Bang Geul Han
Anders Hellsten Nissen
Mauro Di Silvestre
Curated by Jin Hwang
31 July - 8 September 2011
KT&G Sangsangmadang Gallery, Seoul
From the beginning, I’ve been primarily interested in this exhibition’s structure, one that allows each of its five sections – corresponding to five world cities – to function as a discreet anatomic element while at the same time remaining an integral part of the whole. Thanks to this format the exhibit, a grouping-together of participating artists’ works, is able to generate its own momentum, evolving in various directions depending on each curator and venue city. Just as a star, a complete micro-world, takes on a particular significance for an astrologist only insofar as it also maintains its place within the constellation as a whole, or as bits of glass in a Kaleidoscope assume a concrete, if whimsical, pattern once shaken into a new angle, so this show’s final shape should only become manifest gradually through an unfolding of its own internal logic.
The exhibit’s organic structure, furthermore, is dictated by more than questions of aesthetics or form: it reflects, at a deeper level, what appears to be the very structure of our world. This world, indeed, is neither an amorphous oneness nor the over-determined sum total of local elements but rather the constellation of discreet elements with their own particular significance and autonomy. As parts of the total system, these local elements may be said to be “other” to each other while also comprising a single “one” together. This simple insight into the relationship between the parts and the whole might point us toward modes of living more carefully attuned to the realities of globalization. Once the world is re-conceived as a “constellation,” we should be in a better position to appreciate the true significance of locality within the global picture – should be able, if I may put it so, to pay locality its due without becoming too caught up or trapped in it. For instance, we would no longer regard the current issue of younger generation’s – the so-called “880,000 Won generation’s” – unemployment as essentially that of individual incapacity or failure, regardless of its wider socio-cultural, economic and political contexts. We would be able to confront the specificity of Korean contemporary art without feeling obliged to reduce it to the by-now-all-too-predictable perspective of Orientalism. We would finally recognize the irony that behind the renewed capacity and range of our sensory experience and communication, we still follow a standardized way of living typical of the economy-driven society. In other words, while maintaining a keen sense of society’s concrete local circumstances, we would also attempt to view it from the outside, to transcend its narrowly provincial and potentially restrictive confines.
When organizing the Seoul part of the exhibition, I have attempted to introduce the artwork that would contribute new, original perspectives to the issue of locality. I’ve asked myself a question: when you have artists who perceive the world in terms of proper balance between the parts and the whole, what kind of artistic practice would you be more likely to see? The artists I eventually selected, MeeNa Park and Yangachi, each provide their particular solution to this question. Their medium and artistic approach are altogether different, but they both share a self-consciously reflective position toward local circumstance, situating themselves at a certain degree of social or aesthetic remove.
MeeNa Park, who always has a keen sense of her environments, collects objects, analyzes their hidden logic and then appropriates it as her own to produce painting. No matter if it’s mass-produced products, visual information or collective identity, once this original material is transposed onto the canvas, it reveals a social narrative that strikes us as all the more poignant for its being not previously apparent.
In case of Yangachi, who began his career as a web activist and then moved on to installation that combines video, photographs, texts, sculpture and performance, he positions himself in a more sharply critical stance toward society. In his artworks, a nation appears as a giant shopping mall and our lives seem to amount to little more than parts of a statewide surveillance drama. His subversive messages are typically encapsulated into jokes reminiscent of B-pictures, a wry commentary on the warped values and stark realities of contemporary society.
The phrase “The most Korean, the most world-wide” has for decades been deeply entrenched in the Korean cultural scene. In case of MeeNa Park and Yangachi, however, they were selected for the Seoul City exhibit precisely because they are not obsessed with either “the most Korean” or “the most world-wide.” They are fit to represent Korea in the international contemporary art scene because they have proved that in this increasingly global world, locality is visible only when we view it from beyond its boundaries.
Old City: 15 Man-Made Colors from Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter, 2004
Old City: 15 Man-Made Colors from Jerusalem’s Christian Quarter, 2004
Old City: 15 Man-Made Colors from Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter, 2004
Old City: 15 Man-Made Colors from Jerusalem’s Moslem Quarter, 2004
Through a variety of visual forms, from images and found objects to icons and maps, MeeNa Park’s paintings interrogate the conventional system of rules, values, perceptual patterns and habits of thought – an invisible hierarchy of norms that most of us have internalized or taken for granted. Taking initial inspiration from everyday objects she painstakingly collects – mass-produced paints, instruction manuals, coloring pages, etc. – the artist proceeds to comb them for traces of hidden logic, pattern or social narrative. Once made explicit, this logic provides a kind of visual algorithm – a constitutive principle or blueprint – for her paintings. Though the final product may resemble a minimalist painting at first, it is actually closer to conceptual and informative modes, grounded firmly in social narrative. Her paintings are thus unique in that, born of her individual desire for collecting, they evolve to embrace both the social context and the formal experiment of painting.
In the “Drawing” series (2011), while collecting coloring pages, Park found that the visual information and instructions they typically encapsulate make up an entire system for teaching shapes, letters, colors, etc. to children. The discovery prompted her to explore what she calls the “conventional aspects of learning” – a set of cognitive codes and implicit commands that accompany the activity of coloring. Deliberately ignoring these cues and rearranging the order of colors, figures, letters and symbols in coloring pages, she was able to transform the pages’ conventional format into an alternate visual system with a new set of educational instructions.
