Curator's Thoughts

Orwell & Paik

When looking at films or reading fictional works produced in the last century, it would be quite natural to feel that a large majority of them would feel dated and have little to do with our current period. However, one would also discover that whilst there would be quite a few works portraying the past or contemporary period that have aged well and have relevance to us, it is the works portraying visions of the future that feels the most dated. Some of the human elements would still feel relevant, but the background, social and political portrayal, costumes would all feel out of date, especially if the future date portrayed in the work becomes the present, and then the past.

George Orwell’s ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ portrays a dystopian future, a world in a constant state of war between three superpowers, governed by totalitarian regime ruthlessly controlling the mass by constant surveillance through massive two-way television screens and spies. For George Orwell, the world portrayed in his work was a commentary as well as a natural extrapolation of his times, resulting in a bleak, dark vision where humanity is slowly erased in the name of Total Control.

The year 1984 came and Orwell’s future did not come to pass. In the first day of the year, Nam June Paik(1932-2006)’s  ‘Good Morning Mr. Orwell’  was viewed by approximately 25 million people around the world. This work was recognized as the first live satellite installation work, and linked New York, Paris, as well as with broadcasters in Germany and South Korea. According to Paik himself this work was a rebuttal against Orwell’s dark vision, being a work of hope and joy of communication and collaboration in a global scale. In contrast to the Orwellian world which was filled with people who are becoming homogenized but ironically becoming more and more isolated and separated from each other, Paik’s work was filled with highly individualistic people joyfully working together to create something far larger than  sum of its parts. Also, whilst in the Orwellian world the tools of mass visual communication were used for control and cultural homogenization/simplification, Paik showed that they could be used for cultural diversification and multiplication.

When ‘Good Morning Mr. Orwell’ was shown on Korean National TV in 1984, large number of viewers, tuned in to watch it. However, with the public and artists alike used to the hermetic art world dominated by academics and underground artists with social agenda in mind, Paik’s work mostly caused confusion and irritation as his aesthetics and form were developed and honed in Europe and USA and hence were unfamiliar, and in some cases offensive to the Korean public. In truth, if this satellite installation work was to be seen as a success in Korea, the only reason for this would be because it was broadcast on National TV. The Korean public, and the art world, were not ready for the Paik. Thus his impact on Korean art and art scene could be said to have been limited at this stage. The same could not be said of their next encounter.

Prior to 1989, a combination of strong censorship, heavily controlled foreign travel and relative geographical isolation meant that socially and culturally Korea was quite isolated. When the relative freedom of foreign travel was allowed and censorship relaxed, the Korean art scene was forced to face the world unprepared. It was in this context that Nam June Paik brought the Whitney Biennale to Seoul in 1993. When asked why he wanted to bring such a large scale show to Korea whilst investing a large amount of his own personal money, he said that he wanted the Korean public, who were on the way to becoming part of the global society after a long period of isolation, to see and experience avant-garde contemporary art. He also shocked the public by saying that ‘Art is Fake’. This event, now recognized as one of the pivotal event in the development of the Korean contemporary art scene, gave the public as well as budding/established artists a chance to experience avant-garde contemporary art first-hand, forcing them to re-think and re-consider the nature of Art.

Paik was also instrumental in the establishment of the Korean Pavilion in the Venice Biennale in 1995, as well as one of the leading voices which helped the founding of Gwangju Biennale in the same year. Although there were other important factors and players who contributed to the rapid growth of the Korean contemporary art scene during these years, it is also true that Paik played a major part. Although better known as a founder and practitioner of video installation art, he was known as a collaborative artist when the notion of collaboration was unfamiliar. He was also the first truly international Korean artist, bridging East and West, visual art and music, high and low art.

The title of the contemporary visual art exhibition ‘Good Morning, Mr. Nam June PAIK’  is an obvious take on the Paik’s work. The exhibition does not follow any of the format or content or directions of ‘Good Morning Mr. Orwell’. Nor is it intended to be a Paik’s posthumous retrospective exhibition, although his works form part of exhibition, some being shown in the UK for the first time. It is to take on the spirit of the Paik’s work, and apply it to the current times.

