Pushing the boundaries of pop art
A number of human heads with the same face and the same smile stare in the same direction from the corner of a painting that hangs in a room of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Gwacheon, south of Seoul.
The satirical painting, by Chinese painter Yue Minjun, is just one of the works in the exhibition “Made in Popland,” which seems to ask whether all of the works shown therein can be categorized as pop art. The exhibit runs until Feb. 2 and features 150 works by 42 artists from Korea, China and Japan.
Yue’s painting, for example, does not look like pop art, the genre which is generally associated with Andy Warhol and other artists who used the images of pop stars or commercial ads in their works. It has the repetitious quality used by Warhol but none of the star power.
The exhibition’s curator, Ki Hey-kyoung, said that even some of the participating artists have asked the same question about their works.
“But in a broader sense, pop art can simply be a recontextualization of the overflowing images of mass media, mass culture and mass consumption society,” she said. “All the artwork displayed at an exhibition are related to those images and speak about the political, economic and cultural reality in a society.”
She said she finally got the participating artists to see her point of view.
The paintings by the young Korean artist Son Dong-hyun leave no questions about their pop art heritage. They depict famous characters from pop culture such as Darth Vader from the Star Wars saga and Wolverine from the X-Men series - but they are created in the traditional Korean painting style, as if they were serious official portraits of Joseon kings and officials.
Son’s work, like the other paintings and works in the first section, “The Heroes of the General Public,” reflect the world in which we live, where people no longer find their heros in real life, but in fictional characters found in the media, books, comics and movies.
The second section, entitled “Society of the Spectacle,” is about mass consumption. It includes Takashi Murakami’s well-known Louis Vuitton pattern paintings.
The third section, “The Return of the Repressed,” gets its title from Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud. The museum said in a press release, “Since the late 1980s .?.?. leisure and entertainment developed rapidly. Moreover, the combination of leisure time and fantasy has brought about a return of the things that people had repressed.”
The section includes a room filled with the works of Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara, whose paintings of cute but mischievous-looking children have become very popular in Korea and frequently appear on diaries and other stationary items.
The room also contains a cottage that looks like it could have come straight from a fairy tale. Within the cottage is a reproduction of the artist’s studio.
This section also contains a corner filled with works that stand in striking contrast to those created by Nara. The main difference is that, here, no children are allowed.
In the corner, Japanese artist Makoto Aida displays paintings of extremely sadistic sexual fantasies about young girls, inspired by hentai (pornographic manga, or Japanese comics). This raises the question of whether the artist’s work is supposed to criticize or pay homage to hentai.
The darkest section is the fourth, entitled “Regarding the Pain of Others,” which was inspired by the last book of the same name written by American author Susan Sontag. In the book, the author writes that we can easily see crimes and wars happening in faraway regions through the media, but we cannot feel the true pain that they actually experience.
This final section features works by Korean artist Hong Kyeong-taek, including one showing him gagged and bound with the words “Who is the master? Who is the slave?” running along the top and bottom of the image.
There is also a video by Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, who is famous for dressing himself as Adolf Hitler, Marilyn Monroe and other infamous and famous characters in history. And a series of photos by Odani Motohiko shows war scenes, skeletons and piles of bodies that look like scenes from war video games.
*The show continues until Feb. 2 at MOCA in Galleries 1 and 2 and the Central Hall. Admission is 5,000 won ($4.30).
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays to Fridays and until 8 p.m. on weekends. It is closed on Mondays. The museum offers tours in English at 2 p.m. on the weekends.
Go to Seoul Grand Park Station, line No. 4, and take the free shuttle bus, which runs every 20 minutes, or walk about 15 to 20 minutes to the museum. For more information, visit www.moca.go.kr or http://popland.moca.go.kr.
By Moon So-young [firstname.lastname@example.org]