Engineering a monster, an artist welds myth to metal

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Engineering a monster, an artist welds myth to metal

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TOKYO ― An encounter with the Korean artist Choe U-ram’s world of “machine-organisms” unleashes the imagination in a way that is half science fiction and half prehistorical. When Choe presented a robotic sculpture, “Ultima Mudfox,” in 2003, he provided the press and critics with a work of fiction ― that the robotic organism, which had been roaming through the middle of the earth, was by chance photographed at a subway construction site. And he theorized about the animal’s biological existence, as if having discovered a fossil, by giving it a scientific name, “Anmoropfal Delphinus Delphis Uram.”
It was precisely this powerfully visual art-meets-technology approach with age-old stories that caught the eye of Kim Sun-hee, the curator of Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, who was planning the museum’s fourth project to support young artists around the world.
The exhibit, “MAM Project 004: Choe U-Ram,” currently on display until May 7 at the museum’s Gallery 2, is a realization of Kim’s projection since September, 2005 ― that Choe’s cybernetic organisms could fittingly live atop Tokyo’s futuristic skyscrapers.
Before the debut by the Korean artist, the Museum’s MAM Project, which kicked off in 2004, had introduced Santiago Cucullu, Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba in 2004 and R.O.R. (Revolutions On Request) in 2005.
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Choe may be virtually unknown outside Korea, but after he was included in the Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art Inaugural Exhibition and the Busan Biennale in 2004, perceptive art collectors in Korea quickly foresaw his avant-garde brilliance, branding him a potential heir to Paik Nam-june.
Tucked between the museum’s grand-scale exhibition, “Tokyo-Berlin/Berlin-Tokyo,” which chronicles movements in art history, the small Gallery 2, where Choe’s 10 works are shown, was in for a surprise for most visitors there, like a secret door to the fourth dimension.
There, according to the 36-year-old artist, the United Research of Anima-Machines, a.k.a. U.R.A.M, recently discovered a new inorganic creature, reportedly living on “urban energy.” Known to live about 200 meters (218 yards) above the city, “Urbanus” seems to use something similar to photosynthesis, in which “Urbanus Female” imbibes urban energy for every 15 minutes, after which the male imbibes the electric energy, discharged as protons by the female.
The center of Gallery 2 prominently displays “Urbanus Female,” a 3.8-meter metallic machine-like creature, whose leaf-like body parts open and close and emit a stream of light from its genitals. Prowling around the female is “Urbanus Male,” an organism with a fish-like head and moving fins, waiting to devour the female protons. As the pearly white fins of the male body move in waves, one can hear the subtle but detectible purring noise of the 11 motors inside the body. Choe wrote in his description that how the larvae of “Urbanus Female,” which also float in mid-air, are made has yet to be studied.
When the evening sets, the panel door behind the Urbanus is lifted to reveal Tokyo’s spectacular nightscape viewed from the 53 floor of the Mori Tower in the swank Roppongi Hills.
Just like “Conceptual Composite Photograph 2004” of “Echo Navigo (adult),” the phantom-like reflection of the Urbanus against the glass window floats above the Tokyo night sky, further stimulating viewers’ imagination by suggesting that the Urbanus exists above the metropolis.

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Prior to the Tokyo exhibit, Choe used to manually build robots based on the two-dimensional CAD program.
To implement one of the most complex and delicate creatures this time, Choe teamed up with a computer programmer specializing in 3-D CAD programs. Once the conceptual sketches were confirmed, they were saved in the program, he explained. The programmer then made them three-dimensional so that each part of the machine could be tested virtually. The blueprints for each part were taken to a workshop, where the computer laser-cut the metal sheets.
Choe and his assistant spend weeks assembling and building each parts. “Even when all parts and motors were assembled, I still wasn’t sure whether the robot would actually work, as the testing was done inside gravity-free virtual programs,” he said. “There could’ve been problems anywhere, an infinitesimal error in unknown spots, friction in the air, additional weights from wire, God knows what could happen.”
Choe recalls the time when the switch was thrown and “Urbanus Female” came to life. “We all broke into tears and applauded ―?It was a really touching moment. The Mori museum staff spent day and night for weeks helping to build the robots. They worked like they were one of us,” he said.
Ms. Kim, the curator, spent days buffing and chafing dozens of plastic slabs to make them look like fins for “Urbanus Male.”
For the CAD programmer, too, working on a robot that had to move like a living animal required a lot of experimenting. “Each animal has its own CPU, and the programmer modified the program until the parts moved with finesse,” Mr. Choe said, pointing at naturally smooth movements of “Echo Navigo,” another half-fish, half-insect-like machine and its larvae, which are “preserved” inside the illuminated cylinders.
Since last week’s opening, attended by 130-plus members of the Japanese media and art industry professionals, the shy, soft-spoken artist has kept himself busy in Tokyo with a series of interviews.
Born in 1970, Choe studied sculpture in Chungang University and then at its Graduate School. Choe is considered the young, new generation artist whose artistic inspiration was based upon a mixture of Western and Korean pop culture, computer and digital technology of modern Korea.

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The artistic world of Choe touches upon the disciplines of cybernetics, a relatively new term coined by Norbert Wiener in 1947. The concept foretold the future of human civilization as a new relation to technology than a mere combination of existing genres ― electrical engineering, mathematics, biology, neurophysiology, anthropology and psychology; it was to clarify the fundamental roles of computer-based engineering, philosophy and art. Clear from the start, each application in cybernetics bears relevance to social systems and values, apart from simple robotics, commanding that the machines carry out their physical maneuvers, each of which has a predisposed purpose.
As Choe describes, each of his creations had a life of its own whose movements are dictated by individual CPUs, or “brain,” which he says can modify or reprogram anytime he wanted to. It should be noted that such advances of AI, or artificial intelligence, used in robots, have posed questions about the future.
“In the art world, since the 1960s art works bearing similarities to Choe’s works have been around, but Choe U-ram’s works best represent Korea at the pinnacle of computer and technology, as the country is best-known today,” commented Ms. Kim, formerly the director of Gwangju Art Museum in Korea. “There also are exhibits of robots in the Japanese museums specializing in mobile and digital technology, such as NTT and NEC, but they are just machines as part of science and technology,” she noted. “What sets Choe’s world of robots apart is that he narrates a compellingly imaginative story that is very human.”
Pointing at the flatscreen monitor in the gallery displaying Choe’s conceptual sketches [as shown in the background, courtesy of the museum], Kim stresses the importance of the artist’s preliminary renderings. “That’s a key process in conceiving sculptural forms, and in Choe’s case, building sophisticated machine-creatures. The series of elaborate sketches indeed makes him not a scientist, but an artist.”


by Ines Cho

Mori Art Museum is located in Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, 6-1001 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site, www.mori.art.museum or the artist’s homepage, www.uram.net.
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