Visual artist Sungsil Ryu takes visitors on a wild ride at Atelier Hermès
Sungsil Ryu, a 29-year-old visual artist based in Seoul, creates a paradise of disasters in her video works. Featuring North Korean-inspired aesthetics along with imagery of rainbows and fire, they are reminiscent of Y2K. The narratives, however, go beyond just looking "hip."
She was selected as the recipient of the 19th Hermès Foundation Missulsang last year. Ryu is the youngest artist to ever win the prestigious art prize.
Her solo exhibition, “The Burning Love Song,” which tackles Korean society’s obsession with money and social status in a satirical and kitschy manner, kicked off last Thursday at Atelier Hermès in Gangnam District, southern Seoul.
The first impression upon entering the exhibition is that it resembles a memorial space for a company called Big King Dog Funeral.
Before digging into her artworks, it should be noted foremost that Ryu has her own universe of three recurring characters: Cherry Jang, Natasha and Lee Dae-wang.
Cherry Jang, an actual character Ryu plays herself, wears heavy makeup and has powdered her face completely white. She is an influencer; she uses platforms like YouTube and AfreecaTV to spread fake news, such as conspiracy theories about North Korea firing missiles at the South, and this has turned her into a nouveau riche.
Natasha is also played by Ryu and looks exactly like Cherry. The only difference is their accents — Natasha claims that she is a “foreigner” and speaks with an unknown dialect. Working as a tour guide, she scams people into traveling abroad.
Lee Dae-wang, the main protagonist of Ryu’s narrative, whose name translates to “Mr. Big King,” is described as an opportunistic capitalist who recklessly jumps at any chance to expand his businesses. After his travel company Big King Travel starts to struggle due to the pandemic, Dae-wang abruptly starts a dog funeral service business.
“Big King Travel goes into a crisis because of Covid-19, and so many people are dying because of the virus,” Ryu said during a press conference at the exhibition last Thursday. “He gets this business idea for funerals, and then he realizes that dogs in particular, are bound to have higher turnover ratios because they have a shorter life span than humans.”
A big crematorium is set in the middle of the exhibition, with a large screen on one side displaying a 10-minute video of the “funeral ceremony” for a deceased canine named Gongju, or “princess.” The entire process is an elaborate marketing ploy that takes advantage of clients’ vulnerable state.
Using words like “service,” “the finest” and “praying for what you desire,” the funeral business extravagantly mourns Gongju’s death by singing “True Love,” a song that Dae-wang says he wrote himself. Natasha then starts to pretend that she has been possessed by the dog’s spirit and acts like a communicator between the spirit and Gongju’s owner.
The entire funeral session is chaotic, as Dae-wang opens the cremation furnace and hastily burns Gongju’s body while showing the owner’s horrified face, and it also blasts Gongju’s body into space like a rocket to symbolize it going to “dog heaven,” as seen in another scene in which dogs lollop up to the sky via a rainbow road.
It becomes even more obvious that Dae-wang cares more about promoting and celebrating his accomplishments as an entrepreneur in a separate video of an electronic signboard. Alongside the order of the dog funeral procedures is an interview of Dae-wang, boasting how he came to start the business.
“I don’t expect visitors to understand the narrative [of Dae-wang, Cherry and Natasha] at first glance,” Ryu said. “I wanted to put emphasis on how seeing the exhibition can be likened to watching fire. Nowadays bulmeong, which means staring blankly at fire, has become popular, but I personally think that this applies to bystanders too. People tend to be passive spectators when they see someone else’s struggles. [Like the Korean saying,] people gather around a house that’s burning down like they’re sightseeing. I wanted to portray the many desires that correlate with fire — people who are amused by it, and people who try to make something out of it [like profit].”
For Ryu, however, this doesn’t mean that she aims to criticize the capitalist reality. “I’m not surrendering to it either — it’s really difficult to define [my intentions] all the time,” she said.
Ryu admitted that she did feel “skeptical” when she got the opportunity to exhibit her works in the building of a luxury fashion house; one that could be a byname for neoliberalism. Though her works may not take a direct jab at capitalism, Ryu maintained that she does not really enjoy that reality — which is why her last solo exhibition was held online.
“But then I thought, if this exhibition is going to be held in person, then it would be the right fit for a character who’s ostentatious because it would mean he’s using this space to show himself off,” Ryu said. “On the surface it may be about a funeral, but in the end, it’s all about Dae-wang and his own lavish success story that he so wants to flaunt to the world.”
“The Burning Love Story” continues until Oct. 2. Atelier Hermès is open every day except Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The exhibition is free to all.
BY SHIN MIN-HEE [email@example.com]