Guilty thanks expressed as self-sacrifice
According to Korean artist Park Eun-sun, who sculpted the work, it is meant to represent “sacrifice,” which is the theme and title of her first solo exhibition. Other works include a bowl of ginseng chicken soup ― but the chicken has the head of a wistful melancholy child. On another piece of tableware, a grilled fish nervously stands upright, begging for a second chance at life.
On first inspection, these might be dismissed as attempts to provoke public outrage. But to Ms. Park, who turned 25 this year, it is part of telling her own emotional journey. She escaped a shantytown childhood and was able to cultivate her talent in art school thanks to sacrifices by her family members.
Many of the works incorporate familiar items from ordinary life, but are rendered strangely ― in ways that exude a deep sense of sadness as if seen through the imaginative eyes of a helpless infant.
The exhibit is at Art Space Hue, a gallery near Hongik University in northwestern Seoul, known for showing unconventional, cutting-edge works by emerging Korean artists. “The less experienced, the better,” said Kim No-am, the director of Art Space Hue. To find unknown artists, the director organized a contest in 2004, and Ms. Park was one of the 12 winners, who, according to Mr. Kim, tell personal stories through their art. “We look at how well the story is expressed through the young artist’s works and his or her process of telling the story,” Mr. Kim said.
The story behind Ms. Park’s art goes back to her impoverished childhood, which she does not mind discussing with strangers, even a reporter from the IHT-JoongAng Daily.
“I grew up very poor,” she said, “My mother, father, brother and I used to share a one room house in a hillside shantytown in far eastern Seoul.”
The Korean notion of “sacrifice” deeply affected her, as her older brother gave up on going to university and became a professional soldier so that his younger and talented sister could become an artist. In her early oil paintings that she made while studying fine art at Kookmin University, her primary subject was her older brother dressed in a black beret and a military uniform. In this period of her work, the face of a young woman or a child occasionally appears. These are self-portraits, and they invariably show perplexing emotions ― but essentially guilt for receiving her family’s assistance.
Two multi-media works displayed along with the food-themed art follow the theme of her attachment to her brother: One is a black-and-white two-minute film on war and soldiers that plays next to a portrait of her brother painted on a khaki military blanket.
Another source of inspiration is the artist’s parents, who enabled her to go to a private high school by selling deer horns and dried ginseng. All of the food-themed works involve boyangsik, or dishes meant to invigorate a tired body. Ms. Park says it is a grateful offering to her family. When she offers food symbolically, she portrays herself as a helpless, selfless child being sacrificed as part of the dish. This is meant to show her as an animal, who like her brother had no option but to face the cold, brutal reality of sacrifice.
It is also interesting to see how a young artist chronicles her complex emotions through this uniquely formalized sacrifice. The choices of food reflect the artist’s roots in Korean culture while taking a form that is recognized universally ― the ritual of offering is one of the oldest and the most profound elements in human religion.
The precursor to this artistic genre employing similarly mundane objects from everyday life was British pop art, says Mr. Kim. Artists like Damien Hirst objectified food, while Marc Quinn turned familiar subjects from daily life into quaint works of art. Young Korean artists who have recently established reputations by expressing unusual views of familiar objects include Lee Dong-wook, Kwon Jae-hong and Ham Jin. “But, different experiences result in different art works,” said Mr. Kim. “Park Eun-sun’s subjects such as ginseng chicken soup and dog soup, are unique to Korean culture. They are grotesque while being personal and are done in a humorous way.”
by Ines Cho
The exhibition, “Sacrifice” is running until Dec. 28.