Song Misook looks at Korean contemporary artists and their strategies for dismantling and transforming existing systems
We are living in the age of late capitalism, dominated, shaped, and determined by global imperialism and its spectacles. The ‘spectacle,’ it is argued, is the form taken by society once the instruments of cultural production have become wholly commoditised and subject to commercial trade, so that aesthetic value becomes ruled by commercial value and artistic expressions are shaped by their ability to attract market sales. (cf. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967, p. 14) Debord further argues that, in the further development of capitalism, the whole sphere of personal consumption is compelled to be reconstructed according to commercial principles. In that case, cultural/artistic products also gain ‘a life of their own’ completely independent of their producers/artists. Debord’s concept of the spectacle is no doubt an elaboration of the earlier critical theories of Lukacs who observed that the growth of capitalism converted all realms of human life more and more into marketable ‘products’ to be bought and sold; thus the commodity form increasingly invaded every kind of conscious/conscientious human activity. (Georgy Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness, 1923) The consequence of this is the fetishism of commodities, which also began to surface in every area of human development as well. Lukacs’ theory of commodity fetishism, in turn, harks back to Marx who was the first to recognise and formulate this notion inherent in the capitalist economic system.
This is a seemingly open and liberated globalised world that, in turn, viciously imposes and condones the commonality of fictions of commoditisation. And while accepting to survive in a neo-liberal economic system, we are politically encouraged to embrace the hegemony of a kind of ‘democracy’ dictated by the logic of global capitalist imperialism. The manifestly generic model of this commoditisation is the ever-growing art market venues, institutional or non-institutional, and the ever-increasing number and scale of international art fairs. Korea is not an exception. Notwithstanding the staggering economic issues the country now faces, the Korean art market is still thriving, and the numbers of audiences/prospective consumer/collectors is growing ever larger. The increasing number of art galleries and quasi-commercial venues existing under the guise of residency programmes or not-for-profit institutions in both public and private sectors attest to that fact. Yet, underneath today’s seemingly prosperous art market which presumably promotes richly developed individual creativity, one cannot help noticing that most of the work represented, though apparently diverse and differentiated as it is, involuntarily condones the effect of commodity fetishism, i.e., commoditisation of the art object. And thus the aesthetic value of the art object becomes increasingly closely related to, or in the worst cases is even measured by its commercial value, which affects the mindset of artists to the point that they feel compelled to produce sellable products/works. There are, however, artists who feel that they are caught between the artistic emancipation assuredly guaranteed by a neo-liberal economic system, and the capitalist dictates that surround and control their production, and by extension, their lives, and that they are constantly oscillating and negotiating between these two seemingly incompatible systems, searching for a solution with which to deconstruct the double-bind status quo that conditions their own existences. The processes of deconstruction are unprecedentedly fluid, uncertain, and often precarious while the outcomes are generating more suspense, suspicion, and critique than conclusion. This is particularly articulated in the works of a group of the artists of the so-called 386 generation (referring to those people who were born in the 1960s, went to college in the 1980s, and were in their 30s when this term was coined), especially those who, after having experienced in their early twenties a critical period in Korean politics, when the uncertainties and confusions resulting from ideological rifts between the left and right reached a radical point, went away from home to further their study abroad and returned, refreshed and well-equipped with first-hand experiences and knowledge of Western contemporary art and its discourses. This distancing would have patently allowed them the courage to confront, challenge, subvert, and/or even redirect, though in rare occasions, not only conventional value systems and canons of the existing art establishment, but bourgeois/capitalist norms and clichés that more or less govern and pervade Korean society in general. The artists selected in this essay—Oh In Hwan, Gim Hong Sok, and Kim Beom—belong to those whom I believe address highly individualised and singular voices that cry out the collective doubts and discontents of their spectacle/commodity fetishism-driven society. These artists engage in time-honored conventions and systems while expressing quite different and diversified interests in artistic and intellectual pursuits. In this respect they all inherit and share certain characteristics of the international art of the early 1970s and 1990s, particularly those of conceptual leanings, producing works that are temporary, ephemeral, participatory, and interactive. This accounts also for the reason why they are rarely represented in the art market, though highly respected by the young aspiring generation of Korean artists, nevertheless invariably inciting the curiosity and attention of the issue seeking/oriented curators and international biennales.