‘Good morning Mr. Nam June PAIK’ presents works by 25 Korean contemporary artists, including Nam June PAIK himself whose three major video pieces will be shown in the U.K. for the first time. Focusing on Paik’s free and open attitude towards collaboration, these pieces feature his friends who were major artistic influences during his lifetime, i.e. Charlotte Moorman, John Cage, and Joseph Beuys. ‘Global Grove’(1973) is a video work featuring cellist Charlotte Moorman, one of his major collaborators, whilst ‘A Tribute to John Cage’(1972) was a collaborative work with John Cage. Paik considered John Cage as his teacher/mentor, and this piece was produced to celebrate Cage’s 70th birthday.  ‘Beuys and Shaman’(1999) is a collaborative work with Joseph Beuys, who was one of the strongest supporter of Paik during the early stages of his career.
Along with Paik, this exhibition showcases works by 24 established and emerging Korean artists, exploring the aspect of 'communication', which was one of the major themes of Paik's works through his life. In various stages of their career and life, and working with diverse medium and tradition, their works form part of the exhibition which attempts to transcend tradition, boundaries and genre.

East or West?

Bien-U BAE(b.1950)’s photographic works seems to portray the simple essence of nature in a manner often portrayed in traditional Eastern landscape painting. Art genre in Korea was originally divided into Eastern-Painting and Western-Painting with a later formation of Korean-Painting genre. Originally Western-Paintings were oil paintings on canvas whilst Eastern-Paintings were black ink on paper, each with their own aesthetics and traditions. Bae’s ‘Pine Trees’(2007) transcends this genre, seemingly capturing the core essence of the subject matter in the tradition of Eastern-Painting but with modern Western medium. Daesoo KIM (b. 1955)’s ‘Bamboo Fields’(2007) are also similar in nature, this time adapting the ‘Four Noble Plant’ paintings of the Eastern-painting genre.

Duck Hyun CHO (b.1957) was originally trained as a classical Western-painting artist, but developed his own brand of ‘painting’ genre. His deceptively realistic black and white works show compression of time and space, of different forms and shapes. His ‘Soft Power’(2007) is a drawing resulting from overlap/hybridization of his own mother and the Queen of U.K., the two women who, to him, best represent the nature of Soft Power.  

Waljong LEE (b. 1945) is another artist who also transcended the genre-boundaries described above. Originally trained in the Eastern-painting tradition, he moved from black & white tradition to a more colourful abstract paintings, filled with figures and symbols that represent Jeju island, where he now lives and works. His ‘Jeju Median Way’(2007) is another departure for him, creating relief-sculpture out of traditional Korean paper painted with bright colours, a step which seems to both enhance and transcend the Easterm-painting genre and creating something that is original.     

Soonam SONG (b.1938)’s works seem to follow the tradition of Eastern-painting, holding closely the traditional subject matter of that genre. However, with the use of intense colours on traditional white paper, the work seems to portray the aesthetics of classical Eastern subject matter whilst endowing with universal values.

Bohnchang KOO(b. 1953)’s ‘Vessel’(2005), in a first glance, is a simple photograph of a white porcelain jar. The object, however, is Moon Jar which was made in early 18th-century Korea and was  brought back to UK from Korea by Bernard Leach who is often recognized as a the father of British studio pottery. It has been a great influence on modern artists in both East and West, and when acquired by British Museum it became one of Museum’s iconic objects. Thus we see a work that is simple yet stunning, crossing and compressing the understanding of what is to be Eastern or Western.

Young Sung HWANG (b.1941) is widely credited to be the founder of the Korean-painting genre, and is known in Korea for his colourful, family-themed paintings. Recently, his works have become more abstract, filled with symbols, and now he has made another jump across the genres to produce oil paintings. His series of paintings entitled Family Story (2007) are examples of such paintings, being a portrayal of classical Korean values and aesthetics in a classical Western medium. 

Jonghak KIM (b.1937) is a Western-Painting genre artist, but his subject matter and approach to his works are Eastern. The subject for his paintings for the last thirty years was Sorak, arguably the most beautiful mountain in South Korea. His works fluctuates from realistic to abstract, and can be said to b attempts to capture the Universal. One can also say that he paints Western-Paintings with Eastern sensibility and philosophy.  

