To have or to be: contemporary Korean art, Farmleigh Gallery, Dublin, July – August 2008

Hong Soo-yeun: Grey #5 , 2005, mixed media on canvas, 200 x 140 cm; courtesy Farmleigh Gallery

Korean art is still to a great extent confined to its nation’s borders, yet there have been some sucessful inroads in the last decade. Korean art first came to attention through the exodus of Korean artists from Japanesse occupation in the early half of the twentieth century. Many settled in Europe and America and their work was heavily influenced by Western modern masters. Even today, the influence of western modernism mingles with eastern culture, and many notable Korean artists still reside outside their home or have only recently returned to Korea.

Yet this is changing. Korean-American artists have had great success flying the flag of the possibilities of Korean art, and many contemporary artists who were born in the 1960s and 1970s have enjoyed a greater freedom to travel and experience other cultures in a post-military-dictorship Korea. In turn, the gallery system and government are realising the potential of culture, specifically art in this case, to raise Korean prominence and capital. 

To have or to be , the first exibition of contemporary Korean art in Ireland, is held in conjunction with the Office of Public Works and the Embassy of the Republic of Korea. The curator, Choi Eun-ju, is director of the state-sponsored National Museum of Art in Deoksugung. The event is supported by the Korea Foundation and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. On arrival at the exhibition you are given a brochure by the Korean Tourism Organisation, and this, added to the sponsors and credentials of the exibition, undercuts the show with a strong marketing bias.

The title of the exhibition does not escape these conspicuous undertones. ‘To have or to be’ is taken from the German philosopher and pyschoanalyst Eric Fromm’s 1976 thesis of the same name. The theory denotes that there are two modes of being: Having, as in consumerism, desire, and capitalism, and Being, as in spirituality, meditation, and contemplation. This compartmentalised theory works perfectly as a hinge on which Choi can exhibit contemporary Korean Art without addressing the problematic issue of squeezing a whole nation’s contemporary art into a gallery space.

This reduction, in itself, is not perhaps a side-issue. Many curators use unifying themes and theories to pull together disparate elements; indeed, many exibitions would not be possible without a cohesive corner stone and Fromm’s theory does this. The issue, in my mind, is cultural relevance to Korean society. Fromm’s work is based on American and European sociology, Fromm never studied nor visited Asia, and while there is a universal concept embedded in his theory, I wonder if perhaps there are intricacies of Korean culture that it does not answer. While Korean art is definitely influenced by Western art, as many Western artists have been influenced by Asian art, it nonetheless possesses its own intricacies.

Choi admits he is not sure if either of these modes of being exist in a pure form in today’s society, yet he has physically designed the exhibition to reflect the two realms of Having and Being. Artists are divided down the line between these two camps and on arrival you are met with what appears to be two signs, one pointing towards To Have , the other towards To Be . However, paradoxically, the two rooms are not divided in this fashion and actually contain works classified as both Having and Being, which adds a confusing twist to the exhibition layout.

Nevertheless, ignoring that oversight, the artists are classed as follows: To Have: Jung Yeon-doo, Park Ji-hoon, Shin Ki-woun, Yee Sookyung, and Yim Tae-kyu; To Be: Hong Soo-yeun, Hwang Haesun, Kim Taek-sang, Kim You-sun, and Suk Chul-joo. Regardless, the inkling that the exhibited pieces were selected for their suitability to the Western palate trickles through constantly, and where Korean or Asian influences are evident they appear as one-dimensional façades for a Western audience. Yet all exhibitions are created and coerced by internal politics and overarching objectives and aims, and therefore this unease does not automatically prove ulterior motives; however,  it does prompt the question of how such factors may impact on the quality of the work being shown in Farmleigh.

Kim Taek-sang: Hue of the wind , 2007, water, acrylic, matt varnish on canvas, 70 x 70 x 7 pieces; courtesy Farmleigh Gallery

Beginning with the Being selection, those that Choi deems contemplative and cut off from the affairs of the world, there are three painters. Painting in an Asian context incorporates a very different tradition to the Western canon, and Korean painting in paticualar was heavily influenced by the techniques employed in ceramics. Yet Hong’ Hoopta series, which supposedly explores movement and time, is in my eyes somewhat static. While the overlapping delicate cloud-like shapes create some sense of movement, the style, at least from a Western viewpoint, seems passé. The work does seem to create a subtle transience through layers of glazes, a technique imported from Korean pottery; however, nowhere in the accompying text is this commented on. Kim Taek-sang’s Hue of the wind is meant to explore the process of time on a canvas but what I am greeted with is a gradually shaded monochromatic piece. In both works, I am left with the sinking feeling that perhaps this work was chosen for its resemblence to work hung in European galleries and not its position in contemporary Korean culture.