Mechanisms of Deconstruction
The artists cited above almost always employ various critical means and tactics to dismantle, invalidate, and sometimes transform existing systems. For example, Gim often deconstructs the modernist credo of artist=creator hero worship by dismantling the artistic production system, or converting specific social sites into spaces with entirely different functions. He once moved all of his personal belongings from his home into a public space; another of his works transformed a gym into a landscape. Oh likewise refuses to work within the confines of the studio, but collects found objects and debris from the street (bread, cherry, blossom petals, broken glass, wood scraps, etc.) and draws or rearranges a single alphabet letter in the street. (Street Writing Project, 2000~) He then photographs the letter as drawn/assembled in the city street. The letter and the street scene on which it was inscribed are entirely arbitrarily chosen. There is no deliberate connection between the alphabet letter, the scrap material with which it is drawn/written, and the location in which it is inscribed, yet these three elements add spatiality as a third dimension to the conventional linguistic notion of the arbitrariness of the sign. The artist then adds still another element; he displays the photographs of letters side by side so as to compose particular words. The words he chooses seem intentional; 'here', 'there', 'homeless.' Notwithstanding their commonality in disrupting the studio/production system, the intentions and approaches of these two artists to achieve their ends are quite different: while Gim aims at creating other social events and sites of spectacles than normally expected of the artistic space, Oh, on the other hand, is not interested in the collective space as such, but involves himself in the solitary game of language/letters, positing quasi-fundamental questions of life and his self-identity. A tranquil, almost contemplative mood of the work of Oh touches upon the solitary gaze and depth in the mind of the viewer.
Kim Beom chooses to critique preexisting institutional structures in a simple but unique manner; he does not necessarily reject artistic space per se as do the above two artists, but brings into the gallery space daily household products and ‘commodities’ from home (watering can, portable fan, scale, flower vase, thermos bottle, tea pot, detergent bottle, and so on). In one work, he places objects individually on chairs lined up in rows, facing a large brightly lit blackboard covered in scribbled phrases and sentences. On the table next to the blackboard a small TV monitor plays a single-channel video showing a man whose head is cut everywhere but his mouth and thus he can be heard but not seen. The man incessantly talks to/teaches these objects that they are nothing but tools. (Objects Being Taught They are nothing but Tools, 2010) What Kim has tried to do in this piece is quite obvious: he transforms the artistic space into a site featuring and mimicking a half-size present day classroom situation and incites viewers’ direct confrontation of the realities of the educational system. In the same exhibition space, but on a smaller scale, he staged a similar situation: the man in the video elucidates eloquently and sincerely to a rock/stone that it is not a rock but a bird (A Rock that was Taught It was A Bird, 2010). Notwithstanding his humourous yet ironic way of personifying these household objects, the viewer is left with wonder. Is he creating/staging the situation to demonstrate that we, children/humans, personified by these nonfunctional domestic objects, are nothing but tools to be manipulated, commoditised, and eventually disposed of by the society that we live in? Or is he posing a question about or critiquing the Korean education system in particular, or, by extension, the conventional belief systems and dictates of sovereign states where people are taught or brainwashed to believe whatever they are taught to believe? Or, still, is he simply alluding to educational dysfunction?
