room of video, wall paintings and a sound piece from which the drumming resounds. The video work tells the story of an eagle that has been chosen to be the first shaman to save humanity, and is shot from the bird’s perspective who looks out across images of picturesque nature and shamanic constructions. The drumming is visualised on the screen in reverberating soundwaves, giving an enhanced bodily experience.



Yin-Ju Chen and Li-Chun Lin (Marina), Installation view of Sonic Driving, 2018–21
Courtesy of 13th Gwangju Biennale, 2021  



Painted questions surround the video: “How will AI affect humans in the future?” “How will global warming affect the Earth?” “What is the impact of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant event?” and “How will genetic modification affect humans in the future?”. These questions derive from a public workshop held by Chen which addressed human wellbeing, and here it is as if the eagle was sent down to save humanity from these issues and ultimately, from their own self-destruction. 


It is difficult to decide whether the drumming overcasts the entire gallery or sets an effective tone. Regardless, it definitely rings in your heart long after leaving the gallery. 


If Sonic Diving (2018-21) was the base beat for Gallery 2, taking up an entire corner of Gallery 3 is We Are in Hell When We Hurt Each Other (2020) by Jacolby Satterwhite. The 24-minute video work is a stage for CGI fembots to express the turmoil and trauma they feel from generations of racial violence. With its script, narrated by Satterwhite’s mother, including phrases such as “we are in hell when we make others lie” and “if you hurt me, you hurt yourself” the artwork does not just speak about racism, but addresses the wider pain of the world we live in. 



Jacolby Satterwhite, Video still from We Are in Hell When We Hurt Each Other, 2020
Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York



As an installation, We Are in Hell When We Hurt Each Other (2020) presents a dual setting for ritualistic movement. First, the audience can vicariously feel relieved as they watch the fembots dance – they are mediums for the expression of pain. Secondly, a floorspace has been cleared to allow audiences to dance with the fembots for personal catharsis.


Satterwhite’s work nudges us to think about how we may inflict pain on others and how this divides us further; we are reminded that in the current global struggle over the Covid-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to care for each other. 


Living in a society where technologies like smartphones tend to sponge our space and time, and manage to create social environments without any physical interaction, Angelo Plessas’ work is timely and even necessary. Plessas’ The Noospheric Society (launched in 2017) in Gallery 4 of the biennale hall, considers the ‘noosphere’ as the ultimate form of human consciousness: a mental state that is detached from technology and is instead generated through communal knowledge and experience. Plessas’ conviction is that technology should be controllable by humans, rather than humans be sucked into an ever-expanding abyss of daily over-communication, which is ironically widening the distance between people. Drawing upon “technoshamanism”, which by definition applies technology with spiritualism, Plessas suggests that through knowledge-sharing and experience, humans can come together to reach a new level of biosphere.



Angelo Plessas, Installation view of The Noospheric Society, launched in 2017
Photo by eazel  



In Gwangju Biennale, The Noospheric Society (launched in 2017) emerges as a pedagogical platform where the audience can either proactively participate by taking in all the information from the video works, or simply float around the installation space observing its shamanic aesthetics. Technology is fundamental to the work, for which Plessas has not only made films but conducted online divination sessions online. In this, he explores the mystical uses of technology and points out that digital tools, if used well, may allow us to reach the noospheric state of mind.


Together, Gwangju Biennale looks through the lenses of personal and communal trauma, healing, and spiritualism to question which forms of intelligence continue to dominate, and who holds the leading narratives in society, ecology and ethics. Shamanism is used in the exhibition as a practice to bring together ancient forms of knowledge and contemporary technologies, and to bridge binaries such as human and technology, life and death, reality and myth, us and them, human and ghost. It is through dissolving these opposing concepts that Gwangju Biennale provides a space and time in suspension, in which people can take time to mourn, transit and heal.



The Gwangju Biennale was founded in 1995 in Gwangju, a southern province in South Korea. It showcases international contemporary art and past artistic directors include: Maria Lind (2016), Jessica Morgan (2014), Massimiliano Gioni (2010), and Okwui Enwezor (2008). 


More information about the 13th Gwangju Biennale; ‘Minds Rising Spirits Tuning’.