Written by Laureline Claeys with contributions by Douglas Baumwoll
Photographs courtesy of Laureline Claeys
If you are living in Gwangju and have an interest in the artistic scene of this delightful city, then you need to check out Barim. The essence of this artists’ venue is as diverse as the energy of its creator and director, Kang Min-hyung. Kang and I met last month and discussed passionately art, creativity, culture, and of course, Gwangju and Barim. The project began in Spring 2014 and has grown stronger ever since, becoming an important element of the Gwangju art scene. So, what makes this venue so unique and attractive?
Barim is not simply an art exhibition hall. It’s a space devoted to many folks in Gwangju: artists, art students, art critics, curators, visitors, art lovers, and the art-curious. It offers a varied palette of artistic events: exhibitions, residencies, workshops, lectures, showcases, concerts, art-related social gatherings, and even parties. Picture Barim as a constantly evolving paradigm that grows depending on Kang’s encounters, daily collaborations, and funding. Kang explains, “Barim is a loose organization based on a collective of artists, art event-makers, art curators, critics, and supporters. It all creates a strong social network.”
The name of the venue itself is innovative, inspired by a traditional Korean shading technique used in painting. Therefore, you might imagine that Barim would focus on promoting traditional forms of art. What initially caught Kang’s attention, however, is not the literal meaning of the word, but rather the fact that it’s catchy and easy to remember for everyone, including foreigners. She was also beguiled by the metaphorical aspect it embodies: the mastery of color shading and graduation can be seen as a way to blur boundaries and to create slight connections between things that at first glance appear distinctly different. In this sense, Kang promotes a vision of an interdisciplinary artistic creation, in which visual art can be transcended by installation, performance, sound, video, programming, or experimentation.
Kang’s story is a fascinating one. As the director of the venue, she dedicates all her energy, passion, and time to keep the place afloat and support the new projects coming in. “In terms of running and organizing, receiving and paying money, I’m doing everything by myself,” she says. Originally from Seoul, Kang left for the United States at 18, then lived in Tokyo for eight years, where she completed her master’s degree in art. She eventually decided to quit her well-paying full-time job in an advertising company in order to pursue her artistic career. She decided to participate in a curatorial residency in Vietnam for a year, then finally came back to Seoul after 13 years abroad. “I had a hard time living in Seoul,” she confesses, “because half of the population lives there, it’s very competitive in any field, and it takes two hours on the subway every day. This was really not cool to me.” Also, Kang didn’t want to live in Seoul only to perpetuate the idea that “there is no other place to be” when it comes to doing art-related business in South Korea. She felt it was important to do something meaningful in the art world without having to stay in the capital. In her opinion, the strong centralization in South Korea creates a deep division based on geography between Korean people and culture. “The country needs to move toward decentralization [from Seoul],” she says. After searching for a city that she felt could benefit from her project and where she was also interested in living, she finally decided to open her art space here in Gwangju.
“At first it was a short-term project. I wasn’t that optimistic,” she says. Coming here as an outsider was not easy. She did know the city a bit, as she had attended an alternative high school in Damyang, but she had no personal connections here when she came back. Gwangju was essentially a big unknown for her, but the challenge did not frighten her. She felt Gwangju was a city full of contradictions – being both politically liberal and socially conservative while looking at the same time forwards and backwards – that still manages to develop. “Being an observer of what happens here,” she explains, “is an interesting trigger for an artist.” Nevertheless, when she arrived, she found that there wasn’t much of a contemporary art context here. “Things were going on, but I felt they were a lot more focused on traditional media. I wanted to do something more conceptual,” she adds. For example, one of her core ideas was to create bridges between artistic and everyday life by bringing art into the residency areas. So, as soon as Kang arrived, she rented spaces in a goshiwon (고시원, a very small but affordable accommodation with a shared bathroom, typically rented by workers or students) in downtown Gwangju. She installed exhibitions and residency artists in several of those tiny spaces. After initially feeling that the public was not used to this unique idea, being more familiar with clean “white-cube” galleries, Barim then developed so fast that Kang now rests assured that the city is ready for many other inventive projects. “In fact, it turned out that there were really a lot of people who wanted this kind of space,” she says.
Kang thinks that artists have to both stay open to new forms of art and constantly renew their approach. “Learning something new is important,” Kang says. In that sense, she designed Barim to be an art space that put its main focus on process-based art, conceptual approaches, and new art mediums. “I felt there are so many artists out there who want to experiment in a work in progress. They might fail, because it’s experimentation . . . When you experiment with a completely new medium, you need a space for failure, and I felt that didn’t really exist in Gwangju”.
In the end, Barim’s main function is to provide residencies that allow artists and curators to learn, research, conceptualize, experiment, and discover new and intriguing artistic endeavors. This venue gives space for attempts and failures, as failing has to be seen only as what it is: a part of the never ending learning process, a stepping stone on the path of experimentation and creation. Kang’s most recent project was ambitious and involved the first curatorial residencies for young, Gwangju-based curators. The three-month residency period just showcased a six-day, grand art opening on October 21. I encourage you to join the Facebook group “Gwangju Barim” or to check the venue’s website www.barimart.wordpress.com to find more information about past and coming events. You too, dear reader, can be a part of Barim’s growing art lovers network!
Laureline Claeys holds a BA in modern literature and a MA in linguistics. Over the years, she has participated in research and journalistic writing projects. Her interests include creative writing, live performance, and visual art. Her solo art exhibition premiered in September 2017 in Gwangju, involving poems and illustrations. She currently teaches French at Chonnam National University.