Exploring aspects of time and spaceIn the 1980 film “Somewhere in Time” (directed by Jeannot Szwarc) Christopher Reeves hypnotizes himself to travel to the past so he can romance an actress with whom he is obsessed. With a dab of idealism and a whole lot of Rachmaninoff on the soundtrack, memories, at least in this movie, become more than just recollection ― they have the ability to change the future as well.
In the exhibition “Somewhere in Time,” now showing at the Art Sonje Center in Jongno district, central Seoul, the same idea holds true about the elasticity of memories and the significant role they play in how we perceive our present and future.
“We used the movie title because we wanted to borrow the concept of a time machine and the notion that with a slight alteration in one small fragment of our past, our future can be changed forever,” said Kim Sun-jeong, a professor at the Korean National University of Arts’s Department of Art Theory who organized the show. “All the artists were chosen on the basis of their views of ‘time’ and ‘memory’ and how they connect the two with the social climate of their times. “
The exhibition, which runs until April of next year, features artists who played major roles in shaping the art world in Korea during the 1980s, when the country was in the grip of political and economic chaos. They include Min Joung-ki, Joo Jae-whan, Bae Young-whan and Kim Beom. They are exhibited along with some new and non-Korean artists.
“Some of the artists grew up during Korea’s 1970s, when economic growth was the foremost priority, and some grew up during the 1980s, a time when Korea was in a dictatorship. Every decade has its own form of nationalism,” said Ms. Kim adding, “In this decade the new form of nationalism seems to be connected to sports.”
In Min Joung-ki’s 1981 oil painting titled “Hug,” a man and woman are at the center of the canvas with their arms tightly wrapped around each other. In front of them, there is an electric fence split down the middle, signaling a divide, whether it be the physical divide between North and South Korea or the spiritual divide between the proletariat and the white-collar classes. The painter, who was active in the political art movement of his era, wanted to express the separation between artists and a politically-repressed public.
The objective of relating art to society is present in many of these works and some like the “Gwangju Story” series, approach their subject with a political agenda. “Like the Russian constructivists and the 1920s avant-garde movement, there is always the question of the role of the artist in society, the struggle between mass culture and art. In a way, the constructivists, who used art as an instrument to fulfil social purposes, resemble the mentality of the politically-charged artists of Korea in the 1980s,” said Ms. Kim.
The “Gwangju Story” series by Oh Hein-kuhn plays with the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction and the past and the present, with black-and-white photographs taken in 1995 on the set of the movie “A Petal,” which told the story of the 1980s Gwangju Democratic Movement. In the photographs, stills of movie extras and sets that were created to reenact the democracy movement have the dramatic fictional presence of a feature film combined with a documentary element shown through the sets and costumes. “It’s real but not real,” said Mr. Oh. “ The thing that really surprised me was how enraptured the extras became [a large portion of them were regular Gwangju residents] by playing their part in the re-enactment of the historic day. They treated the scene as if it was really happening.” A few police officers in the photographs were actual policemen, they were in attendance because the authorities feared that the re-enactment would cause a real-life demonstration.
One of the wittiest and most controversial pieces is by Japanese artist Makoto Aida, whose 3 to 4 minute film features him dressed as Osama Bin Laden hiding in Japan, and talking about everything from the Japanese prime minister to the wide selection of Japanese alcohol.
The unseen borderlines between democratic countries is the concept behind “A Chorus of Laughter” by the artists’ group Flying City. They created a model of Udo, an island on the southern coast of Korea near Jeju Island, out of Styrofoam and fishnets brought from Udo. “It was kind of our tribute to the women divers in Udo who revolted against the Japanese merchant domination of the seafood industry in 1932,” said Chun Yong-suk, a member of Flying City. The actual model, regardless of its political context, looks like a figment of a child’s imagination with Styrofoam dolphins, bright palm trees and people whose faces have been drawn with crayons. The past hardships of this small island can no longer be seen, so this model “represents the present Udo, which is turning into a rather vulgar tourist attraction,” said Mr. Chun.
The strong social statements in these pieces are designed to elicit a political response, but another satisfying way to view the exhibition is to experience it as an excercise in evaluating one’s own concept of the past and future. Viewed in this way, the vacant street in Swedish artist Jonas Dahlberg’s black and white video installation “One Way Street,” with its unending cement pavement surrounded by lit, empty boxes in various sizes, points to a more aesthetic and philosophical alternative. Mr. Dahlberg’s colorless deserted street sliding into an unidentified oblivion suggests the possible timelessness of our memories and the unknown future we can never apprehend.
by Cho Jae-eun