A showcase for artistic experimentationOne of the most unusual aspects of the Korean exhibition at the 51st Venice Biennale, by far the world’s most established contemporary art event, is that there is no distinctive feature unifying the works either stylistically or thematically.
Maybe it is partly a reflection of the curatorial direction of Maria de Corral and Rosa Martinez, a team of the first two female directors in the event’s history, who announced that this year’s biennale would focus more on experimental spirit than works that offer fixed ideas of art. Or maybe it was the choice of the Korean commissioner, Kim Sun-jung, the former vice director of Seoul’s Art Sonje Center, who is known for her colorful, quick-witted sensibility.
Whatever the reason, this year’s biennale, which begins on June 10 and runs to Nov. 6 in the Italian port city under the title “The Experience of Art,” seems likely to set a precedent for Korean art.
The Korean pavilion features a group of 15 Korean artists, a substantial leap from the two or three in previous exhibits. It includes the works of Yiso Bahc, who died last year, a year after he attended the last biennale. Then there is the age issue. The Korean pavilion, which normally featured artists whose average age was in the mid-30s to 40s, shifted its focus this year, with artists as young as 25.
But the most notable aspect about the biennale this year is the mix of artists whose styles cannot be categorized in a single artistic trend.
According to the Korean commissioner, the works by the 15 artists in the show have been arranged in ways that focus more on presenting “a general scene” of contemporary art in Korea rather than finding a centralized scope.
Perhaps it was to trigger deeper interest in the veiled sides of Korean art. Kim has given the exhibit a vague title called “Secret Beyond the Door,” named after a 1948 movie by Fritz Lang.
The Korean pavilion at Venice starts with an installation by Park Ki-won, who is surrounding the exterior walls of the pavilion building with fiberglass- reinforced plastic. The covering, which will be in partially transparent jade, raises the classic question in art about the binary distinctions between inside and outside, and private and public, turning the pavilion building into an entirely new space. Park’s transparent partitions continue inside the pavilion, dividing an interior space of the building into the shape of small alleys, a common trait of Korean cities.
Just inside the pavilion will be “World Chair,” an installation by Yiso Bahc. Bahc, who was one of the three artists to represent Korea at Venice two years ago, also used site-specificity as his main source of inspiration. In one of the video installations he made during an art residency in Texas, Bahc removed part of the gallery’s wall, placed it on the floor and projected video images onto it showing the sky over a city in Texas. For the same exhibition, Bahc produced a piece that involved launching into the Gulf of Mexico a bottle in which a Global Positioning System mechanism had been placed to signal its precise position in the ocean. The bottle’s route was projected in graphics on the wall of the gallery.
Past the room featuring Bahc’s installation is Jeong Yeon-doo’s “Evergreen Tower,” slide projections that document middle class Koreans living in similar apartment buildings. Moving on, there is a graffiti mural by Seong Nak-hee. But instead of using only one wall, Seong’s drawings stretch throughout the gallery onto the ceilings, windows and the walls that belong to other artists in the pavilion, raising questions over rights to a territory. Kim So-ra brings up the issue of hybridization in her music video that translates the lyrics of some of the most popular hit songs by Korean pop artists like BoA and Charlie Park into Spanish with video images filmed in Mexico.
Kim Hong-seok, whose works are positioned in the pavilion’s center, presents an installation, “Over Talk,” in which the artist created a narrative based on an ancient Korean myth. Through this process, the artist, who has translated the text from Korean into English for the exhibit, questions whether “translation” is possible without compromising the narrative’s authenticity.
Ham Jin presents what the artist describes as “the autistic world of imagination” by focusing on images that are too trivial to pay attention to. Mun Seong-sik, the youngest artist in the show, paints fragments of landscapes he has observed from life, turning them into images that resemble the surreal backgrounds of computer games. Park Se-jin is also an artist who paints from memory, positioning images into the frame of a landscape spectacle.
The exhibition puts the works of Oh Hyeong-geun and Bae Young-whan in one space, as the two use personal narratives to refer to particular historical experiences.
