The Tao of Design at the 2011 Gwangju Design Biennale

Standing apart from the other dozens or so biennales, triennales, and design festivals descending upon the season, the Gwangju Design Biennale is refreshingly different. Any expectations that it would solely be a display of objects — furniture, clothing, or any other traditional definitions of design — should be thrown out the window. After kicking off last night with an opening ceremony, a spectacle including a collaboration between DJ Spooky and the Gwangju Symphony Orchestra; local dancers; the guqin stylings of Wang Peng, and spoken word DJ set by Tuomas Turunen, the design biennale opened to the public today, and for the next 52 days will serve as an exploration of the question "What is design?"
 
This year's theme is a puzzling phrase: "Design is design is not design," boiled down to "d = D ? d." It's the vision of Korean architect H-Sang Seung, whom the publicly funded Gwangju Biennale Foundation appointed artistic director. His theme is based on the writings of Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, whose opening lines in the "Tao Te Ching" state, "The way that is the way is not always the way... The Tao that can be expressed is not the eternal Tao." Six months after Seung's appointment, the foundation appointed Ai Weiwei as co-director. In Beijing, Seung expressed an interest in the idea that tao is pronounced as "do," the Korean word for drawing, or design. Ai was delighted by the pun, and over the next year (before, during, and after Ai's detention), the two worked to fill the Biennale City — the exhibition space that sits in the northern region of Gwangju — with interactive installations, presentations on the subject of what design can be. Their goal was to spur dialogue about the definition of the word, to have visitors leave with more questions than answers.

The Gwangju Biennale's 141 exhibits (by 130 designers from 44 countries) are categorized into five different sub-subsections:

Named

Perhaps the most orthodox of the biennale's categories, the "Named" design section, features emerging, progressive works in art, architecture, graphics, and objects. Commes des Garçons installed an outdoor maze for visitors to walk through, walled with life-size pictures of the clothing brand's history and progress since its inception in 1969. New York's MANIFESTO Architecture P.C. fixed "Bike Hanger" next to the entrance of the Biennale City, a bicycle storage solution for dense urban areas. It resembles a kind of ferris wheel made from a gear and chain that bicycles ride, circulating up and down the sides of buildings. Germany's Dirk Fleischmann presented "myconceptstore," a biographical retail location in the gallery that follows his career from an art student selling Snickers bars to a clothing designer whose sizes are based on his own body measurements. Other wares in his shop include a line of digital stop watches set to 10.00 seconds, priced based on the amount of time it took him to stop the watch at that exact time. "Do you ever increase the price by purposely taking longer on some than others?" ARTINFO asked. "No, after a while it's really not that fun," he said.

Unnamed

Perhaps best encapsulating the spirit of "Design is design is not design," the "Unnamed" portion, for which Ai tapped design writer Brendan McGetrick as curator, expands the definition of design by eschewing traditional categories and focusing instead on economics, politics, science, and healthcare, dividing the show conceptually like sections of a newspaper. Rotterdam architect Theo Deutinger's "Alpine Village Image Design" explores the way a tourist designs the hospitality industry and even acts as landscaper based on his expectations for his own vacation. Other exhibitions presented the science of smells, prosthetic limbs, and genetically modified rice.

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Gwangju Folly

After a series of product designers, Seung was the first architect to serve as artistic director at the design biennale. As fixed space differentiates architecture from design, he differentiated himself from his predecessors by proposing a series of permanent installations throughout the city, whose locations were based on the Gwangju Eupsong, a long-gone fortress destroyed during the Japanese Colonial era. 

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Germany's Florian Beigal, Iran's Nader Tehrani, and France's Dominique Perrault, among others, were enlisted to design ten follies throughout the city, led by Korea's Kim Young Joon as curator. Tehrani's "Gwangju Swarms" is a cloud of welded needles suspended in the trees; Perrault's "The Open Box" consists of golden eaves hanging over wooden columns fixed in a busy intersection. While the follies, which largely lack seating, don't directly lend themselves to gathering spaces, the architects' hope is that the city will absorb them as landmarks, or meeting places.

More than beautifying the area in which they're installed, Seung's goal was to "express a love and care for the city." While critics have pointed out that folly is not a word that can be translated into Korean, Seung rebuffs, "The Korean Language Society is looking into it."

Thematic

Architect Hyungmin Pai curated the "Thematic" section, enlisting ten artists, architects, writers, and performers to express "Design is design is not design" through their particular practice. Korean landscape architect Ah-Yeon Kim represented a forest's growth and sense of time through a series of images and sounds: the hands of clocks on the wall represent slow-growing trees, while fast ticking sounds represent the rapid growth of grass. Korean illustrator Sun Hyun-Kung put together a comic book that illustrates the festival's enigmatic core concept in a way children can digest: "Design is not only about what you can see with your eyes, but also it is important to know how design helps make our everyday life better."

Community

A look at design's potential in public life, "Community" encompasses housing, sustainability, food culture, and city identity. Berlin's nOffice installed "On-Site Hub" as a meeting place within the gallery, a small wooden auditorium with different levels of box seats and wooden bleachers, reminiscent of a children's playhouse, to serve as the forum for intimate panel discussions during the biennale. In "Calls from Gwangju," filmmakers Sungbo Shim and Sungjun You present a regional portrait without the visual aspects they typically use in their practice. After interviewing dozens of citizens on their relationship with the city, the pair put together a soundtrack of music and voices for Gwangju daily life. They tell their own stories through a series of three archaic devices: ringing telephone booths.

The Gwangju Biennale runs now through October 23.