Division

End of WWII brought joy and sorrow to the Korean people – joy due to liberation from the oppressive Japanese occupation, and sorrow due to enforced division of once closely-knit single country into two by foreign Superpowers. The Korean War (1950-1953) deeply scarred the country, throwing distrust, shame, fear and desire of retribution into the mixture. Re-unification of the two Koreas, which is wanted by both, is still seemingly far-off in the future. The two Koreas are separated by the DMZ (De-Militarized Zone), a 4 km wide strip of land under constant armed surveillance from both sides. It is the most heavily armed border in the world.

Atta KIM(b. 1956)’s exploration the Division is ‘The Western Front’(2003), a large-scale 8-hour exposure photograph shows this tension-filled land in a new perspective, effectively removing short-temporal elements, seemingly leaving only the long-term and spatial essence of the scene, the eternal essence and calm which people on the both side of the border are longing for.

If Atta KIM’s approach was to view the DMZ from afar, attempting the essence on the grand scale, Jiwon KIM(b.1961)’s approach is to explore this land in more close-up, down to the ground level. One of the unforeseen and ironic consequences of the DMZ is that it is now arguably one of the most beautiful and well-preserved natural wildlife area in the world. Wild flowers flourish there, and one of the most beautiful and hardy has a local name of Mendrami. Jiwon Kim’s ‘Mendrami(2007)’ is a painting of close-up of this small flower, which seems to embody both hope and past dark memories of the country.      

Yongbaek LEE (b.1966) approach is wholly different from other two artists. It is a well-known secret that although DMZ is supposed to be off-limits, soldiers from both sides often venture there. Yongbaek LEE’s ‘Angel-Soldier’(2007) shows a heavily camouflaged soldier as if entering the DMZ, except that he is camouflaged in flowers and he is in a overflowing beautiful flower garden. Is he an angel in soldier’s guise bringing hope and peace? Or is he a memory of past soldiers so often remembered with flowers?  

Women vs Woman – Women for Woman?

There is no doubt that the one of the consequences of Western cultural domination in Korea was the imprinting of Western standards of feminine beauty in the Korean society. When asked who the most beautiful woman was, most people who grew up in the post-Korean War era would answer Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Vivienne Leigh or some other Hollywood actresses. Even now, such a question would result in a person who was mostly from the West. This has resulted in pressure amongst girls and women in Korean society to become more Western-looking, resulting in a rapid growth of plastic surgery in the Korean society. Curious thing is that in the West, we are also seeing a intrusion of the Eastern standards of beauty i.e. straight hair, slender body, smaller hips, almond-shaped eyes.

Debbie HAN (b.1969 )’s works are studies of feminine beauty which results in challenging this notion of beauty. ‘Walking Three Graces’ show the Graces, but endowed with bodies of Korean Women. Thus, we see three women with heads endowed with Classical Greek beauty, and imperfect Korean bodies – how should we look at these?

Miyeon YOON (b.1976)’s series of photographs is also an exploration of hybridization of feminine beauty, but this time with a healthy dosage of black humor and fantasy. The work takes the format of traditional Korean portrait which puts the image next a poem in classical calligraphy (also recognized as a separate form of art in the East). It also takes on the common practice of using symbols in Classical Western art, but with a Buddhist twist. The Queen’s hands take the Shuni Mudra sign, which is supposed to increase awareness, making one more patient. Thus here we see a hybridization of not only the women, but the format, fantasy and symbols.  

Woojung CHUN (b.1976)’s ‘Untitled’(2003) also explores the nature of femininity, but of the textual kind. Portrayal of women in text has attracted less attention then that of visual representation, both amongst artists as well as the public. However, the impact of such portrayals is undeniable. Her work resembles collection of pages from a book torn and laid out in a pattern – however close inspection shows that the text only contains sentences containing female characters, and that each page were handwritten, creating a wholly feminine work containing the elements of both textual and visual art.  

