Celebrities-turned-artists prove creativity is contagious
One of the iconic scenes from Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” is when Ki-jung smooth-talks Yeon-gyo into employing her as an art therapist for her youngest son Da-song by "analyzing" one of his paintings.
That painting isn’t just a random picture drawn by a kid. It’s actually the work of the artist Jung Jae-hoon, who was better known as his rapper alias Hooni Hoon, but since the success of “Parasite” is now more famous as artist Zibezi.
Jung debuted as a rapper in dance group “Unity” in 1998 but failed to catch a big break. He decided to take a break from music around 2015 and it was during this time that he began drawing. It didn't take long for Jung to catch a break as an artist. Just a few years after he took up the hobby, one of his acquaintances, who was on the Parasite team, recommended him to director Bong.
Now, the rapper-turned-artist has hosted several exhibitions of his collections across the United States and Korea and has seen the prices of his paintings soar to about 15 million won ($13,200) per piece.
But Jung's transition from rapper to artist is nothing new in the world of celebrity in Korea. Just a week ago entertainment agency Mountain Movement announced that they have formed an exclusive contract with actor Kim Ki-woong to support him as an artist. Actor Kim Gyu-ri is participating in two exhibitions, one titled “S.T.A.R.T” which is being held until May 23 at the Osan Museum of Art in Gyeonggi and the other titled “Shin, Text,” being held in Il Baekheon, an art center in Jongno district, until April 4. Actor Ha Jung-woo is holding his solo exhibition “At Home” in Pyo Gallery in Jongno district until May 1, and actor Koo Hye-sun recently wrapped up her solo exhibition “Koo Hye Sun’s New Age under Seo Taiji’s Lyrics” (translated) on March 20.
However, what separates Jung from other celebrities-turned artists is that he found more fame through his artwork than his music, instead of the other way around. According to multiple interviews with the local press, Jung says he was interested in drawing as well as rapping since high school and enjoyed graffitiing. When his music career didn’t take off, he turned to art as a way to relieve his stress.
Others who found solace in art include singer Solbi, now better known as artist Kwon Ji-an. Kwon said that she first began to draw in 2010 as a way to deal with depression caused by vicious rumors and fake scandals she had to deal with as a celebrity.
“I wasn’t really sure about who I was before I started painting,” Kwon said in an interview with the Ilgan Sports an affiliate of the Korean JoongAng Daily in 2019 ahead of her fourth solo exhibition “Real Reality.” “I didn’t know what I was good at or what I wanted to talk about. But I found out while I was painting that I was a more serious person than I had thought. I got to talk about my true self and become more honest about myself. I think the biggest part of me that changed through everything is that I’ve been able to show who I truly am.”
She added that this was the reason why she uses her real name instead of her stage name, which she’s famous for, because she wanted to show her true self through her art. Kwon is considered to be one of those cases who’s successfully transitioned her career as an artist.
Ha earned fame for his versatility as an actor, filmmaker and artist. The actor debuted as an artist in 2010 through his first solo exhibition “Horizon of Passion” and is widely known to dedicate himself to his art when he’s not filming a movie.
During an interview with the press for his 2019 film “Ashfall,” which also stars Lee Byung-hun, Ha expressed his desire to go back to painting which he had put on hold for several months due to his busy filming schedule.
“But I’ve figured out how to balance everything on my plate,” Ha said. “I can’t devote too much time to one aspect of my life [...] I’ve learned to divide my time use it accordingly.”
The actor has even begun to incorporate his artistic talent into his films. In horror film “The Closet” (2020), in which he starred and also took on the role of producer, drawings which appeared to be done by a child in the film were actually Ha's works.
For actor Kim Gyu-ri, inspiration to start painting struck after she took on the lead role of painter Shin Yoon-bok from the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) in the historical fiction film “The Portrait of a Beauty” (2009). Kim became interested in traditional eastern art and began by drawing sagunja (paintings of the Four Gracious Plants in Asia, including plum blossoms, orchids, chrysanthemums and bamboo) and painting silgyeong sansuhwa, which are landscape paintings that were popular in the Joseon Dynasty.
One of the first singer-turned-artists Cho Young-nam said his desire to draw initially came as a way “to kill time,” according his book titled “Goddam Modern Art.”
“I wondered what is the most entertaining thing to do when I’m by myself,” he wrote. “Some people go to game rooms to play games, I play a game [called] art.”
Cho was at the center of one of the most controversial discussions of the 21st-century Korean art world after he was indicted for alleged fraud in 2016 and accused of playing only a small part in the creation of his artworks. It was claimed his assistants would do the majority of the work and Cho would merely sign his name. He was found not guilty by the Supreme Court in June 2020. His case ignited heated, but meaningful debates in the art world on the meaning of ownership.
By then Cho had sold 21 paintings to 17 people and was reported to have made 153 million from September 2011 to January 2015.
As seen in Cho's case, artwork by celebrities often sell for high prices. For instance, Kwon recently made headlines for selling her artwork “Just a Cake-Angel” at Seoul Auction for 10.1 million won, all of which she donated to an orphanage. In 2016, Ha’s painting was sold for 14 million won at I Auction, while all 16 paintings exhibited at his exhibition in New York in 2013 were bought. The most expensive went for 18 million won.
While artists such as Kwon and Ha have remained dedicated to their art for more than a decade, concerns remain among those in the local art scene about whether or not celebrities' artworks are being truly recognized for their value, or for the celebrity-turned-artist behind them.
An artist who wished to remain anonymous commented that art created by celebrities obviously garners more attention.
“Of course they do,” she said. “When I first entered [my artwork into an] auction, the highest bid was 4 million, but I was told that was a relatively high price [for a rookie]. As far as I know, for artists up to their mid-30s, the [average] price of their work is around 4 million [...] It isn’t very nice, [to see how overpriced celebrities' pieces are] but that is, I guess, how the market works, and a natural consequence in the field of commerce.”
“I don’t believe that the artist’s position as a celebrity is a crucial element [in art auctions],” a specialist from Seoul Auction who wished to remain anonymous said. “There’s no connection between their career as a celebrity and as an artist — they remain separate. However, public recognition does affect the price level and that is up for consumers to decide.”
Art critic Lim Geun-jun, on the other hand, views that the economic price of art should remain separate from its true value.
“Who says that celebrities’ artwork is being valued highly?” he said. “There may be some auctions conducted as an event or it could have been staged, or someone who really likes the particular celebrity could purchase the work as a fan but that does not directly lead to the market value. The money that’s exchanged on the art market is irrelevant from how the art should be evaluated.”
BY LEE JAE-LIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]