South Korea: Resignation and boycott in controversy over censorship

22 August 2014


The president of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation, Lee Yong-woo, has resigned over the censorship of a painting which was included in the Gwangju Bienniale’s 20th anniversary exhibition ‘Sweet Dew—After 1980’ at the Gwangju Museum of Art.

In an almost ironical contrast to the controversy which has erupted over the censorship incident, the video trailer promoting the exhibition speaks of “Movement towards freedom” and “Delightful rebellion dreaming of transformation and freedom”.

According to the Gwangju Biennale’s official statement on Lee Yong-woo’s resignation, the government of the city of Gwangju, which sponsors the exhibition to the tune of $2.4 million for this year’s Biennale, had asked that the artist Hong Seong-dam change a satirical painting because it was considered offending: a 10.5-meter-wide satirical mural titled ‘Sewol Owol’.

The mural portrays the Korean president Park Geun-hye as a maniacal scarecrow facing off against angered parents of children who died in the sinking of the MV Sewol ferry in April – a national tragedy that has had huge political repercussions.

“I am taking full responsibility for what happened regarding the special exhibit that celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Gwangju Biennale,” Lee Yong-woo said at an 18 August press conference:

“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… Freedom of artistic expression should not be restricted by the government just because they have the exhibition budget under their control,” Artnet News quoted him as saying.

Lee Yong-woo co-founded the Gwangju Biennale in 1995, was its artistic director in 2004 and has been its president since 2012.

Artists removed their works
In response to the censorship of Hong Seong-dam’s work, other artists featured in the ‘Sweet Dew’ exhibition have removed their works from it, and its curator, Yun Beom-mo, has resigned.

Artist Lee Yun-yop removed his work on 11 August 2014. “It wouldn’t be good for an artist to simply do nothing. It’s shameful, you know,” Lee Yun-yop told the Hankyoreh. “If they won’t put up Hong Sung-dam’s work, what does that make the rest of us artists? Did we pass the censors?”

A group of Japanese artists and the director of Sakima Art Museum, which loaned work to the Gwangju Biennale, wrote a letter on 12 August 2014 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.


» Artnet News – 20 August 2014:
Gwangju Biennale President Resigns Over Censorship
Article by Benjamin Sutton

» The Korea Herald – 18 August 2014:
Gwangju Biennale marred by politics
Chief resigns in controversy over satirical painting of President Park Geun-hye.
Article by Lee Woo-young

» Artnet News – 22 May 2014:
Warrant Issued Against Artist Embroiled in Sewol Ferry Disaster
The Incheon District Court in South Korea has issued an arrest warrant for Yoo Byung-eun, the elusive businessman considered one of the main individuals responsible for the ferry disaster that shook up the country. He also happens to be a nature photographer. By Coline Milliard

» Home page of the Gwangju Biennale Foundation:

» Home page of the Gwangju Bienniale:

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