Hot and cool: Curator shakes up stodgy galleryAn edgy show at Ho-Am Gallery aims to test artistic sensibilites
In an age when artists can exhibit their work on the Internet and favor nontraditional spaces to white-walled galleries, Lee June, the chief curator of the Samsung Museum of Modern Art, questions whether art museums can satisfy the public's artistic appetite － or artists' appetites, for that matter.
Seoul offers plenty of alternative galleries that, although they may lack the status of corporate museums in the mainstream art world, still serve an important role in developing innovative young artists. Major biennial art exhibitions, on the other hand, which have doubled in number in the last five years in Korea, appeal more to the general public.
But because of the rapid changes occurring in the global art world, museums risk becoming obsolete － of becoming, in the words of Mr. Lee, "a storage place for the archeological remains of the past."
"Art is led by a minority," says Mr. Lee. The former art critic teamed up with eight other curators at the Samsung Foundation of Culture to organize the museum's first exhibition in a planned biennial series of contemporary media art, titled "ArtSpectrum 2001." The show at the Ho-Am Gallery (in the JoongAng Ilbo's headquarters building) displays the work of nine emerging Korean artists, each of whose art raises different issues using various approaches.
Paralleling the international scope of Samsung, Mr. Lee throughout a conversation with a reporter showed a keen interest in subjects like globalization, multiculturalism and humanity in art.
For example, in the museum's criteria used to select the artists in the current exhibition, the organizers deliberately chose to give priority to Korean artists who have international potential. For future "ArtSpectrum" exhibitions, the museum will invite artists from abroad. Organizers hope to eventually expand the series to a global level.
There were cynical voices from the art world about the museum's ambitious strategy. Some critics feared that going global would mean compromising the authenticity of Korean art, adapting it to Western standards. "It's true that a lot of the 'cultural exchanges' we talk about are a cultural fad," Mr. Lee says. "But it's also been hard for us to judge what is a truly 'Korean' standard or 'Western.' Those terms need to be discussed in a more specific context."
While discussing other art trends, Mr. Lee blames hasty organization and overly zealous government sponsors for the sudden influx of local biennial art exhibitions and blockbuster art events. He says many of these events have been created in the name of "globalization," without paying attention to the educational aspect of art. Mr. Lee is especially skeptical about the politics behind many of these cultural expositions, largely based on the fierce competition of provincial governments and their interest in regional power. "But I guess our job is also to find the cosmos among the chaos," he says with a sardonic laugh.
"ArtSpectrum 2001" is the result of that search. Even before the show began, the exhibition attracted media attention and was billed as an ambitious step to overcome the museum's conservative image.
When it actually kicked off in late November, however, reviews were mixed. The main concern critics raised was the exhibition's fragmentation, the lack of a unifying theme tying the exhibition together. The comments were more a critique of the curators' weak organization than the quality of the artists' works.
Mr. Lee often borrows the expressions "hot" and "cool" to describe the different types of museum exhibitions. The terms, he says, were originally used by a curator from Louisiana whom Mr. Lee met several years ago while he was a research trainee in the Guggenheim Museum in New York. For shows that are subtle either in style or content and that encourage the viewer's intellectual involvement, he describes them as "cool exhibitions" (he places "Art Spectrum 2001" in this category). Shows of calendar artists, like Monet and Van Gogh, that sell well among the general public but lack critical innovation, he calls "hot."
The museum management, Mr. Lee says, needs to show both. "It's an investment which the museum must make in order to expand the public's aesthetic dimensions," he says of the need to present cool exhibitions, which the public tends to show less interest in.
In an example of such balance, while "ArtSpectrum" is going on at the Ho-Am Gallery, the Samsung Foundation of Culture is exhibiting a "hot" show － "The Human Figure in Modern Sculpture," a collection of master sculptors' work from 20th century figurative art － at the Rodin Gallery, one of the institution's four art halls.
In an essay for the exhibition catalogue, Mr. Lee quotes the German theorist Herbert Marcuse, who argued that the essence of aesthetics is destructive and progressive, not retrospective.
"As museum curators, we can't always have shows that satisfy the majority's taste," Mr. Lee says. "We need to look forward and always try to present alternatives for the present condition of art."
"ArtSpectrum" runs through Jan. 27 at the Ho-Am Gallery. There is an English tour available every Saturday at 3 p.m. For more information, call 02-750-7818.
