A lobby becomes a hall of legends

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A lobby becomes a hall of legends

For more than 500 guests, including dozens of high-profile artists and the press, to turn up at an opening reception on a Monday evening, the event has to be more than special.
“Kim Yong-ho’s Solo Exhibition: The Enduring Passion,” which is scheduled to run until Dec. 7 at the Star Tower building in Yeoksam-dong in southern Seoul, is indeed a special exhibition of photographs.
For its first exhibition on this scale, the building’s sleek and spacious lobby turned into the largest gallery space in town; visitors had to take the escalator for a full view of the 28 black-and-white banners hanging in mid-air.
Captured inside each translucent, five-square-meter (53-square-foot) banner were Kim Yong-ho’s lively images of familiar faces on Korea’s cultural scene.
Mr. Kim’s sheer images overlapped as if their subjects were conjoined in spirit form. The contrast of portraits was sharp. The faces were demure white against black backdrops; the subjects’ charisma was expressed in the evanescence of a gauze-like film; their individualism was strong, yet collectively unified as the singular work of one photographer.
The collection of portraits was more installation than exhibition. And this was the first time a single photographer had gathered Korea’s legendary figures in various professions and worked under one theme. The varied list of subjects includes Chung Myung-whun, a Paris-based orchestra conductor; Kim Kum-hwa, a shaman; Paik Nam-june, a New York-based video artist, and Kim Ji-mi, a movie actress and film producer, among others.
At the reception on a recent Monday evening, two of the masters portrayed in Mr. Kim’s photographs, Yi Mae-bang and Ahn Sook-sun, both declared cultural assets by the government, gave rare live performances. Yi Mae-bang is a male dancer who has been performing a traditionally female exorcism dance known as salpuri, and has been inducted into the French Order of Arts and Letters. Ahn Sook-sun, who once performed “Chunhyangga,” a Korean opera, at the Lincoln Center, sang pansori, a traditional Korean form of song.

For the photographer, this project began with an assignment for GQ Korea magazine earlier this year. “The portraits of a few masters received great reviews, and I wanted to turn that idea into an expansive project,” said Mr. Kim, 47.
Initially, his goal was much more ambitious. He wanted to take pictures of 100 living legends in Korea. But arranging meetings with such high-profile cultural figures proved harder than taking the pictures would have been. The number went down by half, then down to 30, and finally to 28, after vigorously pursuing the subjects for a period of five months. Because of the grand scale Mr. Kim had planned, finding a suitable venue was not easy.
When he approached Steve Kim, the vice president of Star Tower, who had been trying to turn the building into a cultural destination, he immediately accepted. Mr. Kim was soon introduced to Caroline Kim, the director of corporate communication at Mercedes-Benz Korea, and presented his idea. Ms. Kim, too, accepted the proposal on the spot.
“When an artist contacts his potential sponsors, he gets to present the actual artwork, but that was not my case,” he said.
“When I contacted Mercedes-Benz about the event, the only thing I could show the company was a few samples of my photographs and a simulated computer image of the would-be exhibition in the building lobby.
“But what if some of the masters I planned to photograph refused to work with me? Everything was only my imagination, and what if I failed to keep the promise with the sponsor? But without sponsorship, this kind of grand production was not possible.”
The planning and execution contained plenty of risks. Many of his famous subjects were, of course, very busy.
To take pictures of Kim Dae-whan, a musician, the photographer found him in an art gallery, and set up an impromptu studio on the spot. A celebrated video artist living in New York City, Paik Nam-june, was in poor health and confined to a wheelchair. Production, which included traveling overseas to New York City and Paris and special techniques used to enlarge the photographs, was costly.
There was no equipment in place for hanging such large banners in the Star Tower’s 20-meter high lobby, which was not designed to be an art gallery. Four technicians in safety harnesses worked for two straight days to install wires between the ceiling panels, which could have been destroyed during the procedure.
The IHT-JoongAng Daily spoke with the photographer about the production.

What was the most important part of the technology?
I used a Mamia RV67 camera and Kodak film. The original print was 110 by 130 centimeters, and then it was enlarged on a semi-transparent mesh.

Which project was most memorable to you?
I went to meet with Paik Nam-june in New York City in the end of September. The arrangement was especially hard, and I had to go through a mutual friend. I took pictures of him for two days, one day in his Soho studio and one day at his home. Because he’s been weak and been in the wheelchair, he hasn’t done any interviews in years.
I met him once 15 years ago in Korea when I was working in a Korean publishing company, and again at a gallery in Paris Concord Plaza about eight years ago. Of course, he doesn’t remember me, but to me this was the third time meeting him. He was humorous and fun to be around.

What does the exhibition mean to you?
My subjects are the first generation of various genres in culture, who opened doors to each field. They have been photographed many times, but it is very meaningful to me that my production made everyone very satisfied. I cannot do a production of this scale alone, and I see Mercedes-Benz’s sponsorship for me as a rare, meaningful connection between an international corporation and local culture.

You also used Korean screens to display your works.
The lobby was not meant to be an art gallery, so there were no walls to hang frames. That’s probably why the production became spectacular. I couldn’t hang frames on the wall, then I thought byeongpung [Korean screen] could work well. Korean masters looked great in the classic screen, and to match the Korean-style setting, I decided to serve traditional Korean liquor and rice cake, instead of all-too-common wine and canape.

What’s next for you?
I wish to exhibit another set of portraits in Pyeongyang and in Korean embassies or communities abroad in the future. But finding such a large gallery space with a high ceiling will not be so easy. This time, I could only do 28 portraits, so I should continue working to complete my original goal, 100.

by Ines Cho
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