Given the current popularity of "globalism," it's no surprise that the Johannesburg and Kwangju Biennales are uncannily similar. Both were inaugurated in 1995 and both attempt to map the emergence of hybrid cultures and identities as national boundaries crumble or are redrawn. The Johannesburg exhibition, "Trade Routes: History and Geography," sets out to explore cultural exchange and is divided into six sections, while Kwangju's "Unmapping the Earth," a reference to the five elements of Eastern alchemy, is split into five shows. Each Biennale is holding conferences and producing both a publication of the papers and exhibition catalogues that feature some of the celebrities of contemporary cultural criticism and literature. Johannesburg's conference, organized by Olu Oguibe (and scheduled to be held between October 13 and 15) includes Homi K. Bhabha, Andreas Huyssen, and Nadine Gordimer, while Julia Kristeva is among the contributors to the catalogue. Gayatri Spivak, Lawrence Grossberg, and Trinh T. Minh-ha are participants in Kwangju's symposium (to be held form October 29 to 31) and Bhabha, Paul Virilio, and Slavoj Zizek have written essays for the catalogue. But there are differences, too. The Johannesburg Biennale is hosting a program of independent films from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Europe curated by Mahen Bonetti, the founding director of the African Film Festival held biannually in Brooklyn and New York. In addition to "Unmapping the Earth," the Korean Biennale is presenting five "special" exhibitions including the "Kwangju Aperto" as well as seven "satellite" and "sponsored" group and one-person shows, among them "Arts and Crafts of North Korea."
A percentage of the work included in these Biennales might be found at any number of international group shows. And this has more than a little to do with the guest curators selected. Swiss-born Harald Szeemann - who has made a career of mounting large exhibitions of predominately European artists, such as this year's Lyon Biennale - is one of the five Kwangju Biennale curators, but could as easily have served as one of the organizers of the South African show. He has selected predominantly, and predictably, well-known male artists such as Joseph Beuys and Bill Viola. Korean Yu Yeon Kim, one of the six Johannesburg Biennale curators, has worked primarily with Asian artists, and would have fit in easily at Kwangju. (That her appointment would have put at least one woman on the Korean Biennale's curatorial team says something about the limits of "globalism's" reach.)
Yet, if the Johannesburg and Kwangju Biennales share numerous characteristics with many an international group show, their very existence symbolizes much more: the beginning of the end to years of human suffering and political strife. If one cannot visit South Africa without thinking of the long battle against Apartheid, Korea conjures an equally long struggle for basic civil rights. In 1980, hundreds of students and protesters were massacred at Kwangju, but the city has since become instrumental in the democratization movement that brought Korea its first civilian government in 1992.
Indeed, these biennials manage to transcend the generic, international group show by presenting new work that speaks to the diversity of global - as well as the particularity of regional - communities. The Johannesburg Biennale is intended to go beyond melting-pot multiculturalism to investigate the dissonances that disturb the smooth surface of the new globalism, with exhibitions on women, South Africans, and urban identities. Though Kwangju's "Unmapping the Earth" is more abstract and less grounded in specific issues than Johannesburg's "Trade Routes," its regionally focused, auxiliary exhibitions - such as "Nomadic Passages: Folk Beliefs and Korean Contemporary Art" - zero in on particular, often traditional, areas. The obvious and ironic flaw in the Kwangju Biennale's structure is that women are extremely underrepresented in "Unmapping the Earth's" exhibition, catalogue, and curatorial team. …