Two iconic artists find common ground in turbulence of history
The solo shows of two of the world’s most influential contemporary artists are now taking place in Korea. One is the retrospective of French artist Christian Boltanski (1944-2021), who passed away last July during the preparations for this exhibition at the Busan Museum of Art in the southern port city. The other is an exhibition of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, 64, at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in central Seoul.
The two artists have something in common. Both have found inspiration in turbulent sociopolitical history and have been interested in reconstructing history, which is not fixed but is variable depending on liquid collective memory, through their works.
As for their biggest difference, Boltanski approached the universal problem of death in meditative ways, after starting with the hereditary trauma from the Holocaust which he had to experience as a child born into a family of Jewish heritage though he was born in Paris after the city’s liberation from Nazi occupation. On the other hand, Ai focuses on the importance of taking action against the ongoing sociopolitical issues such as censorship in China and refugees in Europe.
The two artists’ common and different points are well visible in the works they created with heaps of clothes.
Boltanski’s “Reserve: Canada”(1988), now on view at the Busan Museum of Art, consists of numerous pieces of colorful clothing hanging on a wall. It was inspired by storage with a similar name that the Nazis used to keep the personal belongings of detained Jews at concentration camps. According to the museum, Boltanski said, “What [photographs and clothing] have in common is that they are simultaneously present and absent. They are both an object and a souvenir of a subject.”
Another work by Boltanski, “Slag Heap”(2015), which is a heap of black clothes that forms a hill, is a metaphor for the universality of death. The artist’s oeuvre (collective works) was based on the big question of “How to avoid oblivion to which death condemns us?,” Annalisa Rimmaudo, curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris wrote.
In the MMCA Seoul is Ai’s “Laundromat”(2016). It consists of hundreds of pieces of clothes and shoes collected at the Idomeni refugee camp in northern Greece, which borders the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. After the Greek government emptied the Idomeni camp and began evicting the refugees in 2016, the artist collected clothing items left behind, which include items from babies, men and women. He washed, ironed and arranged them for exhibitions, “in order to discomfortingly evoke the existence of people that are now absent,” said MMCA curator Yi Soo-jung.
The two exhibitions give good glimpses of the oeuvres of the important artists related with turbulent modern and contemporary history. Here are more details of each show.
Christian Boltanski: 4.4 at Busan Museum of Art
The third exhibition of the series “Lee Ufan and His Friends,” is also Boltanski’s first posthumous exhibition. “4.4” in the title refers to 1944, the year he was born.
“The artist once said that it is interesting that the number four symbolizes death in Korea since its pronunciation ‘sa’ is identical to that of a Chinese character meaning death,” Yang Eun-jin, curator of the museum, said. “During the preparation of the exhibition, the artist, aware of his coming death, deliberately chose this title, because he thought that this moment to him was like ‘the last stage of life,’ if life is divided into four stages. He took care of everything from selecting the works [...] and designing the exhibition space.”
In the exhibition are 43 pieces ranging from Boltanski’s earliest to his most recent works. Visitors are greeted by the Korean typography of “Departure” and “Arrival” and the French “Après (After)” designed by the artist himself.
Many of the works are installations in his signature style, which are altar-like constructions of old photographs of Jewish people that were blurred and manipulated so that they look like ghosts. They are not actual victims of the Holocaust but are people who once existed and disappeared over the passage of time, which leads viewers to deep contemplation about death and oblivion.
The exhibition runs through March 27. Admission is free. For details, visit https://art.busan.go.kr/
Ai Weiwei: Defend the Future at the MMCA Seoul
This exhibition showcases more than 120 works by Ai, which are in various media that encompass paintings, photographs, films, architectural installations, ceramics and publications. Most works were created under the themes of freedom of expression and the lives of refugees.
Among the exhibits is the famous “Study of Perspective,” a series of photos that show the artist flipping the middle finger against various places around the world, many of which are iconic landmarks of their respective countries and are symbols of political or religious power. In the series, “Study of Perspective: Tiananmen Square” became the talk of town a few months ago, as the new M+ Museum in Hong Kong reportedly decided not to display the physical artwork and also removed the image from its digital hub.
Asked about seemingly intensifying censorship in culture and the arts by the Chinese government, Ai said in an e-mail interview, “Within the framework of the Hong Kong National Security Law, it’s impossible for the museum to express itself independently [...] To what extent is the museum being censored? And how will it change in the future? It’s hard for us to know because China doesn’t approve of the universal value of freedom of speech.”
Ai added, “Freedom of speech is usually understood, in a narrow sense, as the extent to which an individual can truly express oneself in a certain political environment or system. What’s more important is that freedom of speech itself is an attribute of life. If we lose our freedom of speech and freedom of expression, this important attribute of life that belongs to all humans will be lost.”
That’s why the artist is also focusing on refugees, who have less chances to speak to other people about their living conditions mainly because of their lack of power and resources rather than because of political oppression. Among Ai’s works about refugees is “Porcelain Pillar with Refugee Motif”(2017). It is a pillar that consists of blue and white ceramics vases from Jingdezhen, a place famous for porcelain production in China. The beautiful blue patterns in traditional style depict the miserable conditions of contemporary refugees.
The exhibition runs through April 17. Admission is 4,000 won ($3.30). For more information, visit www.mmca.go.kr
BY MOON SO-YOUNG [email@example.com]