What you see, says this show, is all artistic `Relative Reality'
By Ellen Fox
Special to the Tribune
Published December 26, 2003
Some art shows baffle by accident, but "Relative Reality: Korean New Media Art Today" does it on purpose. Which is a relief, since at first glance, this exhibition of eight installations appears to be precisely the kind of "huh?"-inducing scene that comes to mind when people talk about-or mock, or shun-contemporary art.
Upon entering the cool, white-walled Walsh Gallery, you meet Joon Kim's "Daehanminguk," a larger-that-is-comfortable video projection of a shimmering male breast-maybe-tattooed with the South Korean flag and bursting with tiny explosions, like epidermal land-mines.
From behind you comes the unmistakable sound of a loogie being hawked up and then-is it?-the "thwwwt" of it being projected onto something. Or rather, onto some one: the defiant, grinning artist Jia Chang, who is spat upon, pelted with eggs and strong-armed in a video, somewhat demystified by its title, "Physical Requirements For An Artist: 2nd-Enjoy Yourself In Every Condition."
But if you're not sure what to make of these and the show's other sights, that's rather the point, says gallery owner Julie Walsh, who specializes in contemporary Asian art.
"All you have to do is look at the title of the show to know how it is you're supposed to react. That is, it's all relative," says Walsh. "Whether [the artists] are making you disgusted or mesmerized or angry or confused, they're definitely challenging what you think of the way you see things.
"You do want to intellectualize [the art] and put it into a neat box and categorize it and label it as X, but this show may not let you."
If these works thwart classification, Korean contemporary art similarly resists fitting into the box-especially a shiny-painted, black lacquered one-that Westerners typically consider "Asian," says Walsh.
"A lot of people still unfortunately think about ink paintings and dragons and pottery and porcelain and ceramics," says Walsh. "They don't realize that there is all this contemporary art that is very similar to in many ways what we would find here."
But it wasn't always this way. For most of the 20th Century, South Korea's roiling history-the occupation by the Japanese prior to World War II, the Korean War, dramatic industrialization and democratization, and a race towards technology-conspired to keep Korean art off the front lines, says project curator WonGi Sul, at a panel discussion at the School of the Art Institute.
"Modern art in Korea was always looking outside to foreign shores for influence and trends," says Sul. "Korean art felt that it was in the process of constantly catching up to the rest of the world."
"Media art offers a different opportunity," says Sul, largely because the South Korea of today-especially Seoul, which an August 2002 article in Wired magazine called "The Bandwith Capital of the World"-is so thoroughly saturated with digital and telecommunications technology.
Many of the works in "Relative Reality" touch on the increasingly wired and media-drenched nature of daily life, making use of the medium's fourth dimension, time.
Seemingly inspired by channel-surfing, and addressing what he calls "the disjointed way we experience the war," Changkyum Kim's video, "The Prayer For Those That Remain" intercuts slow-motion, black-and-hite footage of Seoul's crowded street scene with quick, flashy, color images from South Korean TV, like soap operas and 9/11 coverage. A prayer for the dead is chanted throughout the 10-and-a-half minute video.
In a surreal take on the tradition of the class picture, Sejin Kim's "Take A Picture" shows the members of a high school class kidding around in their pleated skirts and blazers before assuming a stiff-backed, unsmiling pose for the camera. The flashbulb pops, but the students remain standing there for an eerie, uncomfortable amount of time, staring at the camera (or us), before finally exhaling back into their teenage postures.
" By juxtaposing the time as a moment and as a continuity, I try to invite viewers to experience time differently," says Kim, in a translated statement.
Then there's Hyesung Park's filmic video "Ingres & His Friends," which weaves a loose narrative using famed images from paintings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Frida Kahlo and Rene Magritte.
" While I had always been fascinated by these great paintings, I did not have access to the original art works, but only reproductions in books," says Park, in a translated statement. "Through reconstructing each scene in the performance, I was able to rid each painting of the mythical aura and bring them closer to me, not as dead but very alive."
Like those in search of dragons or shiny boxes, those looking for patent commentary on South Korea might be disappointed by the universality of many of the works here, perhaps another effect of technology's compacting of the global village. Still, Joon Kim's "Daehanminguk"-the piece with the exploding South Korean flag tattoo-was inspired by the South Korean soccer team's rise to the quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup.
"Tattoos can reflect individual and collective reality or displaced desire," says Kim, in a translated statement. "At the time, among the cheering crowd, I felt an overwhelming sense of collective energy and pride, but at the same time, an ironical sense of underlying inferiority."