Blurring the line of low and high art

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Blurring the line of low and high art

For Choi Jeong-hwa, art should be as raw as bait. When an artist throws out a “hook,” it should be as fresh and tempting to the viewer as the bait attached to a fishing rod ― “a push and pull,” he says.
His philosophy may sound too simplistic for someone who has been on the art scene for more than 20 years. But when it comes to Choi’s world of art, it is hard not to be the helpless fish grabbing his bait.
For those who want credentials, Choi is one of the most famous names in contemporary Korean art. For the inaugural show at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum, “Happiness: a survival guide for art and life,” in 2003, his puffy fabric flowers at the museum entrance were installed alongside some of the 20th century’s most established contemporary artists, like Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, Louise Bourgeois and Yoko Ono. Recently, he was also chosen as one of the 15 artists to represent Korea for this year’s Venice Biennale, in which he will install a plastic lotus at the rear entrance of the Korean pavillion.
Choi’s works draw their charm from the monstrous way they are presented, whether it’s a giant plastic fruit tree he installed on a Seoul street, a dramatic setup of an illegal human organ dealer’s room from the movie “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance,” or a bar he designed that looks more like a stage setting than a living space.
His works are sensual in their raw and explicit nature, they are eccentric for their unconventional taste and disturbing for their critical reflection of our reality.
“After years of making art,” Choi says, “I came to the conclusion that art cannot defeat life, and life cannot defeat nature.”
That may be one of the reasons why he turned to the art of everyday life. Choi recently opened a furniture exhibit in Gallery Ssamzie in Insa-dong titled “Roomscape,” along with two other close friends and furniture designers, Choi Mi-kyung and Nami Makishi.
His reference to art and life, though, seems more than an excuse to stray away from his usual path.
On a recent Saturday evening, he was taking a bite of his beef stew and a glass of soju at a restaurant in Chungmuro, cheerfully explaining about his new miniature garden at his home in Samcheong-dong. When he first moved to the neighborhood, Choi says he began collecting dying plants that had been abandoned by his neighbors on the streets, brought them home to his balcony and planted them in soil in a large rubber container. He watered them, left them in the sun and planted moss he brought from a mountain in the soil to help the plants grow. After a few weeks he saw new leaves budding on the plants, as if they had never withered. Now the plants have grown so tall that they fill one side of his balcony, he says.
“It really changed my vision for art,” he says. “I've learned a lot from it.”
Perhaps as a tribute for the lesson he learned from nature, Choi installed huge lumps of rocks at the entrance to his furniture exhibit, and talks enthusiastically of his plans to stretch his ideas onto landscape art in his next projects.

It’s not unusual for Choi to shift away from the conventional notions of art. He is a graduate in painting of Hongik University, reputedly one of the country’s most prestigious art schools. But his use of kitsch imagery, based on found objects from street carts selling miscellaneous goods, completely redefined the identity of contemporary Korean art in the early 1990s, which had been predominantly based on the wounds of war and traditions of a people’s art movement.
His use of unconventional materials like the resin molds of pigs’ heads or a pagoda built from tacky plastic baskets he found in street markets opened up a whole new scene for the spectacle of kitsch art in Korea, not to mention bitter infamy on the local art scene for being a sensationalist.
But to be exact, the idea of kitsch is considered “passe” after the late ’90s. By now, many of the artists who made millions of dollars selling their kitsch collectibles in the 1980s and early ’90s are out of touch with the art world, not really knowing how to move on.
Yet one of the mysteries about Choi’s works is that he never runs out of new ideas.
Aside from cranking out shows, he works as a style director for edgy films like Jang Sun-woo’s “Bad Movie” and Park Chang-wook's “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance.” He helps shoot TV commercials, designs T-shirts, interior spaces and books, and gives creative directions for concerts and major art events like the recent Salvador Dali exhibit at the Seoul Arts Center. Maybe that partly explains why he has no title on his business card, which has a picture of kids playing around his installation hung in the lobby of a local convention hall.
Though Choi is reluctant to characterize himself, his motives are clearly derived from ideas of being a visual artist ― even his frustrations over the Korean art scene, which he sees as taking too narrow a view.

In an industry where many artists shoot to fame and then fade from the scene like a rock star, Choi’s position within the local art world is sometimes viewed with a mixture of envy and cynicism for what they see as a lack of discipline. He says he recently sent out catalogues to about 1,500 artists for his furniture exhibit, but none of them came to the opening.
Sipping his soju, he jokes, “If you didn’t know me, you’d probably think everything I do is amateurish.”
When he became vulnerable, a friend told Choi to relax, saying many Korean artists praise nomadism only as an academic concept, but if they see artists or people actually practicing the idea in their real life, it makes them feel uncomfortable.
Choi seems to agree. “Artists are so closed-minded here,” he says. “It's a big problem.”
His furniture at Ssamzie is an interesting stretch of Choi’s style from his pubic installations. He continues to challenge viewers’ perceptions of art by crossing the line between luxury and cheap, and original and fake, just as he played with the idea of “low art” and “high art” in his monuments built out of cheap plastic materials.
He designs plush sofas out of tacky vinyl he bought in the Cheonggyecheon area that is typically used for pojangmacha, or the tent-like food stalls on the streets. There are sofas covered in glittering gold, prints of Tageukgi, the Korean national flag, and small tea tables with typical emblems one would see in designs for traditional Korean souvenirs. In the gallery, he’s installed a giant lamp he calls “a chandelier,” which he made out of colorful light bulbs used in local cabarets welded together with heavy metal rods.
Already he’s gotten the response he expected. A French fashion designer from Pret a Porter came to his show on the opening night, and bought one of Choi’s sofas covered in a fake Louis Vuitton print. It was a moment that completed Choi’s notion of sublimating low art into high art.
“I shouldn’t have to pay a royalty to Louis Vuitton,” he says. “They should pay me a royalty.”
Back in the gallery, he sees young couples taking photos in front of his glittering “chandelier.”
“Do you think they care about what the artist is intending to say?,” he asks. “Probably not. But to them, that’s their notion of art. That’s my idea of art too.”


by Park Soo-mee

“Roomscape” runs at Gallery Ssamzie in Insa-dong through May 2. Admission is free. To get to Ssamziegil building, take exit 6 at Anguk station on line 3 and walk toward Jongno. The gallery is across from the Insa Art Center. For more information call 02-521-3323.

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