“I am a big believer in the importance of the context in which art is produced,” Defne Ayas says. A recognized curator working across contemporary art, politics, and performance, Ayas is known for, among other achievements, curating the Turkish pavilion in the 56th International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale, co-curating the 11th Baltic Triennial, and serving as curator-at-large of the renowned New York-based performance art festival PERFORMA. “I studied political science and studio art, not art history. I’ve always been more interested in what's backstage: the dynamics that feed into art rather than the finished pieces themselves. I think that’s why I’ve always been so intrigued by dance and performance. You don’t just see an object, but thinking coming to life right before your eyes.”
As a result, dancers, choreographers, and performers form a strong contingent at the 13th Gwangju Biennale. Titled Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning, the biennale, curated by Ayas together with Natasha Ginwala, was originally set to take place from February 26–May 9, 2021, yet has now been postponed until April 1 due to the global pandemic. While dance has previously been included in the event, according to a statement from the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, the art form has usually been incorporated into other artworks rather a key feature in and of itself.
Founded in 1995 in the southwestern Korean city of Gwangju as a living memorial to an uprising in the 1980s against the country’s military dictatorship, the biennale has been directed by various established curators and addressed far ranging themes throughout its 26-year history. The first edition, Beyond the Borders, aimed to convey a message of global citizenship that transcended divisions between ideologies, territories, religion, race, culture, humanity, and the arts. 23 years later, the 12th Gwangju Biennale revisited a similar theme and staged seven exhibitions exploring the political, cultural, physical, and emotional concepts of borders in today’s global community. Before that, the 11th biennale in 2016, spearheaded by Artistic Director Maria Lind, asked the question “What can art do in this age?”
Bearing in mind its political legacy and commemorative motivations, Gwangju, in Ayas’s words, “isn’t just another biennale.” As a result, she and Ginwala chose to take aesthetics of mourning, death, and decay into consideration along with their particular theme of “intelligence and the expanded mind.” Inspired by Catherine Malabou’s book What Should We Do With Our Brain? (2004), the curators wanted to question the nature of real intelligence. “Is it in the mind or is it in the heart?” Ayas asks. “What was really important for us was to look at intelligences that have been ostracized that we can learn more from, such as the vocabularies of indigenous communities, shamanistic worlds, and matriarchal cultures from around the world.”
With both mourning and expanded intelligence in mind, American choreographer Trajal Harrell is a natural fit for Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning. He is arguably best known for his Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at the Judson Church series, which imagines what would have happened if the 1960s Harlem voguing ball scene and the contemporaneous postmodern dance pioneers of the Judson Church movement had encountered each other. Harrell’s latest self-performed solo, Sister or He Buried the Body, which has been invited to the biennale, continues his long-term research into the relationship between voguing and Butoh—a Japanese form of dance theater co-founded by Kazuo Ôno and Tatsumi Hijikata. “Part of the myth of Hijikata is he believed that, when dancing Butoh, his late sister could dance through his body. The dead dancing through the living is a major tenet of Butoh,” he says. “The idea of this piece is that it’s me, voguing Hijikata, voguing his sister.”
Sister or He Buried the Body also looks into the potential influence Katherine Dunham—a trailblazing American choreographer and anthropologist who founded the US’s first Black ballet company in 1931—may have had on Butoh. “It seems that Hijikata may have borrowed some ideas from her to develop the style after he encountered her in Japan,” Harrell say. “They may have worked at the same studio, and have even been lovers, we’re not exactly sure.”
Harrell is no stranger to presenting in visual art contexts: he began his current line of research during a residency at MoMA in 2013, and his performance exhibition Hoochie Koochie has been shown at galleries including the Barbican in London and Berlin’s Akademie der Künste. “There’s a different relationship with the viewer in a gallery, they are mobile and not necessarily seated. This flexibility makes for a different tension in the performance,” he explains. The choreographer also creates for theater: his company is currently based at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich. “I’ve always worked in both theaters and galleries, it’s natural to me: my MoMA residency was all about looking at how the two could influence each other,” Harrell says. “The visual arts have been leading the way in inviting other modalities of experience, and especially live performance, into their spaces these days. Viewers have come to expect it. We want to see different kinds of things, not only paintings on the walls, don’t we?”