"Where a Man Meets Man in Seoul" by Oh Inhwan is an installation that deals with the artist's identity as a Korean gay man. The names of about 100 gay bars around Seoul are written with powdered incense on the ground. The smell of burning incense demands the viewers' attention as they enter the installation space. The works of Oh Inhwan and Lee Dongi illustrate the wide range of artistic variation found at "ArtSpectrum."
IHT-JAI: You had shows in New York after your studies at Hunter College, the City University of New York. How is the audience response different in the United States and Korea?
Oh: In Korea, it was only recently that my work was introduced. In fact, the solo exhibition I had last March was the first show I had in Korea since I came back. I do think, though, in Korea people seem to focus more on the references to my sexual identity in the work, whereas in the States, people were more interested in my conceptual approach.
IHT-JAI: What sort of visual effect did you intend to produce through the powdered incense?
Oh: It all began with my genuine interest in the concept of "dematerialization." Art traditionally is the materialization of an idea. But for artists like me, whose main concerns in art include questioning traditions, using a conventional medium wasn't the most efficient approach to take. I like incense because of its immateriality and the fact that it is used during traditional rituals. In Korea, writing about gays is normally considered nontraditional. I liked the idea that I could communicate nontraditional content using a traditional medium.
IHT-JAI: The process of making your installation must have involved laborious effort.
Oh: It was somewhat exhausting physically, but work has never been laborious. When I am in the studio, I tend to concentrate so heavily on the work that I am often not even aware of the time going by. It may sound a bit luxurious to some that a person can get absorbed completely into his own artwork and forget everything else, but as an artist, it is one of the joys.
IHT-JAI: The title of your work, "Where a Man Meets Man" is quite explicit. Did you ever consider using a more subtle title?
Oh: The content of the installation at Ho-Am is difficult to grasp without its title. Most visitors focus on the writing on the gallery floor, but they often fail to recognize that these words are the names of gay bars in Seoul. As a result, the audience leaves the installation confused. It's understandable because most people probably do not recognize these names. The title, in that sense, was made to provide a hint. Interestingly, the public reaction changes after they find out the text is names of gay bars. What I feel a little dissatisfied about is the lack of audience patience － the fact that they rely more on the text and read the title before seeing the work.
IHT-JAI: In "ArtSpectrum 2001," you were chosen as an artist representing Korean contemporary art who had global potential.
Oh: Well, I am unsure why the jury selected my work for the show. The show at Ho-Am assured me, though, that my work could be widely appreciated in Korea.
The artist Lee Dongi is perhaps best known for his subway mural in the Euljiro 3-ga subway station. His animated character, Atomaus, is a combination of Disney's Mickey Mouse and Astroboy (called "Atom" in Japanese) by Tezuka Osamu. Based on the artist's childhood fascination with Japanese and American culture, his Atomaus project serves as an icon of popular culture.
IHT-JAI: You referred to the animated character Atomaus as your alter ego. Can you elaborate on that?
Lee: Atomaus is an image that occurred to me one day. When I drew it on the paper, the image looked like a hybrid of Atom and Mickey Mouse. That was when I started calling the character Atomaus. I think the image was from my unconscious. In that sense, it was like my alter ego. Sigmund Freud noted that the unconscious is related to one's desires. The image allows you to read the social environment where I was raised.
IHT-JAI: Your work seems to fit better in public spaces rather than traditional gallery spaces. In fact, your work seems to be more favored by the general public than by people in the art world.
Lee: I want my work to be viewed by as many people as possible. I want people to collect my work just like they collect Beatles memorabilia. They don't necessarily have to be original works － cutouts from newspapers or magazines is fine. Artworks always provided a source of inspiration and a sense of direction for the intellectual elite. The works of Paul Cezanne, for example, prophesied Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Einstein's unified field theory. But in a society where the TV viewing rate exceeds 50 percent of the population and the Internet use rates are the highest in the world, we need a different model of art.
IHT-JAI: Your interests vary; how does that influence your work?
Lee: I was a rock-music buff when I was in high school. I even formed a band at one point, although it broke up after a week because of our lack of talent. My involvement in various fields allows me to show my works to a wide audience. At the same time, those interests are a source of inspiration, which enriches my artistic practice.
IHT-JAI: What are some concerns you have when you work?
Lee: I want my work to become something like a ceramic, the kind of piece that has an exquisite polish on the surface but is empty inside so that you can fill it with anything you want. Sometimes I feel like a tightrope walker who tries to stay in balance between those two elements.
by Park Soo-mee