Kira KIM(b. 1974)’s works take this exploration of textual representation of femininity one step further.  In the current contemporary culture, words of love seems to come hand-in-hand with words of violence, especially when concerning women. ‘Chick-flicks’ are shown, and seen, side-by-side with ‘torture porns’. Her ‘I Love U’(2006) and ‘Coca Killer’(2007) seems to be represent this dual aspect of current society. 

 

Harmony & Discord

Youngin HONG (b. 1972)’s works presented in this exhibition are experimentation of merging of photograph with embroidery, to produce a visual harmony with media which may seem incompatible with each other. And this attempt at producing harmony out of discord extends to the subject matter, mixing the historical lines and characters from various eras and countries.

Sungsoo KOO (b. 1970)’s ‘All of the Place 2-1’(2005) is a curious piece. On a wall of within a Korean restaurant, an anonymous artist painted a flowering cherry blossom tree which. Sungsoo Koo’s work is a photograph of that wall painting in its surrounding, and hence prompts us to ask a question – is photographic reproduction of art, art? Here we have something much more than just reproduction. It is a recognition, a realization that the wall painting, which in itself was just a competently executed work, became so much more when placed in the three dimensional space within this restaurant.

If an object is moved from its familiar surrounding to a different surrounding, would it remain a same object? When objects, language, even people are 'translated' to a different place, what happens to it? This question is not an arbitrary question in for artists like Meekyoung SHIN (b.1967) who, originally born and bred in Korea, have studied and worked for a more than fifteen years in the U.K. Whenever objects, words or symbols are introduced, it has to be 'translated' and thus can lose as well as gain new meanings, and she has continually asked and explored this question in her works. Her presented works, which resemble bottles and Chinese vases, are made of soap, and makes us wonder what 'authenticity' is, as well as nature of history and time.

Eemyun KANG (b.1981) also explores the theme of transformation, but in a more visceral manner. Her subject matter is transformation of physical body i.e. metamorphosis from one form to another, seemingly capturing not the end product, but the actual moment of change, the period of discord, chaos before the shapes are realigned to more familiar shape.

Junsung BAE (b. 1967)’s ‘The costume of painter kiss AP2/2’(2007) explores the aesthetics and format of classical Western art in off-beat and humorous manner, challenging the viewer to approach art history in a different light. It is a lenticular print, which when viewed from one angle shows a couple kissing in a posture which seems to have been taken from a classical Western painting. When seen in another angle, one sees the same woman but in a naked posture, alone. Which was the original, the nude or the kiss?

Yujung CHANG(b.1979)’s works simultaneously explores the nature of the artwork as object, as well as the nature of the portrayed object. By employing the method of painting on the photograph and printing on the canvas, she overlays the two medium i.e. photograph and painting. She thus creates a new type of medium which both confuses and delights at the same time.

Seunghee KANG (b.1976)’s works are colourful, vibrant, lively and robust. The images are both funny and disturbing, without any clear meaning, seemingly chaotic.  Her ‘I’ve got a feeling we are not in Wonderland anymore’(2006) is a traditional Korean screen, but instead of tradition ink or silk images portraying animals or flowers, there are  embroidery work, in cartoon style. The cartoon style itself seems to have elements of cartoons from both East and West, transforming the familiar into something strange and surprising.

Good Morning!

Curated by independent curator and art historian Jiyoon Lee, ‘Good morning Mr. Nam June PAIK’  is a celebration of collaborative creativity which Paik has worked so hard to gain during his lifetime, showcasing works by artists who seem so disparate from each other but were eager to explore this concept. The sense of artistic collaboration is further heightened by the fact that this new exhibition space was designed and installed by Jeong Hwa CHOI(b. 1961, Venice Biennale 2005, Wolverhampton Gallery 2007), who is one of the most active and original artist currently working in the international are scene. Paik provided a creative spark-plug, and significant voice in the establishment which allowed Korean contemporary art scene to develop as it did in the last fifteen years to become one of the most active in the world. And this may be the legacy which a Paik Name June would best liked to have left – not only as an artist, but as a facilitator, a communicator, a spark and an agent of change.

Jiyoon Lee