Subversive views of female form on displayCHEONAN, South Chungcheong province
A half an hour outside of Seoul by bullet train, a contemporary art gallery is featuring a rare chance to see two provocative photographers celebrate women’s bodies.
Cindy Sherman and Vanessa Beecroft welcomed the idea of having their photos shown together, the first time their work has been packaged this way. Ms. Sherman, 50, and Ms. Beecroft, 35, have pursued the same motif of a woman’s body, which lent itself to the exhibition’s title, “Her Bodies.” The use of the plural stems from the multiple identities the photographers, especially Ms. Sherman, explored, said Gwak Jun-young, the curator of Arario Gallery.
Famous for using herself as the subject, the New Jersey-born Ms. Sherman has presented herself in manifold images in more than 400 photographs over her 30-plus years as a photographer, depicting subjects as diverse as Marilyn Monroe and a clown.
Despite the familiarity of the subject matter, Ms. Sherman’s photography eludes reference. As viewers see Ms. Sherman as Monroe, they try to tie that image to a movie that does not exist. It’s her thematic approach that reminds her audience of how they’ve extracted stereotypes from pop culture. Then the photographer leads them to see between the scenes.
Though the Monroe portrait is not available at Arario, the exhibition has a thorough collection of Ms. Sherman’s earliest works, titled “Murder Mystery People.” In 17 black-and-white photographs, Ms. Sherman sets a murder mystery by creating various characters, such as the jealous husband and the butler.
The collection then moves on to the later stages of her career, dubbed “history portraits” and “fashion photographs,” where the artist again challenges stereotypes. In her “history portraits” series, Ms. Sherman dresses up as characters in paintings spanning from the 15th to 17th centuries. One such portrait is a representation of “Sick Bacchus” by the late 16th-century painter Caravaggio. Ms. Sherman remains true to the original, from the costume to the dirt under the fingernails.
In “fashion photographs,” instead of picturing the critical moment where the subject is at her most beautiful, Ms. Sherman captures the collapsed model looking tired, with fading makeup, as in “Untitled #129.” This rejects the male gaze of the viewers, making the subject not just an object to see, but one that can see.
In the exhibition, Ms. Sherman questions the general concept of beauty. “The world is so drawn toward beauty that I became interested in things that are normally considered grotesque or ugly, seeing them as more fascinating and beautiful,” Ms. Sherman said.
So she found images of women going about their daily lives. In an array of images of women who are far from conventional beauties, Ms. Sherman remained true to her motif.
This leads to her most recent work this year, “Untitled #425,” where she first uses computer graphics to place three close-up facial images, with a clown used as the background image. Again, using her own pajamas and multi-colored wigs, the photographer poses as a clown, which she describes as “sad but also psychotically, hysterically happy.”
“After the many years of her career, Ms. Sherman seems to come to the conclusion that there lies a similarity between women and a clown,” Ms. Gwak says.
Arario Gallery invited Ms. Sherman to the exhibition, but she wasn’t able to visit. Instead, she sent a video titled “Office Killer,” featuring the intricate details of the artist’s production, from her preparation to to the photography. The video is screened daily at the gallery.
The gallery also planned to have Vanessa Beecroft, an Italian-born photographer who is based in New York, hold a live performance in Korea. Ms. Beecroft suggested performing at Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul, according to her habit of performing in historic places, but it did not happen for a variety of reasons, including the gallery organizers’ concerns that the public wouldn’t be ready for nude performance art.
Ms. Beecroft’s performance at Gyeongbok Palace would certainly have been the talk of the town. The artist is known for embracing provocative poses. In one show, she featured a group of naked models and gave them basic guidelines such as “don’t try to look sexy.” She had them first stand up and do whatever they wanted to do for a couple of hours. When the models lay down, their bodies escaped the gaze of the spectators and achieved subjectivity.
The artist again pursues this concept in “VB47,” where this time she has her models wear “headless hats.” The models are again undressed except for the hats, which completely cover the models’ faces but allow them to see outside. In this way, Ms. Beecroft upsets the conventional dynamic of the audience that sees and the models that are seen. In “VB47,” it’s the models that gaze at the spectators.
Also presented by Ms. Beecroft is her “calendar series,” where she takes pictures of her stepsister, also naked, looking right through the spectators, in conventional poses seen in classic paintings. Visitors to the Arario Gallery can better understand the artist’s world by watching her videotaped performance.
Gallery owner mixes his paints with profits
For Kim Chang-il, his work and his art are never far apart ― literally. When Mr. Kim, 54, decided to open this Arario Gallery in 1999, he put it next to the department store and bus terminal he owns, in Cheonan, South Chungcheong province.
“To me, there’s no difference among my business, my collection and my art career,” Mr. Kim says.
The art lover, who signs his paintings CI Kim (pronounced “C Kim”), says he’s always hungry for art and has plans to add another gallery in a few years.
“If I can’t have the classics of Picasso and Andy Warhol, I’ll have the new Picasso and new Andy Warhol, the up-and-coming artists. That’s why I focus on the promising contemporary artists,” he says.
His art career has come a long way from the bleak days of his early adulthood, when he wandered aimlessly after failing the national college entrance exam for two years in a row.
“Roaming around the streets, I got into a lot of physical fights as well as mental wandering,” Mr. Kim says. “I always carried a box of sleeping pills with me, to commit suicide whenever I needed to.” In his darkest moments, he visited the mountains and the beach, where he found the inspiration to live.
To Mr. Kim, who does not attend church but believes in God, what is important is to have a vision. “People eat food to survive, but I eat dreams to survive,” he says.
He went down to this provincial city in 1978, fresh out of college, to take over his parents’ failing bus terminal. One of the first things he did, however, was get a bank loan to buy an art installation, made of car axles, to exhibit next to the terminal, which was then surrounded by rice paddies.
“I just happened to think of art as a way to boost my business. Art and business were something to be accompanied, which, I guess, made me a rarity back then. People said I was crazy,” he says.
After a few years, he started to see his profits grow. The breakthrough, however, was his idea to set up vendor stalls in the terminal. Pressed by budget constraints, Mr. Kim designed and built the stalls himself, which he calls his “first installation art.”
The stalls paid off handsomely, raking in more than 500 million won ($435,000) in annual profits within five years. After adding a department store next to the terminal, Mr. Kim was set financially.
Then he started to collect artwork, which revived his passion for his art career. But he found it a bit tough starting out.
“Because I didn’t have any academic career in art, I felt I was being looked down on,” Mr. Kim recalls. So he bought a 20-volume set of art history books and read it all.
“Whenever I stepped into a gallery and murmured the names and briefly talked about the work, I felt the change in the curators’ attitude,” Mr. Kim says, smiling.
Since 2000, he’s entrusted the business to others and now concentrates on art. He’s had several solo exhibitions and has a book of his artwork, titled “It Takes Both Rain and Sunshine to Make a Rainbow.”
by Chun Su-jin
“Her Bodies” runs through Nov. 21. The gallery opens from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., with video screenings of “Office Killer” by Cindy Sherman available at 11:30 a.m., 2 and 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission for adults is 5,000 won ($4). For more information, call (041) 551-5100 or visit the Web site at www.arariogallery.com (English available).