Oversizing the ordinary takes a new twist in Seoul

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Oversizing the ordinary takes a new twist in Seoul


NEW YORK ― Claes Oldenburg and his wife Coosje van Bruggen are a study in contrasts and complements, much like their artworks that adorn public spaces around the world.
He’s spent his career in America, but most of hers has been in Europe. He’s worked purely as an artist, while she’s also been a critic and theorist. He works primarily with urban spaces, while she has a ken for nature.
“We are very different. At the same time, we are very alike in a funny way. We are mentally complementary,” said van Bruggen during a recent interview in the couple’s Soho studio in New York.
Maybe that’s why when Seoul City decided to restore the Cheonggye Stream that runs through downtown ― a contrast of nature and urban life ―the two were an obvious choice to design a public sculpture for the entrance of the park.
The legendary icon of pop art and his long-time collaborator and wife recently unveiled their design for “Spring,” a giant spiral cone painted red and blue, symbolizing Korea’s national identity. Inside the towering steel artwork, water will spiral down to a pond at its base, once the work is installed in June.
“It’s not an abstract sculpture,” said Oldenburg. “It involves a context. It says something about where it is.”
“It’s symbolic of the attempt to restore nature, while the shape also references the entangled ribbons of hanbok,” said van Bruggen, referring to the traditional Korean clothing.
Resembling a snail, the sculpture is reminiscent of the couple’s other work: oversized versions of ordinary things. Oldenburg has also made giant versions of a hamburger, a light switch and a toilet, among other things.
Often, the objects are made to fit the surrounding architecture. A giant pair of binoculars serves as the entranceway to an office building in California. Elsewhere, the couple has ironically contradicted the subject of their sculptures by making them out of something contrasting. A giant toothbrush with paste ― something one would expect to be pliable and soft ― is made from cast iron.
“Spring” is one of the couple’s rare sculptures based on something found in nature. It is titled after the season of renewal because it sits at the head of the restored stream, which had flowed through the city since ancient times until it was covered with concrete slabs four decades ago.
“It’s about nature, man-made nature and art. That’s why it’s different,” says van Bruggen, 64, who took primary responsibility for developing the original plan for the sculpture. The couple visited Korea in 1997 and viewed video clips of the restored stream as part of her research.
Humor, which gives urban spaces a sense of irony and edge, is usually a dominant factor in the couple’s work. But the project for Seoul is more of a formal experiment.
“It’s about the human condition,” says Oldenburg. “It deals with imperfection, the impurity, because a city is definitely impure.”

The conception of nature that complements Oldenburg’s view of an impure urban space comes from his partner, who chose the concept for “Spring” intuitively during her visit to Seoul.
“I think she is not afraid to make a romantic statement,” Oldenburg says. “She’s not afraid to make a statement about beauty.”
She agreed, but only to a certain extent.
“In (contemporary) art,” she says, “beauty is considered a dirty word.”
Such differences of opinion lead to a healthy cross-critique between the two.
“We do that everyday, every minute,” van Bruggen says.
“It also comes down to very simple things, like that we are men and women,” chirps Oldenburg.
Their backgrounds are also somewhat contrasting.
Oldenburg was born in Sweden, but spent most his time on the Lower East Side of New York. After studying literature, he spent virtually his entire career as a sculptor and installation artist.
Van Bruggen was born in the Netherlands, but has worked all over Europe, and served as curator, editor and senior art critic at Yale.
“I am not writing books, but she’s a specialist,” notes Oldenburg. “I only speak Swedish and English. But she’s studied Greek and Latin, and speaks French, Italian, German and English,” he says.
Oldenburg is widely known for his earlier series of food sculptures including “Floor Cone,” a 15-foot-tall ice cream cone made out of synthetic polymer and foam rubber.
The two began their artistic collaboration 30 years ago with “Trowel I,” a giant version of the common garden tool, which is stuck upright in the sculpture park of the Kroller-Muller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands.
They’ve been working together ever since, creating a number of memorable large-scale projects for public spaces around the world. One of their nearby pieces is “Saw, Sawing,” outside the Tokyo convention center. The aggrandized woodworker’s tool is plunged into the ground beside the facility.
However, despite their fame, local artists and critics have blasted “Spring” as an irrelevant design for the site. Last month, an artist collective protested the installation, which they said lacked historical insight about the restoration project.
“I respect all my fellow artists,” said van Bruggen, slightly indisposed, in response. “Each artist is different in their direction of artistic approach. I just don’t want to be set up that way.”

by Park Soo-mee, Kwon Keun-young
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