Design Biennales in Asia are becoming more inclusive, academic and experimental.
Many design and art biennales operate together on a mutually beneficial basis. A prominent example of this is the Gwangju Biennale Foundation in Korea, established by Gwangju Metropolitan City, the Gwangju Biennale Foundation and also the Gwangju Design Center.
The Design Biennale was first initiated in 2004, operating on a rotational program with the Contemporary Art Biennale.
Since 2004, there have been four Design Biennale editions. The most recent in 2011 aimed to explore and widen the definition of what design can be, a concept developed by co-directors; Chinese activist, artist and architect Ai Weiwei and Korean architect Seung H-San.
Design is Design is Not Design was the coined term by the pair and featured six main exhibitions: Urban Follies, Unnamed Design, Named Design, Community, Biennale City, and the Academy.
Each exhibition was a survey of design projects, which challenged the contemporary definition of both design and the designer.
The project did not focus on aesthetics, but rather looked at how design alters perceptions, reinvents and reveals hidden truths through ecology, fashion, healthcare, military, politics, science and technology. This curatorial model expands the traditional design audience.
Ai Weiwei speaks about the project in context of a wider engagement with Asia:
In Asia, the notion of design is newer. Its status remains unclear and its limits are undefined. We propose that the 2011 gwangju design biennale seizes this ambiguity as source of strength. Where in the west design is often a tool for exclusion, in gwangju it can be inclusive, accepting contributors from across cultures and classes. Rather than proposing a single, globalized template for the world to follow, at the biennale design will become a codeword for the invention of new forms of difference – new slang, new relationships, new organisms, new religions.
The choice of experimental and independent-type directors for the program gave the biennale a critical edge. However, it also generated a lot of media attention; the curatorial process was interrupted due to the detainment of Ai Weiwei by his home government for a period 81 days. A global outcry of artists, practitioners and institutions responded to Ai’s unexpected detention with an extensive movement demanding his release.
Do more experimental design practices exist in Asia, or are we simply more aware of them due to Asia’s active marketing of inclusiveness, criticality and experimentation through biennales such as the Gwangju Design Biennale?