New Focus on an Artistic Argument

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New Focus on an Artistic Argument

Many critics have questioned whether modern design is really art or not. Using arguments largely supported by Modernist ideas that art should exist only for art s sake, the critics often concluded that design was not "pure art," because it was used for commercial purposes. Well, that may have been the case 20 years ago, when Korean design was simply decorative packaging for export products. But design art has undergone dramatic changes over the past decade, as has the art world.

Hybrid mixtures of non-traditional art media, such as computer graphics and video art, have challenged conventional notions. Artists' use of computer-generated images - once the domain of commercial art and fashion advertising - has further blurred the boundary between art and design.

In this context, the "Design or Art," exhibition at the Design Museum in Seocho-dong is ambitious. The Artsonje Center, a mecca for Korean contemporary art, organized the exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism and the Seoul Arts Center. The exhibition features the works of 17 fine artists and their thoughts on design, or what they think is the boundary between fine art and design. In reality, the artists do not believe there is a boundary between those disciplines.

Their point can easily be grasped within the first five minutes of viewing the show. The exhibition is supposed to illustrate art that inserts design elements, but the result is no different from other contemporary art exhibitions, strongly suggesting that art and design are becoming more and more intertwined.

Lee Soo-kyung's "Artist's Uniform: Korean Version 2000" consists of outfits based on a survey of what people believe contemporary artists should look like. Ms. Lee offers viewers a chance to wear the uniforms and "behave like artists." In doing this, she questions how much an artist's persona and public appearance influence viewers' perceptions of her works. More poetically, Lee So-mi contributes a seat cushion and crystal blind titled "The Running of a Smileman." In an ironic reference to the term "pure art," the literal translation for "fine art" in Korean, Lee describes her works as "pure design." Then she appropriates the word "design" to mean "the process of producing an object that has no direct utility." Her decorative beads and flower-patterned cushions certainly blur perceptions of what is art and what is design.

Choi Jung-hwa, an installation artist who participated in the 1997 Kwangju Biennale and the San aulo Biennale in 1998, presents a dozen artificial morning glories on a pedestal. Filled with visual puns and ironic references to high art and glorified icons from Korean pop culture, his plastic art is a perfect sample of kitsch. The artist, who is also an interior designer, a costume designer and a freelance cinematic art director, says art to him is nothing more than "a hobby."

Although his provocative statement is simply non-sense to most fine artists, his work is free of tradition and frequently challenges the confined beauty of traditional art. Hong Kyung-taek's luscious food paintings stand somewhere between decorative design and painting. Painted with traditional techniques with a heavy influence of pop culture, the works often focus on human desire.

Paris-based video artist Kim Soon-ki presents "Regardes-Voir," an optical chart with various codes and Chinese characters instead of numbers. By displaying the chart at the gallery's entrance, Ms. Kim questions whether there is a set way of "reading art." The chart also questions the public's split notions about art and design. The construction and arrangement of the gallery space has been nicely distributed among the participating artists. Ahn Kyu-chul arranged the lighting, and Lee Mi-kyung created unique tables instead of rigid pedestals. The catalogues, designed by Choi Jung-hwa, look more like artists' books. "Design or Art" curator Kim Myung-hwan says the exhibition is an attempt "to ask questions about the situation and condition of contemporary design." Established in April last year, the Design Museum specializes in exhibitions that focus on experimental designs.

Mr. Kim spoke to Joongang Ilbo English Edition about the current state of Korean design. "Even if you look at the college programs, design is still categorized under 'applied art,'" he said. "Fine art, on the other hand, is called soonsu misul, literally meaning 'pure art.' Even in the name, there is an assumption that art should always exist solely for its own sake. Anything other than that is a craft." Mr. Kim is not alone in his concerns. Contemporary art critic Lee Young-joon cites as an example Andy Warhol, the 1960s pop artist who made silkscreen prints of American icons such as Campbell's soup cans and Marilyn Monroe. Mr. Lee asks: "Are Warhol's works regarded as masterpieces because his prints are technically well-made? Or is it because his art questioned American popular culture? Or was it the artist's persona and his sensational public statements that made everyone want to see his
work?"

The answer is not simple. Perhaps it is almost unnecessary even to discuss the identity of art in contemporary society. As art and culture constantly fluctuate, it is impossible to establish a clear boundary between genres. Art becomes interdisciplinary. After all, clothes are mix-and-match; food is a fusion. "Art or Design" continues through Jan. 20. Contact the Design Museum at 02-580-1540 for more information.


by Park Soo-mee

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