Critique of Clichés/Stereotypes
The renowned French socio-cultural philosopher/theorist Gilles Deleuze once said that if there is such a thing as art, it is always a critique of clichés (Anti-Oedipus). The artists who emerged in the beginning of the new century, including the artists in this essay, engage and challenge the stereotypes imposed on us by the dominant system. Understanding that we all identify with the images through which this society represents us, they claim/appropriate those representations in order to disclaim/dismantle them—a process that induces a change in the viewer’s consciousness. Oh, as a gay Korean male, appropriating critical discourses developed by feminist studies, deliberately uses language as a discursive tool to subvert norms and stereotypes of male dominant/heterosexual society, and at the same time rejects modernist materialistic aesthetics and art practices. And yet, to him language is more than a tool of communication, but a means of social existence. If linguistic communication is disrupted for any incomprehensible reason, a new language or its alternative must be acquired for his survival. For example, his best known work, Where a Man meets Man (2000~) consists of drawing in incense powder on the floor the names of gay bars and clubs in capital roman letters with occasional Korean characters arranged and linked in dynamic and colorful designs: the incense is lit at the opening of the exhibition and allowed to burn until it closes. Oh makes it clear that, as the exhibition space is animated by the immaterial perfume that gradually fills the air with the scent of burning incense, the artist and the viewer are brought together in a shared space, bodily consumed by burning incense. The significance of the words/names is clear only to those who are familiar with these locations, while for others it remains cryptic and puzzling. After the letters all burn out, the exhibition space is left with their ashes, or ‘scars.’ In the same year, Oh conceived another project closely related to the incense piece, entitled Ball of Contents (2001~) which has since become an ongoing project performed every three years. The vinyl texts of words collected from the Korean gay community were first taped to the exhibition wall; when the show ended, these texts were peeled off and pieced together into a ball, as if the body/the material replaces the language/the immaterial. The signs of the words become lost; what gets gained instead is their materiality, which comes to signify the size of the gay community in Seoul. Reminiscent of the work by Felix Gonzalez Torres (a gay American artist who died of AIDS in 1996) of the early 1990s, Oh’s Ball contains the innumerable yet anonymous voices of sexual minorities and their ‘bodily symptoms.’ As the scattered, secluded community becomes unified into a ball, he hopes it can become more independent and free, emancipated from mainstream society. Incidentally, it is quite interesting to note that the shape of the ‘ball’ commonly represents, precisely because of its shape, none other than (a visual pun of) the male sex, just as Surrealist sculptor Giacometti reified this generic form, but for entirely different meaning and purpose, in his Suspended Ball of 1930.
Gim also introduced text plus image, in this case, as a sculptural installation about a socially marginalised group of people, i.e., illegal aliens in fake costumes of the life-like characters from Grimm’s fairy tale entitled Bremen Town Musicians (2006-2007). Unlike Oh’s ‘real community’ rendered in abstract signs/language, the viewer encounters in Gim’s fictitiously arbitrary situations fictional characters presumably performing an unlikely act. Upon close reading into this ‘text spectacle,’ however, one can learn that Gim is referring both to the Grimm’s fairy tale which involves a similar tell-tale of ‘outcast animals finding a new home‘, as well as to Gim’s own copy of the same year of Maurizio Cattelan’s work of 1997 (Love Lasts Forever), as if to appeal and redirect the viewer’s attention and deliberations to his/her hypocritical political correctness or cliché. One can also note the fact that Gim reiterates the theme appropriating the same animal characters of Grimm’s tale in his work; on top the French cock, standing on the Japanese jackal, standing on the English bulldog, and at the bottom, Russian bear. One noticeable difference is that Gim’s characters, no longer standing up to perform the music, are seen lying/fallen on top of one another, creating a poignant topography of the abject and victimised social outcasts. In this work Gim seems to invite the viewer to confront not merely the plight of illegal aliens or migrant laborers—caricatured and ridiculed through both Grimm’s tale and popular cartoon animations as social outcasts and victims of racial discrimination—but also to address the cruel game/logic of existence/survival in this so-called liberated society at large where the antagonising forces of victor and victim, subject and object, the powerful and the powerless constantly revolve in a vicious circle. Viewed in this context, the viewer becomes the silent victor, and the caricatured aliens, the victims of society. On a personal level Gim seems to be addressing his own experience in that he, once the victim/subject of racial discrimination and social outcast (I am referring to his shocking experiences with racial discrimination in his student years in Germany), now finds himself, however involuntarily, assuming the role of the victor/master. Or is he trying somehow to reconcile through his art/text-spectacle, these irreparable gaps? Some commanding phrases in the wall text like ’applaud’ and ‘please refrain from touching ….. or disturbing’, can be read as signs of deference or respect for the victims, thereby inducing some sort of compromise or reconciliation. Or, as one critic observes, does Gim try through socially and politically provocative works to proffer a kind of ‘shock therapy’ for our paralyzed perceptual capacities and sensibilities?