Suk’s Life journal: new scenery in a dream is a re-interpretation of the quintessential piece by Ahn Gyeon, Mongyudowondo [ Dream of strolling in a peach garden ]. This mid-Joseon masterpiece depicts Prince Anpyeong’s dream of paradise and Suk tries to reflect this utopia in her sublime depiction of a mountainous landscape. Whilst retaining a traditional subject and style, it departs from the traditional superiority of black in Korean painting, as the landscape runs from red to pink. The canvas works as a contemplative vehicle for the viewer in the vein of much traditonal Asian art, but perhaps overly so.

Kim Yon-sun’s Forest in the summer of 1800 Gogh series combined both aspects of Korean artistic heritage and Western influence. The piece is constructed of broken fragments of mother of pearl layed in circular, horizontal, and vertical patterns on canvas. Again the use of the mother of pearl is directly related to Korean ceramics, as she takes the fragmented and creates the whole, inverting the traditonal process. However, as the title demonstrates, the inspiration is decidedly influenced by the Western modernism.

The last piece classed as to be is Hwang’s Being there , which is a projected image of a small white enamel teapot and matching cup and saucer; the tea constantly pours  yet the cup never overflows. The piece emphasises the concept of an eternity in a moment and how the banal can inspire meditation. However, on the whole it seems lacking.

Transitioning from being to having , these artists engage with capitalism, popular culture, and consumerism. Jung, the only photographer in the exhibition, studied at a postgraduate level in both Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Goldsmiths in London. His works delve into the realm of fantasy and reality as they create an unnerving inability to discern the real from the created. His Location series is actually completely constructed and the ordinary is contrasted with the extraordinary in a setting that is possible yet surreal. Jung’s works could be taken on a broader level to represent the apparently real, yet constructed, a common theme in contemporary Korean society.

The juxtaposition of reality and fiction is again explored in Yim’s Women and women series and Yim Taekyu: fly away home #12 . The exhibition catalogue describes her works as “utopia like scenes” that “express diversity and the pleasures of life,” yet the manga-inspired images if anything depict an unnerving distopia through the contrast of child-like animation and violence. The Women and women series displays two doll-like female figures viciously fighting, surrounded by a vividly colourful battlefield where smaller figures lie dead or with weapons. It seems to express the ingrained, highly competitive cultures and restraints placed on Korean women as it explores the undercurrent of these tensions; but it is in no way utopian.

One of the most interesting works is a video installation, One day one deal, by Park. The work is composed from various newspapers, all published on the same day. Through the temporal period of a day he questions the authenticity of the media as purveyors of truth in time and reality. Taking two stories from the press that day, Park painstakingly animates them by cutting out the figures, sequence by sequence, from newsprint and, using inverted flip-book principles, animating what is left on the news-sheet. So, on screen the newspaper background is constantly changing while the story is animated by the sequences of white blank cut-outs. Then anchoring each side of the monitors is the newsprint Park worked with collected in a glass display case.

Shin Ki-woun: Coin face , video still, HD video installation with music; courtesy Farmleigh Gallery

Destruction is key to all Shin’s work on display; however, its inversion is of paticular interest in Coin face and Coin living thing . The video may have originally recorded a grinder destroying a coin, but in reverse to this process, the video is played backwards, and instead a coin is seemingly created from the grinder. Much of Shin’s work deals with the destruction of fetish objects, but how is this altered by the new seemingly impossible creation. The video is set to Western classical music, and the music comes to a crescendo as the final coin is ‘undestroyed’.

Translated vases and Breeding drawing are obvious answers to the overarching legacy of Korean ceramics. Yee has taken fragments of work by great Korean potters and re-interpreted or ‘translated’ them into a whole new object in Translated vases . While acknowleging the ceramic tradition, she also makes a clear statement about stepping out of the shadow of the past and shattering preconceptions. While pottery was and is a huge part of Korean cultural legacy, the blank vases in Breeding drawing demonstrate the untapped voids of possibility which contemporary Korean artists possess.

It is undeniable that both modern and contemporary Western art have had a huge influences on today’s Korean artists, and with the advent of global travel and the epidemic of globalisation a stronger sense of universality has emerged in contemporary art. Questions of materialism and spirituality, and their balance in modern life, are now played out on a world stage, yet in the case of To have or to be the blatant marketing of Korea through its art have had an adverse effect on the exhibition and the works chosen. The individual artists have been let down by an exhibition system that overtly sells them as two-dimensional advertisements of the new Korea and in this dynamic the work cannot deliver.

Gemma Carroll is studying for her masters in modern and contemporary art at UCC.