Kitsch playground or art museum?
Titled “Believe It or Not,” the exhibition features a mixture of products and artwork from prominent to lesser-known artists ― on the first floor, a tattered yellow chair that the artist claims to have gotten for free on the streets sits below a 700 million won ($728,787) sculpture by the U.S. artist Donald Judd. A pine tree painting by eminent contemporary Korean artist Bae Beung-wo hangs along the walls with photographs and paintings by up-and-coming artists. Cheap plastic objects lie scattered throughout the floors. Chandeliers made out of yarn and fake flowers, as well as traditional black-and-white Korean paintings, hang on fluorescent pink walls.
The exhibition, titled “Believe It or Not,” showcases an assortment of works ― sculptures, paintings and photographs, among other things, by 30 artists chosen by Mr. Choi, along with his large-scale designs and installations. The three floors of the Ilmin Museum are set up to resemble department stores. However, Mr. Choi’s version looks like a psychedelic, multi-colored children’s playhouse, with baskets piled up like a small mountain on the corner and a plaster figure of Venus wrapped in bright red velvet.
Wearing a bright red shirt that resembled his kaleidoscopic collection of works lined up on the first floor of the Ilmin Museum, Mr. Choi explained his concept for this particular exhibition. “I wanted to take in the concept of a department store and create an everyday atmosphere so that people can come into the gallery without fear and just enjoy themselves.”
Mr. Choi turned the refined, exquisitely cultured space of a gallery into a chaotic, commercial product.
Did the artist intend this adaptation to be a rebellious take on high art? “I don’t think this exhibition is shocking or rebellious at all. This is just my reflection of where we are standing at present. This is our everyday life, all chaotic and distorted,” he said.
It appears that blurring the lines, whether they are between high art and low art, carelessness and confrontation, is one of Mr. Choi’s favorite hobbies. “He has fogged up the concepts of expensive and cheap, art and product, concocting his own chaotic modern art,” said Kwon Ju-yeon, the curator for this exhibition.
Mr. Choi’s brand of kitsch art, which reinterprets unconventional material found in street carts and markets, met with huge success in Korea in the early and mid ’90s, and has since spawned an army of imitators. Originally a German term that was used to define art that is considered an inferior copy of an existing style, kitsch has since then evolved into an art form that embraces bad taste.
The artist, who has been a major figure in the art scene since he graduated from Hongik University (which is known for its art department) with a degree in painting in 1987, started off his professional career by winning the grand prize in the prestigious Joongang Art Award in 1987. He started earning worldwide recognition in 1998 when he took part in the exhibition titled “Seamless” at the De Appel Gallery in Amsterdam. Among his most important group exhibitions were “Slowness Speed” at the National Gallery of Victory in Melbourne, “Let’s Entertain” at the Pompidou Center in Paris and “Happy Together” at the Kagoshima Open Air Museum. One of his signature pieces ― large-scale fabric flowers ― was featured in 2003 at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo alongside Andy Warhol and Henri Matisse’s art.
What is next for this seasoned artist? He is currently working on an installation piece called “The Heart of a Flower,” in which giant flower figures are poked with 20-meter-long (65-foot) needles. He is also working on furniture designs that he started last year with the designers Choi Mi-kyung and Nami Makishi. He said he also plans to participate in the Singapore Biennale with an outdoor installation.
“I couldn’t do this if I were bored with it. Art is my biggest hobby,” he said.
Q.People refer to you as the “godfather of Korean kitsch.”
A.I know. That makes no sense. In my perspective, Cheongdam-dong (southern Seoul) is kitsch, not me. The original meaning of kitsch is the fake reproduction of an original product or object. I’m just trying to show the visuals of our daily life the way I see it.
Do you like the articles about you?
I wish that the articles about my work could be more fun and rugged, but journalists and the press still try to put emphasis only on its conceptual meaning.
What inspires you?
Taking walks. I get many ideas from strolling along through the streets and small alleys of a city or walking amid natural surroundings. Watching a plant grow stems and leaves is amazing.
When walking around the city streets, do you notice the people more, or the general backdrop?
I tend to focus more on the atmosphere. The city itself looks like a painting to me. That’s why I’m not fond of the streets of Seoul at this point. There are no more cluttered, colorful signs anymore. Why are they trying to get rid of them?
Some people think they are distracting and chaotic-looking.
Life is chaotic! What good would it do to clean up the signs? It’s not like Korea will turn into another country.
Do you have any qualms about the current art scene in Korea?
The Korean art scene, as well as the fashion scene, is so trend-based. Everything is so similar, like uniforms. I wish that we could get to be more free and individualistic, but we’re on the fence.
Why did you start to make furniture last year?
Because it’s close to us. We use it every day in our houses, and with different furniture, I believe that our perspectives can change a bit, too. I like the idea of art or design being close to everyday life.
What are your hobbies nowadays?
I read. But [I read only] comic books (laughs). The most recent one I’ve read was a series called “Teardrops of God,” by Tadashi Agi. I also read a lot of novels. I’ve read almost all of Alan de Botton’s books.
Do you ever get bored as an artist?
No. And I love that I am based in a great place like Korea.
Do you like Korea?
Yes. I love its disorder, chaos and rudeness. I love it.
by Cho Jae-eun