13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Sangdon Kim

Sangdon Kim makes use of a wide range of media and engages with core systems of representation in Korea through materials of everyday life and social relations. In the sculptures on view in the Biennale Hall, he mobilizes elements from Korean shamanism, colonial memory, contemporary politics, and circuits of hyperconsumption. According to Kim, shamanistic polytheism and pluralism serve as important modes of understanding the world as they do not refuse the secular but rather pursue the sacred. The outlook of shamanistic faith is rooted in the realization and integration of community and Korea’s indigenous culture. Kim has said that when all of human civilization is in crisis, we are once again bound to turn toward long-standing spiritual cultures based on collective catharsis and reconciliation. The prevailing pandemic, combined with current structures of power, has contributed to deeper class divisions. A unifying approach based on shamanism facilitates the healing of social wounds, mourning, and remorse.

Upon returning to Korea from his studies with Lothar Baumgarten in Berlin in 2004, he started working with materials and metaphors that are deeply entrenched in animism, Korean myths, and fairy tales—fire, dragons, water, and wind, including ‘invented’ totems. With his works Bulgwang-dong Totem (2003–2010) and Solveig’s Song (2011) he offers a singular vision: the revival of the spirit of an older, more unruly Korea.

Included in the Biennale’s procession is a parade of Kim’s new works, The Gate of Hell (2021), which were created with motifs from dashiraegi, the traditional funeral culture of Jindo, to emphasize the collective act of mourning and overcoming crises. The ensemble includes a cart in the shape of a sang-yeo, a traditional structure for carrying the dead, that reflects the unstable reality obscured by the glamors of contemporary capitalism, the power of mass media, and conveniences of a thoroughly sterilized, outwardly uniform society. Through these projects, Kim demonstrates that collectivity and cohabitation are inherent to the human condition. Works such as Fire Cart (2017), installed at Yangnim Mountain, reveal how hybrid vehicles and antennas hold an integral place in his practice, as these are animated devices through which transmissions endure between the Earth, sky, and divine power.

Natasha Ginwala