Old Cities (2004), which Park produced while in a residency program in Israel, grew out of her curiosity about the differences among four religions — Armenian Orthodox, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — all of which claim to originate in Jerusalem. The artist observed, and gathered samples of colors that occurred most prominently in manmade artifacts (being careful to exclude natural objects) within each religious community. She was able to isolate fifteen representative colors for each religion and organize them into four printed maps, charting both differences and similarities among the communities. While the final map itself works as a diagram, displaying each community’s distinct color environment, it may be also seen as performing a “physiognomic” function of generating the visual equivalent of profiles or “portraits” of collective identity.
Park’s recent series, “Dingbat Painting,” draws on the impressions of dingbat fonts, used for easily inserting readymade images into text. The artist downloads the fonts and enters assorted letters from her computer keyboard before transforming the resulted images into paintings. Typically each painting takes its title from letters entered to produce it – although it may also derive from a combination of pre-selected images and matching phrases. Considering that, in communication, we often use images to fill in the blanks of language/ thoughts, the dingbat series may be said to offer a new cognitive pattern, shifting deftly between figurative and literal modes. After all, don’t we belong to a generation that is increasingly conditioned to read content in images, even perceive letters as images?
What is finally remarkable in MeeNa Park’s paintings is that their keen sense of social context derives not through her subject’s mimetic representation but through a translation of its implied social codes into visual principles. In this way, she seeks to step down from the position of creative agent and to assume instead the role of the system’s outside observer – a calculated move toward objectivity in painting while also, at the same time, a daring step into the unknown.
Spear Wheel (White), 2008
Gim’s factory logo
Sniper CHA Jiryang, 2008
GIM Esoo, 2009
Sniper CHA Jiryang, 2008
Using the imagination of media as his creative material, Yangachi conjures up a new, surreal world that is unmistakably his own – at once different from, and reminiscent of, this world by which he is continuously inspired. Throughout his still-evolving oeuvre, from early works such as Yangachi Guild (2002), a biting satire of South Korean society as a huge shopping mall, or Surveillance Drama (2005), a take-no-prisoners look at the erosion of privacy in our daily life, to Bright Dove Hyunsook, for which he was awarded the Hermès Foundation Missulsang prize, the underside of Korean society’s most troubling issues are exposed mercilessly as part of Yangachi’s wryly subversive vision.
Middle Corea (2003-2009), which is composed of three episodes, takes its title from the imaginary country located somewhere between South Korea and North Korea. The story centers on Middle Corea’s “Gim’s factory,” a unit that over the last 50 years has been trading with both the North Korean Labor Party and the South Korean government. Gim and his family, however, aren’t so much double- dealers as social subversives: they manufacture something called “Kamikaze Bike” – a product designed for sabotaging the existing social order – and “Rumor Gun” – meant to disturb the system by spreading rumors and clearing the ground for the building of a new social order. While the nominal responsibility of implementing these items falls on Cha Jirang, Yangachi’s anti-social hero, the story’s conceit ultimately points to the artist himself as key agent of change. Despite being self- consciously fictional, Yangachi’s fable gathers its share of verisimilitude from the quasi-documentary installation of photographs and objects at the site of the exhibit. Neither a simple corrective nor an escapist fantasy, the artist’s Middle Corea thus emerges as a kind of virtual realm, an alternative universe that, unlike the actual one, allows for our imaginative intervention (appropriately, at the series’ final episode, the artist goes on to construct a support network for citizens who perceive themselves to be “stateless” – that is, socially marginalized or alienated.) The piece’s recurring subjects of the Divided Korea, the Terrorist Group, the Secret Weapon – paranoid plots and conspiracy theories that are among the mass media’s notoriously clichéd obsessions – are re-appropriated and subverted through Yangachi’s storytelling, yielding glimpses of a radically re-imagined world.
Stereo (2011) is Yangachi’s newest single-channel video. Its images may seem forbiddingly cryptic at first: performer’s hands moving incongruously as if possessed by some alien will; people reading an arcane multilingual text; a woman playing a keyboard. As authorial intent gradually becomes clearer, however, these enigmatic fragments coalesce into a kind of “puzzle” to be solved or completed by the audience. It is in fact characteristic of Yangachi’s media-based work to eschew linear narrative for the series of coded messages or clues such as conversation or citation, bare fragments to be pieced together by the audience. The video’s neatly symmetrical composition resembles a folded Decalcomania, while the insertion of blank scenes between moving images suggests something of an alienation effect. Here as elsewhere, the artist hints at the media’s transformative potential, its capacity to stir the audiences’ imagination instead of dominating it through the mere spoon-feeding of information.
In the end, the sheer provocation of Yangachi’s works, with their raw cynicism and outrageousness of its B-picture jokes, succeeds in pulling us into his imaginary world, a virtual doppelganger to the presently existing one. Jokes aside, however, the more addicted – or simply accustomed or attuned – to this other world we become, the more acutely we perceive the arbitrariness and absurdity of our own.