Piercing through the surface

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Piercing through the surface

The artist Kim Joon finds his own ways of defining wounded masculinity.
About ten years ago he started making series of tattooed images on the surfaces of sponges, which were stuffed and coated with shiny latex, in imitation of human flesh. Then he produced “Sauna Bell,” an animated video loop, featuring a crowd of naked men lying in a 24-hour sauna with mobile phones in their hands. The men enter an uneasy sleep, always afraid of being awakened by their mobile phones, which they tightly clutch, their bodies and minds living a split reality. The work, which was based on the artist’s personal three-year experience as an office worker, made for a poignant reflection on the exhausting lives of modern Korean men and their search for rest.
Recently, Kim, 36, has turned to screen savers and live animated screens for mobile phones, a new form of wireless art on a digital canvas as small as 4 by 7 centimeters (4.3 square inches). Kim has collected his tattoo designs on mobile screens in an exhibition titled “Moist Window ― Flesh Park” which opens today at the Art Center Nabi, a gallery that specializes in digital art. The images can also be downloaded.
“It began to bother me that places like art galleries operate from 9 to 5, during the same business hours as any other office,” said Kim, explaining his recent shift from video to wireless art. “Why would anyone go to these places when people are fed up with their own problems?”
The mobile phone screen, which, according to Kim, “has become an extension of the human body” in and of itself for Koreans, struck Kim as a natural site for his tattoo art. His designs often work as metaphors for memory, masculinity, sexual desire and nostalgia for the American military culture the artist grew up with.
In a sense, tattoo is a statement the artist makes about social repulsion. And now he is bringing those images into the center of popular culture.
In “Moist Window,” Kim has produced digital tattoos on animated human skin ― a butterfly, flowers and bold Chinese characters engraved with words such as ‘God’ or ‘Love’ ― mining cliches that typically appear in third-rate tattoo art. Sexual connotations run rampant throughout the works, with their cheerfully lowbrow humor and kitschy sense of aesthetics.
Seemingly the only elements that bear a trace of the artist are the titles, which often satirize, contradict or deconstruct the images through wordplay.
For example, in “daehanminguk,” the artist plays a sound bite of cheering from a Korean national soccer team match at the 2002 World Cup, and juxtaposes it with the image of gunfire coming out of a Korean flag tattooed on a bare male chest. As if to express anger stemming from social repression ― repression which the images themselves almost literally defy, as tattoos are still largely illegal in Korea ― the clashing sound and image loop endlessly.
When the exhibition begins today, both online and offline, users can download Kim’s images from June, a mobile service company.
But would Kim’s target audience, mostly young mobile phone owners, be willing to choose Kim’s art over images of nifty licensed characters?
“It’s a question of diversity and expanding the aesthetic criteria little by little,” Kim said.
With or without download, the tattoos exude irony and humor.
In “Make Me Smile,” for example, the artist illustrates the tattooing process via another video loop, in which human flesh is marked with a smiling face that gradually transforms into a bloodstain, signifying both the pain and pleasure embedded within a tattoo ― “the wound and ornament,” an expression Kim repeatedly uses to describe the central focus of his works.
“A mobile device is a perfect channel for a young generation that understands precisely how to express their emotions through different media,” says Kim. “It’s almost impossible for artists to avoid doing artistic production with it.”

by Park Soo-mee

Kim Joon’s “Moist Window ― Flesh Park” runs through Oct. 12 at Art Nabi Center. The gallery is located on the third floor of the SK headquarters building. For more information, call (02) 2121-0919.
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