Surrounding the highest pole in the Korean pavilion is a drawing and installation by Lee Jewyo, who devises curious objects like a humidifier made out of a plastic bottle and a wet towel. Kim Beom, who participated in last year’s Istanbul Biennale, converts our ways of seeing by presenting objects like “a pregnant hammer,” “a radio kettle” or objects whose meanings have been distorted through the artist’s imagination. On emerging from the pavilion there is graffiti art by Nakion, a designer and underground DJ, showing a fragment of “low art.”
Perhaps the highlight of the exhibit is a plastic lotus in the rear of the pavilion by Choi Jeong-hwa, an artist who is known for creating a spectacle of kitsch art to represent the country’s modern landscape, mainly using plastic.
Maybe it’s because society is changing so fast that the commissioners can no longer choose a single art identity that is relevant. Or perhaps it’s about time that the biennale starts finding new forms in which to present its exhibits. But based on the organization of Korean exhibits at Venice during the past couple of shows, the current division by country no longer seems to provide a culturally specific theory. More and more, the Asian commissioners at Venice seem to be hesitant to give a fixed definition to their notion of “Asianness.”
In 2003, Kim Hong-hee, the Korean commissioner, dismissed complaints by some European journalists who felt the Korean exhibit was “too inauthentic,” explaining that the criticism was precisely what she had expected in trying to avoid an easy categorization of Korean art. Kim Sun-jung, this year’s commissioner, expressed a similar point at a recent press conference, saying she didn’t want the Korean pavilion to be a place where foreign curators make a quick stop to “shop” for a few trendy artists.
“I felt skeptical about how Asian pavilions often turn out to be,” Kim said. “This year I specifically targeted young foreign curators, who will see varied forms of contemporary art in Korea.”
Whatever the case, the Korean works at Venice this year will show that more and more artists are moving away from social discourse into styles and subjects that are much more personalized and varied.
If all else fails, it will give young artists a chance to add a line about participating in the biennale to their profiles, although a few cynical experts in the industry already complain that that is exactly the excuse the commissioner might use if the exhibit turns out to be unsuccessful.
Approaching art by taking objects out of their context
Mun Seong-sik, 25, is the youngest artist in the biennale. His paintings depict surreal aspects of our urban landscape by highlighting certain objects that are lacking a context. His series at Venice focuses on trees that have been trimmed by the gardener on his school campus. Yet the way he extracts the trees from the garden and adds colors makes it look as if the images have been digitally manipulated. The result presents a disturbing reality surrounding our landscape.
Q. Tell us briefly about the concept of your work at the Venice Biennale.
A. My work at Venice has been selected from a painting series I am currently working on. One of the pieces is done in acrylic; the other is done with watercolor. The images, which are based on a landscape I encounter every day, have been reconstructed after they were separated from their original context. Through this process I try to see my everyday landscape from a different angle. The particular works that I am showing at Venice are based on images of trees in the garden on my campus with their surroundings removed.
In the past, biennale commissioners tended to prefer artists with some work experience overseas or those with a “global sensibility” of art. Have your experiences as an artist who has never worked, showed or trained abroad helped you or made it difficult to show your works on occasions like the Venice Biennale?
I don’t have much experience in art, either in Korea or abroad. The difficulty comes from the lack of showing my work in public. Everything is so new, which makes things so confusing, but also exciting. So far, I haven’t had any difficulty as a result of not having studied abroad. I get a lot of help from my surroundings, including the biennale commissioner, the artists and my professors.
Your first overseas exhibit happens to be at the Venice Biennale. Do you have any view about how you want people to approach your work?
Seeing a work of art is free. It depends on the person in interpreting the work, whether it’s their life experiences, how they think or what they like. I just wish, though, we could communicate about some of my ideas on some basic level through the work. As long as that happens they can think or interpret the work as they wish.
What prompted you to take up art?
I have enjoyed drawing for as long as I can remember. My attitude and purpose in art continue to change through various outside forces (such as preparing for art school), but the activity of creating art has always been very natural, and there never was a barrier. The series I am working on now started in summer 2002. The fact that the images produced different sources of energy depending on how I arranged the form seemed pleasing and interesting. I felt they were well suited to my sensibility. During my first two years at college I tried various styles, using different media.
How do you see this exhibit coming together?
The entire Korean pavilion is clustered together like a living organism. Different voices come together to shape a mass, creating new scenery. I hope audiences have an interest in this.
by Park Soo-mee