Korea, mixed-media artists and Harry Truman“The Second Floor Room of Namdaemun Where Truman Stayed” is a show about signs, and how artists use them to convey meaning in their work.
An exhibition by 18 young mixed-media artists, the show at Insa Art Space in Insadong deals with how Western culture has come to influence various aspects of Koreans’ lives since the Korean War and the arrival of American troops.
But instead of solely relying on the artists’ images, the show’s curator employs language as a way of being both direct and poetic, historic yet fictional.
In fact, the entire point of the exhibition is summed up in its title; the details are filled in as bits of metaphor, which the curator calls “semiotic.”
For example, Harry Truman is used in the title as a symbol of an outside force and a transitional point in Western influence on Korea, rather than referring to the actual, historical individual, the American president who was responsible for dispatching U.S. troops to Korea.
Namdaemun, similarly, functions as a symbolic gate for entering the country’s regime, while the idea of a “second floor room” suggests the status Koreans gave to Western culture when it began to be adopted here.
The whole point of this set-up is that it’s fictional. Despite the implication of the title, Truman never spent a night in Namdaemun (which the show implies was a notorious red-light district around the time of the war).
Instead, the show uses Korea’s number-one historical site as a place that allows one to observe the overall cityscape of Seoul ― a cityscape which, as the organizer tirelessly repeats, was invaded by Western culture “symbolically, sexually, materialistically and historically.”
The artists’ works, which are spread throughout the 3rd and 4th floors of the gallery space, are an extension of the Truman-in-Namdaemun fiction, as the space has been deliberately designed in the style of a guest-room, with each artist’s work featuring an individual piece of furniture.
“A Sky Paranoia” by Chung Sang-gon examines the idea of fantasies about Western civilization, symbolized here through a display of a bed. On the walls, the artist presents photographs of people sleeping on a couch juxtaposed with black-and-white images from the film “American Express” ― a documentary about Truman ― of a man slowly parachuting from the sky.
A television set near Cho Hye-jeong’s “Little Chicago: Dongducheon” pairs the recorded voice of a former prostitute who worked near an American army base with video footage from Korean movies depicting the tragic lives of yang gongju, or “Western princesses.”
The exhibition, as the curator admits, attempts to criticize our sense of awareness as a nation for taking a passive role in defining our identity, while raising the issue of how we’ve been trained to submit to power.
It’s not an easy issue. But the show makes it even more complicated. While it was thrilling to see a show that plays with history and fiction, one question that came up after seeing it was why anyone would have to go through such a complicated method to get such a simple message across. Maybe that’s how artists like to talk. Plus, while all these images by 18 artists fit perfectly into their frame of words, unfortunately, it was mostly the curator talking.
by Park Soo-mee
“The Second Floor Room of Namdaemun Where Truman Stayed” continues at Insa Art Space through Nov. 30. The gallery is in the Hakgoje building; take subway line No. 3 to Anguk station. For more information, call (02) 760-4722.