Unconventional Artwork for a Very Proper PlaceWhen the artist Jung Yeondoo was asked to create a work to be displayed inside the ambassador's residence at the British Embassy in Korea, he knew it would be a challenge. The British Embassy is one of Seoul's oldest buidings, with its stately, 19th century Victorian architecture adjacent to Deoksu Palace. Jung is an artist who works with photographic images of dancers, and for this special project he thought it would be a rare opportunity to exhibit his art at a place with so much history and at the same time a place that makes a strong connection between Korea and the United Kingdom.
The art exhibit is titled "Detached House," and its opening reception took place on a recent Thursday at the British Embassy, followed by a reception to welcome R. G. W. Anderson, the director of the British Museum and Jane Portal, the assistant keeper of the British Museum, who were visiting Seoul for a few days.
The British ambassador Charles Humfrey said that through this festive occasion, he wanted to pay homage to Victorians, who pursued both innovation and tradition, and to combine the old and new by bringing promising and talented young artists into the very old house. All four artists － Jung Yeondoo, Shin Mee-kyeong, Choi Dusu and Hong Young-in － studied in art colleges in the United Kingdom.
For this exhibition, Jung decided to use a roll of floral wallpaper created by the designer Jane Churchill and took photographs of Korean ballroom dancers in Seoul's Boramae Park. He hung the wallpaper on one side of the hall and covered it with dozens of photographs of ballroom dancers.
Ballroom dancing has been a recurring subject of Jung's artwork. He told the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition, "Ballroom dancing carries a certain cultural meaning. In Korea, especially in the 1960s, ballroom dancing and cabarets were banned. Since then, ballroom dancing has carried a stigma in Korean's minds, even though everyone knows that it's a well-accepted social activity in Western culture. I found that difference interesting." Ballroom dancing was banned because the conservative military dictatorship in the 1960s considered it immoral, as with cabaret clubs.
In addition, he wanted to alter the usual function of photographs, which usually are the main focus of an art exhibition. By placing so many photographs on the wall, they became part of the wallpaper pattern. The floral pattern and the images of a man and a woman dancing combined to create a soft and romantic atmosphere inside the conservative residence of the British ambassador.
Having studied sculpture at Korea's Seoul City University and traveled North America and Europe, Jung chose to study fine art at Goldsmiths College in London. He wanted to be exposed to the international art scene, and the mid-1990s was a high time for artists in London.
The works made by three other artists, Shin Mee-kyeong, Choi Dusu and Hong Young-in, convey a sense of detachment from cultural context. The artist Shin Mee-kyeong displayed a replica of a John Flaxman sculpture but her statue is made from soap. Hong Young-in hung a bright red theatrical curtain between the lobby and a corridor. Choi Dusu created a rectangular carpet made out of strips of magazines. For all of them, culture can be substituted, transformed and fragmented to make otherworldly effects. Collectively, the young artists' work shown inside the age-old British building created a special hybrid of culture and time.
The exhibit runs through Oct. 11, but is open only to journalists and art professionals. For information, contact Jenny Hong at 02-3210-5562.
Gathering the Goods: an interview with R.G. W. Anderson and Jane Portal
IHT-JAI: Authentic Korean antiques have become extremely rare. How have you managed to collect them?
Anderson: The Han Foundation contributed some of its collection to the British Museum in the past. Or we get things from Japan or New York. We can also buy them from Korean-Americans who brought the art work with them years ago. There has been a growing concern about the illicit transfer of Korean antiques, and a number of priceless artifacts have been illicitly excavated.
Portal: Illicit means hiding some facts and part of the history of an item. Both quality and history are destroyed. Unfortunately, for some people, excavating and smuggling have been their way of life for generations. Now Korean antiques are smuggled to China and sold to dealers. The Korea Foundation has made contributions or monetary support to our collection. We either buy or take a long-term loan.
IHT-JAI: What do you think you need to have a collection of Korean antiques?
Portal: We have a small collection at the moment. We wish we could present a comprehensive range of Korean antiques. We need classic paintings such as sagunja. But then, as a collection of the musuem, we need to be clear about the antique's origin, and so we just cannot buy things.
Anderson: To do that the law should be relaxed.
IHT-JAI: What is your plan for the remaining year?
Anderson: This November we're planning an exhibition on Korean contemporary art in London, which Jane curated while visiting Pyongyang in March.
Portal: It's a small collection of 30 items including paintings, prints, glass, lacquer and ceramics.
IHT-JAI: What do you think of North Korean art?
Portal: They are unique, although their posters are mostly propaganda.
Anderson: I think they represent dignified human endeavors!
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