Korean Artists Explore Issues Of Identity at Venice Biennale

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Korean Artists Explore Issues Of Identity at Venice Biennale

The 49th Venice Biennale begins June 9 at the Giardini di Castello in south-eastern Venice. It is one of the world's three main contemporary art fairs along with America's Whitney Biennale and Brazil's San Paolo Biennale. The Venice Biennale has been setting new standards in international art with its consistently provocative venues, which reflect issues relevant to current world culture.

The organizing team of the festival this year has chosen two Korean artists to represent the nation. Like most of the Korean artists who have participated in the Biennale, Seo Do-ho and Michael Joo have exhibited in more shows abroad than locally.

Seo Do-ho, whose work raises questions about group identity will present a new body of work. "Public Figures," an outdoor sculpture to be situated outside the Korean pavilion, depicts thousands of uniformed miniatures lifting up a grandiose pedestal resembling marble, with a missing statue. It suggests the essence of organization. Similarly, "Some/one" and "Who am We," raise the issue of the anonymity of an individual in a group. In "Some/one," Mr. Seo does this by making a suit of armor out of tiny bits of sparkling squamae, and in "Who Am We," through a grand sculpture, which close-up is seen to be made of small miniatures of people. Mr. Seo's works have also been nominated for the official competition section.

Michael Joo is a Korean-American artist who was introduced to local public through the First Kwangju Biennale and "Koreamericakorea," held at the Artsonje Center last year. His well-known Buddha series raises questions about the artist's own cultural identity and the conflict between the Western emphasis on reason and the East's focus on spirituality. Mr. Joo will contribute "Family," a work questioning the role-playing that takes place in families; "Tree," a symbol for the order in nature, which the artist relates to his own social identity; "Access/Denial," and "Improved Rack."

The Biennale has produced some major Korean art celebrities during the past decade. In 1993, the video artist Paik Nam-june, who was not very well known locally then, represented Germany and won the Golden Lion Award. Lee Bul, who had stirred a nasty controversy with her street performances involving nudity, was sharply criticized in the local art scene until she made her debut at Venice.

In a sense, the Venice Biennale has become a channel for young avant-garde Korean artists to prove themselves and thereby receive acknowledgement in the local art scene. Although a similar system exists in other countries, it is problematic that the works representing Korea at this art festival rely too much on the Biennale's standards, or take, what many call, an international stance. This may be the result of the fact that countries are divided from each other at the Biennale by having separate pavilions.

by Park Soo-mee

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