Artist stirs salt into race debate

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Artist stirs salt into race debate

As a Korean-American artist, Michael Joo has taken a unique approach to deal with issues of race in his work. Like many Asian-American artists of his generation, who focus on cultural representations of Asia, his images examine the way human beings are seen in relation to race and cultural background.
In his earlier installation “Yellow, Yellower, Yellowest” he had three beakers containing urine, each marked with a name ― his own, Genghis Khan’s and Benedict Arnold’s.
In the work he confronted the viewer’s conception of skin color by playing with the three names in relation to the density of the urine’s color. He marked his own name under “yellowest,” Genghis Kahn was allocated to “yellow” and Benedict Arnold, an American military traitor, was appended to “yellower.” The artist’s intent was to question how language affects our construction of racial identity.
Perhaps the fact that the artist is a biology major had something to do with his approach. In any event Joo, whose first large-scale exhibition in Korea is currently on display at Rodin Gallery, constantly questions the discord between nature, culture, body and spirit by creating his own scientific speculations.
In “Saltiness of Greatness” he calculated the supposed energy expended during a lifetime by well-known Asian figures such as Genghis Khan, Mao Tse-tung and Bruce Lee. He then converted their various totals into a lump of salt as evidence of the physical diversity of individual Asians, who are often seen as a single race in the west. In “Visible,” the artist’s installation for the Venice Biennale 2001, he created a statue of Buddha made out of glass, through which human organs can be seen. The piece is designed to question why society often dismisses human identity.
Concepts from nature are used with bold effect in some of his other works at the Seoul exhibit.
In “The Pack” the artist identifies himself with a pack of coyotes to represent a feeling that he lives on the boundary of human society and nature. The work is designed to portray how his Korean-American identity places him precariously at the boundary of mainstream society.
In “Salt Transfer Cycle” he shows a video made up of three segments; one shot in his studio in New York in which the artist is swimming through a bed of MSG; in the next segment the artist crawls on the salt desert of Utah, licking the salt off the ground; in the final scene, shot in Korea, the artist shows a video of elks licking the salt off his body, as a reference to the evolution of nature.
This work seems to exist as a metaphor for the artist’s fluctuating identity, as he shifts between his biological, social and artistic self to find a place in a society.


The exhibition of Michael Joo runs through Jan. 28. For more information call (02) 2259-7781.


by Park Soo-mee

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