While they have invited artists from all over the world to Gwangju, Ayas and Ginwala have also been conscious to ensure Minds Rising, Spirits Tuning has a strong Korean focus, and have worked with Korean performance manager Jinyoung Shin to get a local perspective. The biennale will feature work by a wide variety of Korean artists, from MOON & JEON, a Seoul and Busan-based artist duo who will present a film reimagining Goethe’s Faust, to Hyun-taek Cho, a Gwangju-based photographer who captures the changing faces of neighborhoods and community spaces in order to question the spiritual charge of inhabited realms. Buddhist nun and chef Jeong Kwan—star of Season 3 of Netflix’s Chef’s Table—provided a Korean translation of the biennale’s title (떠오르는 마음, 맞이하는 영혼) and has been invited to give a blessing as part of the opening, funeral-like procession. “Biennales as formats and the spectacle culture they entail are things the new generation doesn’t believe in much,” Ayas says. “This combined with the fact that Gwangju mourns the lives lost as part of the uprising in 1980 every two years made us think we should give it a rite of passage.”
Scored by Berlin and Paris-based movement duo ∞OS—Dmitry Paranyushkin and Koo Des—the procession will lead a mobile audience to see individual works, exhibitions, and performances in various locations across the biennale hall. Davide Quadrio—director of Arthub Asia—has also come on board to direct the opening. “He is trained in Tibetan architecture. He also understands the Korean ritual systems, such as how we should involve a Sami singer like Katarina Barruk or shamanic drumming into the process,” Ayas says. “Be it through music, architecture, or collective movement, the scored elements of the procession are connected to invocations that can be found in ancient ceremonies or funerals across time and place that have the power to replenish and heal.”
Dance-wise, the procession will include a contribution by Cecilia Bengolea. Returning to the biennale after first participating in 2014, her work this year has been inspired by Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen’s “Body-Mind Centering” approach to movement. “Body-Mind Centering is a somatic practice that allows the imagination of internal rhythms, bodily fluids, and structures. It informs movement through sensation, not only anatomical imagination,” Bengolea explains, who has also trained in kung fu, Thai boxing, tai chi, as well as ancient dances from Bolivia, India, and Japan. Sharing her experience of Body-Mind Centering via video with a group of children in Gwangju who practice the Korean martial art of Taekkyon, they’ve collectively sought to find a meeting point between Eastern and Western practices. The result will be a workshop the children will lead themselves, sharing their practice and discoveries with the biennale’s visitors. “As we are constantly inventing ways of adapting to our times, I thought children’s youthful perspectives may offer a way for we adults to extend our minds.”
The opening procession, like much of the biennale, now seems set to take place in the digital sphere: it will be performed and recorded before the delayed opening date of April 1. “Only four out of our original 40 artists are going to make it there in person: ∞OS, Angelo Plessas, and Judy Radul,” Ayas says. “We artistic directors will be there, as well as our curator Michelangelo Corsaro and producer Davide Quadrio. Everyone else is installing remotely. The international bubble burst indeed and we’re homing in on what is really essential, the local focus.”
The online space is arguably most difficult for dance—an art form centered on physical presence. Harrell, for example, has decided not to present his solo online if he is unable to make it to Korea. “It’s great that people do it, but my work just doesn’t work on a two-dimensional screen,” he explains. “I’ve worked so hard on developing this idea of togetherness and liveness for the past 22 years. I don’t have another 22 years to figure out how to translate that on to video. And I won’t do it if I can’t do it well.”
Other involved choreographers, however, have been working in the digital realm since before COVID struck. “We’ve commissioned choreographic duo nasa4nasa, who are trained in martial arts and gymnastics,” Ayas says. Working out of Cairo since 2016, they’ve made social media their choreographic platform, experimenting with the idea of the Instagram square as a physical space and exploring the conflict between the ephemeral nature of dance and the relative permanence of the internet. “Of course, in Egypt, social media is a contested political space,” Ayas adds, referencing how the country’s authoritarian government placed restrictions on social media platforms, limiting freedom of expression.
As theaters remain closed and dance, a notoriously underfunded and arguably undervalued art form—just take the UK government’s advertising campaign last year encouraging out-of-work ballerinas to retrain in cyber industries as an example—continues to face challenges due to the pandemic, it’s heartening to see it take such a lead role at Gwangju. The biennale’s central theme of the expanded mind in particular draws attention to the increasing relevance of physicality and bodily research as valuable forms of intelligence. “There are so many scientific, cultural, political, and spiritual aspects to dance that can help us to get out of the pandemic,” Ayas says: the New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas’s article on how social distancing principles have caused everyday life to be choreographed, is one of the first things that springs to mind. Ayas also references the work of ∞OS. “They are trained in the Russian martial art Systema, as well as in neuroscience, Butoh, and Japanese body sculpting exercises. One of the ideas behind their practice is discovering how to take in violence and re-sculpt it into something soft and playful. This is essential, this kind of research, because we’re all being hit right? The key is to find out how we can take it and work with it.”