In the above, I have tried to posit an argument that despite the current state of the commodity-driven society and its not-so-desirable effects on the artistic scene in Korea, there are a few artists who have consistently and carefully calibrated their practices into analytical devices, and who deconstruct or at least disturb preexisting institutional systems and constraints for artistic expression. In the process, their art also becomes a conceptual tool for investigating the preconceptions, stereotypical prejudices, or clichés surrounding the/our notions of community, collectivity, and individuality that are inherent in the political and sociological landscape in which they are positioned. Notwithstanding different lifestyles and variegated personal characters and outlooks, they all share similar concerns and doubts about the present and hopes for the future.
It is difficult to determine the extent of acceptance or reception of their works by the public at large at this point, except that the audience is growing larger as they become more frequently publicised through media, and art lovers/amateurs and the art related population grows bigger. And yet their favorable reception is unfortunately not for their ‘true’ intention of artistic expression and/or conception as such, but for the ‘visual’ effect and/or the often shockingly provocative quality of their works. This kind of double jeopardy or distorted view undermines the real character or value of these artists’ work. In addition, some art professionals, artists and art critics alike, who are well-versed in contemporary art and its issues, are also critical of their works being too Westernised, eclectic, and in the worst cases, derivative. Another word of caution is that these artists should not forget the truism that today’s critique becomes tomorrow’s cliché. It is true that, in the history of art, the avant-garde has always pushed the limits of our shared consciousness, of the status quo, and of socio-ethical propriety and customs, exposing the actuality and the true nature of what lies behind them. Numerous methods and tools have been employed to accomplish this. Sometimes the fictitious nature of the work is made to act like a mirror, projecting reality back into the inner depths of consciousness. The work may be simply provocative and relentlessly disturbing, lifting up elements normally hidden beneath society’s surface and thrusting them directly into the viewer’s gaze. At other times, the truth is covered with humour, its message injected through the gaps of the unsuspecting mind. Viewed in this context, they, no matter how eclectic or derivative their work may be, surely belong to the generation of the avant-garde, and that is the reason why young aspiring Korean artists respect them. The undisputable fact that they, despite the unfavorable/pejorative reception of both the public at large and a few art professionals, mark the turning point in the history of Korean contemporary art by ushering in a calibration of the imminent socio-cultural issues of contemporary society and overall systems of the sovereign nation as the subject matter of their work, remains intact and undeniable.
Misook Song lives and works in Seoul where she writes a monthly column dedicated to the current state of Korean contemporary art in the Art Guide. Song graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a Ph.D. in art history. She taught art history and contemporary art theory at the Sungshin Women's University for 27 years. She writes criticism about Korean contemporary art and served as commissioner of the Korean pavilion at the 48th Venice Biennale directed by Harald Szeemann where she presented Lee Bul and Noh Sangkyun. She was general/artistic director of the inaugural show of Media City Seoul (Seoul’s media biennale). She founded and serves as President of the Association of East Asian Art and Culture and is also an honorary professor of Sungshin Women's University.
- Sun, 1 Jan 2012