Artists born after the late 70s have benefited greatly from a rich cultural environment and a plethora of educational opportunities. Ironically, such privilege perhaps made them more vulnerable to a reality where good social support for artists is lacking.
This is where a major institution needs to come in–to give the artists proper recognition and thus a motivation to stay on. In Korea, MMCA has organized the Young Korean Artists series since 1981, and Leeum joined this venture in 2001 by kicking off ARTSPECTRUM that presents its 6th edition this year. The museum dedicates its space to 10 artists who showcase their work over a range of familiar medium (excluding sculpture).
Leeum’s curatorial team observes that this year’s artists tend to focus more on the external world rather than their internal concerns. What stood out for me is that most of them placed the spotlight specifically on Korea, and the topics were evenly distributed from the far past to modern day society.
On the first floor, Jane Jin Kaisen has put up 8 videos telling different stories about the Jeju April Third Uprising and Massacre. The videos have been arranged in such a way that the viewer cannot include all of them in their field of vision. The artist stimulates the viewer to weave a thread to connect those narratives themselves instead of presenting a textbook version of history.
In a black box next to Kaisen’s videos, an overwhelmingly wide HD projection by Kelvin Kyung Kun Park uses the military service as his subject matter to explore the relationship between individuality and mass.
Knowledge of Kaisen and Park’s personal backgrounds help contextualize their works (although they should by no means define them). Born in 1980 and 1978 respectively, they both have had a rather unique global upbringing – Kaisen was a Jeju-born Danish adoptee, and Park lived with his diplomat father in Kuwait, India, Hong Kong and was educated in the US – an attestation to globalization of the Korean diaspora throughout history. While both share a half-outsider view, they display dissimilar criticisms to the post-Cold war Korea. Park maintains an objective distance from the subject much like an observer whereas Kaisen was more invested and engaged. One of her videos, Tides, shows her poetic reflections on her return to Jeju, her birthplace, like it was the culmination of a tidal cycle.
The social context continues in the next gallery. Taking an escalator down, a giant inverted pyramid slowly unveils itself. Graphic designer and information visualization researcher duo Optical Race covered the pyramid with 144 colorful dots, each of which bears combinations of the projected amount of disposable funds upon a young couple’s marriage. The figures are derived from their combined income and the economic circumstances of their parents. Here, the couple is referred to as the echo boom generation (born between 1979 and 1992, coincidentally matching the artists on exhibit) and the parents are the baby boomers (born between 1955 and 1963). The duo chose marriage because it is a powerful social institution under which the economic status of a person is passed down to the next generation.
Placing marriage within a socioeconomic strata would make most people uncomfortable. Actually, the baby boomers have internalized such materialism because they went through extreme poverty in the wake of the Korean War. That is why 1970s strongman Park Chung-hee’s intensive industrialization was a spot-on response to their longing for ‘a better life.’
An dong Il in the next room captures the nation’s hope represented in postage stamps from the era. The stamps celebrate highways, cargo ships, and steel and chemical plants that altogether brought about the well-known ‘Miracle on the Han River.’ (Some of these industries have recently become a serious economic burden to the country.)
The relentless drive for development is still dense in the air in Korea. Jungki Beak’s Akhaedokdan is a pointed reminder of what has been seriously missing from the old materialistic ideology. The unlikely model for Akhaedokdan is a barbecue grill in the Yongsan American military base–the grill is currently standing on a site that was originally used as a rain altar during the Joseon dynasty. Beak filled in the gaps between the bricks with Vaseline, a recurring material throughout his works, as a gesture of comfort and to remind Koreans of their age-old reverence for nature.
Choi hae-ri also explores pre-modern period with aesthetics that are very different from Beak’s. There have been many attempts to re-interpret Korean traditional paintings into contemporary art. Yet they tend to not go beyond an obvious juxtaposition of elements from the past and the present, which still posits the delineation of time. Choi, however, seems utterly unrestrained. The gallery designated for her, decorated with a crystal chandelier and candy color curtains, evokes the image of a French madame’s Rococo salon. Inside the cabinet, the artist put together a few hanging scrolls–some of which are actual paintings from the Joseon era (from Leeum’s collection) and others are copies by Choi, flirting with the idea of linear time. Right beside sits a composition of organic-shaped objects reminiscent of Yves Tanguy’s paintings, adding a touch of European surrealism. Her eclectic time-traveling breathes a young, fairytale-like and contemporary air to Korean traditions.
ARTSPECTRUM2016 was a great opportunity to look at the promising artists who are coming of age. In terms of selection, it is fairly-balanced with regard to gender diversity (6 women out of 13) and also reflects a global trend that more than 5 out of 13 of the artists have been educated outside Korea.
Okin Collective, who is also part of the show, self-deprecatingly calls visual artists ‘Art Spectral’ because the Korean society has failed art in its economic-driven pursuit. Nevertheless, the artists featured exhibit wonderful originality that reminds us to push for stronger support for artists–not just emerging artists but artists of all age groups.