From sensation to spirituality

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From sensation to spirituality

Since her last solo exhibit in Tokyo three years ago, the Christian artist Ium says she thought about leaving the art world for good. She has seen the quality of works by many Christian artists decline after they converted, losing a certain artistic maturity.
If an artist couldn’t penetrate the people’s mind as a “spiritual communicator,” Ium was ready to leave her past behind and look for other ways than making art to submit to her spiritual calling.
So she stopped everything she was doing and started a small group that met in her studio, made up mainly of Christian artists, called CCF, or Creative Christian Fellowship.
Things that happened in that group became sort of a legend among young Christians in Korea who were mostly filled with pessimism about the possibility of art reconciling with religion in a meaningful way.
“It’s still one of the few territories in art that many artists haven’t explored fully yet,” says Ium, referring to her new series of works on spirituality. “It was very prophetic in that sense, which made me very vulnerable as to what I was creating. I wasn’t sure if I could really do it.”
Her new work on spirituality, which touches on aspects of contemporary art that many artists have failed to elaborate on in the past, has been received with curiosity in the local art scene, as it comes from the same artist who once described herself as “a living sculpture.”
For years after she debuted in the Korean art world, Ium appealed to her audience more strongly as a celebrity figure with sensational ideas than as a serious artist.
Her works, which made her something of a postmodernist icon of young contemporary Korean art, were revealing enough to earn her media attention as one of the few female performance artists of her generation who went beyond the borders of minjung art, the people’s art movement that pervaded the mainstream art scene in Korea until the ’90s.
She established her reputation on the basis of a series of photographs and videos from the mid-’90s in which the artist depicted herself as various heroines from ancient myth and shamanistic tradition. In the videos, Ium often appeared in gaudy costumes made out of patches of metal and acrylic, reenacting a scenario she had written, apparently with science-fiction inspirations.
In 1997, she produced a short film called “Highway,” shot in the style of a road movie, in which she appeared as a nomadic female figure wondering around the desolate streets of an apocalyptic world. The content of her work, which was saturated with sexual overtones, wasn’t always clear, but the visual spectacles she offered were new and provocative, which was exactly what the Korean art world was looking for in the early ’90s.
“When I was creating those works, I had no doubt at all that they were part of myself,” says Ium (her artistic name is one that she gave herself in her earlier career, when she thought of herself as “a personal brand”). “But come to think of it now, a lot of it was just fascination.”
Her new work, which is currently on display in an exhibit at Space C in Cheongdam-dong, southern Seoul, titled “Purifying Senses,” takes the viewers to an unfamiliar realm, both visually and conceptually.
The video installation on the gallery’s bottom floor shows an image of a woman, the artist, waving a giant white flag in the middle of a wild desert plain.
The image, which is accompanied by a bizzare sound mix, features the artist singing, in an act of prayer that resembles speaking in tongues. She says the installation is an attempt to reclaim her spiritual identity, which she associates with “ruach,” a Hebrew word meaning breath, wind and spirit. She finds the word pertinent to her spiritual mission as an artist.
As she says, the piece could easily be mistaken for a “Jean d’Arc fantasy.” There are also some crucial visual cliches in the video footage in the upstairs gallery, such as the use of brides as a symbol of purity, and of the darkness of a tunnel to mean a transitional phase for the artist. These metaphors might be faithful reflection of the artist’s spiritual journey, but they fall flat as visual language.
Maybe that’s because the essence of art has to do with constantly doubting. As soon as an artist settles, the work becomes almost pointless. But Ium says her new work was a process that needed to be completed in order for her to move on.
“There was no other way,” she says. “I just had to get it out of me.”

by Park Soo-mee

Ium’s solo exhibit, “Purifying Senses,” runs through June 18 at Space C in Cheongdam-dong. To get there, get off at Sinsa station (line No. 3) and walk until you reach the Coreana Cosmetics building, where the gallery is located. For more information, call (02) 547-9177.
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