The flag becomes a pop icon in the hands of an artist

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The flag becomes a pop icon in the hands of an artist

It’s hard to think of a Korean artist who is as versatile as Kang Young-min.
He has been dubbed an icon of Korea’s pop art scene through a series of public art projects he’s done, including the murals on a passageway of the Euljiro 3-ga subway station. Yet he is also a music producer, an animator, an art director and a party planner for major brand-launching shows by DKNY, Cadillac and fancy champagne producers.
Some may call that a frivolous condition of contemporary Korean art, which increasingly mimics the American pop art scene of the ’60s but lacks its historical context based on post-war consumerism.
But Kang, who has opened an exhibit, “National Flag,” at Gallery Ssamzie, poses a clearer view of pop art. “As an artist, I am also interested in things that other people are interested in,” he says.
Since his first solo exhibit at Insa Art Space in 2004, Kang has been working with the shape of a jolly heart face, nicknamed by his audience “a sleeping heart,” referring to the character’s half-closed eyes that make it look like it is dozing off.
In a past interview, the artist was asked about the frequent use of his images on various souvenir objects like T-shirts and stationery. His answer was, “It’s an attempt for me to make money and extend my works to those who don’t go to galleries.”
At Gallery Ssamzie in Insa-dong, there are a series of paintings on canvas and wooden panels ranging from life size to tiny: the artist says he prefers to stick to “small, medium and large.” Pointing to images on a small sticker of hearts with faces that are crying, laughing, sweating and seething, he says, “Extra small.”
One of the most delightful parts of the exhibit is a video loop of an animated heart on a Korean flag, which is accompanied by the melody of “Misty.”
As the music plays, the border on the heart face that divides the blue and red segments moves up and down like a wave, mimicking the face of a drunken man who flushes. The video continues to play around the theme, showing the four trigrams in the corners of the Korean flag constantly spinning around the heart, creating a comic psychedelic effect.
Heart images in Kang’s works also make references to pop culture such as emoticons, or face pictures made out of letters, numbers and punctuation marks from a computer keyboard that are used to express feelings. At the same time they also parody sublime images of a national flag that Kang’s generation is used to seeing.
The exhibit, which was arranged in time for Korea’s Liberation Day on Aug. 15, creates irony as it turns the flag’s grand notion of universal balance between yin and yang into a light, popular icon that conveys themes of love and everyday emotions.
“When I think of the Korean national flag I can only see negative references,” he says. “They remind me of cheap, cliched images from a military base, government offices and right-wingers’ protests.”
After all, though, you can’t possibly help calling the artist a true patriot of his time.
“If the Korean government decides to change its flag into the shape of a heart, it will draw an enormous crowd of foreign tourists to Korea,” he says. “It will also enhance the national image a great deal. We could even apply different expressions to the flag when we send diplomatic documents abroad.”


by Park Soo-mee

On Aug. 15, to celebrate Liberation Day, the artist will sell limited editions of his prints signed in the gallery. “National Flag” runs through Aug. 21. For more information, call Gallery Ssamzie at 02-736-0088.

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