A world of signs, and cigarette lighters

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A world of signs, and cigarette lighters

“City Within a City” ― an exhibit that runs through Sunday at Insa Art Space in Insa-dong ―is a show about longing, and how people feel that they belong “there” when they are really “here.” It’s art about the split between body and mind, reality and fantasy, and what these gaps have to say about urban consciousness.
The artist, Park Yong-seok, has taken photographs of commercial signboards throughout Korea that bear the names of internationally known cities and places. These are signs at restaurants, pubs, stores and love motels, such as the Sydney Motel (in Ilsan), Texas Beer Hof (in Itaewon), London Karaoke (somewhere in Seoul) and New York Lighting (in Busan).
The resulting posters are tinted monochromatically, in artificial-looking shades of purple, neon green or blue. Each print reflects a utopian dream ― something especially evident in the images of motels, many named after places considered “exotic.”
With these photos, Mr. Park raises the issue of how we view certain places on the globe through mass-media images. Sometimes these stereotypes are obvious, as with the Texas Beer Hof and the Roma Motel. Others ― like the Tokyo Pharmacy ― demand personal interpretation. Viewers might imagine scenarios that could have come into play when the names were chosen.
The exhibition is also about context, and about how meanings lead to irony ― or other forms of displacement ― when they are given a new context. “London in Seoul,” an image of a karaoke taken in a Seoul alley lined with trash cans, creates a surreal sense of space, and exudes a strange melancholy.
Another example illustrating the idea of displacement is the work titled “The Place in My Pocket That I Have Not Been,” a poster bearing names of restaurants and bars on cigarette lighters that the artist picked up or unknowingly exchanged with others.
Through the metaphor of names, and objects, that pass from person to person, the artist questions whether it’s possible for our identity to become a subject of exchange when its origins are misplaced. At one point in the artist’s note, Mr. Park refers to a lighter he got from a friend, adding, “But is it really his?” ― suggesting that identities may not necessarily be fixed.
The artist takes this idea further by reproducing his city photographs as a series of tourist postcards, which are offered for sale. Perhaps this is when the show gets most interesting. One can imagine the postcards moving from one hand to another, from one city to another, illustrating that while original meanings can become lost for good, they are always replaced with new ones.

by Park Soo-mee

“City Within a City” runs through Sunday at Insa Art Space in Insa-dong, which will be closed Thursday for the Lunar New Year. From Anguk Station, line No. 3, take the exit leading to Jongno Police Station and walk to the Hakgoje Building; Insa Art Space is on the second floor. For more information, call (02) 760-4725 or go to insaartspace.or.kr.
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