Celebrating the Salaryman

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Celebrating the Salaryman

11:55 a.m.: This is the time, according to the curator of the Posco Art Museum, Kim Yun-hee, when swarms of Posco salarymen dressed in almost identical suits, and very little more diversity in ties, rush out of the confining, glass-cased building and into the surrounding area's congested alleys.

Posco is the country's largest steel and iron company, producing some 26 million tons of steel products every year, enough to manufacture about 100,000 compact cars a day. Those who work there, however, seem to take as much care perusing a lunch menu as they do in their work. The 60-minute get-away from the office is a short liberation from the harsh realities of working life for many of these Korean salarymen.

The exhibition "Lunchtime of the Necktie Force," currently on display at the Posco Art Museum, is rather a hopeful comment about life in that sense. Though it is limited, the lunch break is a metaphor for pleasure and escape that is available to people going through the daily rituals of capitalist society.

"The question really came down to what 'art' meant to ordinary salarymen, who make up 90 percent of our museum visitors," said Ms. Kim.

Located inside the corporate headquarters in the Teheran Valley, the Posco Art Museum had been presenting rather formalist works less concerned with issue-based subjects and having more to do with traditional ideas of aesthetics. Examples are the works by Han Seok-ran - paintings of trees and picturesque mountains against red sunsets. Despite these approachable exhibits, many people who passed by the museum still seemed to be too intimidated to enter it and confront "art." For many of them, art is a subject that pertains to another world in which the critics talk in their own special language.

"People pass by this museum everyday, but they always just peek in through the windows and seem hesitant about coming in," said Ms. Kim. The esoteric nature of contemporary art tends to bring out everyone's vulnerability. This is particularly so for Korean salaryman, whose daily lives exist outside contemporary discussions of socio-political issues and other philosophical concerns. To them modern art can easily be vaguely understood as a Mona Lisa print in someone's coffee table book.

"Lunchtime of the Necktie Force," however, is an attempt to take the debate about art and life a step in the direction of this world. The show is interactive, but not in a way many contemporary artists use the term. It pulls in people naturally by challenging the traditions of museum culture. As many of the gallery visitors drop by after their meal, the organizers specifically allowed them to eat dessert while viewing the exhibition art . The museum also brought in a wooden bench from a public bathhouse, on which visitors can sit and chat with colleagues. Very few visitors notice that the bench they are sitting on and the exotic plant in front of them are an installation piece by Lee Mi-kyong, and neither the curator nor the artist seems to mind. In fact, they positively encourage the oversight by almost hiding the label of the work at the far end of the space.

Kang Chang-o, an installation artist, contributes "A Box of Memory," a display of matchboxes he designed, which the viewers are requested to take. Not many do, which reflects the public's rigid attitude toward art. "I told the viewers that it's very expensive to buy artworks these days, and it would be nice if they could keep this as a momento, but they are just not used to touching things in a museum," said Ms. Kim.

In another work, Jung Yeon-doo presents slide projections of different people in their offices. It features a random selection of professional people, ranging from CEOs to average office workers, whose identities, represented through their neckties, chairs and office environment are completely dominated by their social position. There is an anonymity in the faces of these people, despite the different postures and the structure of the rooms. The changing slides suggest a haunting consistency while generalizing distinct characteristics. The juxtaposition of the subjects' family photos on the other side of the room take this even further and raises a compelling question about the limits of identity within groups.

Many works in the exhibit protest the depressing reality of salarymen in Korean society, but the show ends in a rather hopeful way. The exhibition is true to reality by departing from the bold and fearless images of Korean salarymen often presented in advertisements for health drinks and the stock exchange.

The phenomenal response from the group offers another glimpse of hope. Almost 300 people visited the gallery for the opening night and lot of them came back again to see the works in more detail. According to Ms. Kim, this is not the usual case in a corporate museum where most viewers are accidental visitors who just happened to pass by the gallery. Emphasizing the show's attempt to bridge the gap between the life of the salaryman and the rarefied air of the art industry, Ms. Kim ordered beer instead of wine and cheese on the opening night.

"We received a phone call from a middle-aged man the other day," she said. "He asked shyly if the show offered free lunch. But even calls like that are great because it shows that we've succeeded in stimulating people's interest."

The show "Lunchtime of the Necktie Force" runs though June 28. For more information, call the Posco Art Museum at 02-3457-0793 (English service available).

by Park Soo-mee

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