Review of the Asia House exhibition by Beccy Kennedy
The multi-storey, multi-story exhibition of contemporary Korean art at Asia House, Through the Looking Glass, provides a multi-faceted Korean art experience, in terms of the media used and the themes approached by the artists. Independent curator, Jiyoon Lee, uses the looking glass as an audience-friendly metaphor to describe the need for investigation between the worlds of Britain and Korea, as they collide within a globalising world. On one side of the glass are Korean art works, from an art world of which the British mind is perhaps unfamiliar; on the other side of the glass is this uninformed British consciousness, carrying with it assumptions and expectations of Korean culture. The two worlds can see each other but are still partitioned by an invisible barrier, which is in need of some breaking, in order for a complete fusion of understanding and meaning to be embraced. This exhibition challenges the currently underdeveloped dialogue between the British and Korean art worlds. As part of Britain’s Think Korea season, “Through the Looking Glass” has uncovered a vital and vitalising channel into the contemporary Korean art scene.
A range of art works from South Korea are presented by artists using a mixture of media, from figurative cold war themed oil painting (Jiwon Kim’s Mendrami, 2004) to real time, motional, water based video projection (Youngjin Kim’s Fluid, 2006) (below). The depth and variety of art forms and styles is striking, as they interlace their way through the Georgian rooms and corridors of the Asia House space, not forgetting the ladies’ toilets, where Meekyoung Shin’s metallicised soap Translation-Buddha (2006) offers to literally and spiritually cleanse the viewer of their cultural preconceptions.
This is also explored in Shin’s other soap sculptures, such as Translation-Crouching Aphrodite, a Greek styled soap statue of herself (Korean), which raises questions of art historical authenticity and the historicity of the East – West dichotomy or Orientalism. Other artists to approach these issues are Duck-Hyun Cho, in his commissioned Sir Peter Wakefield Collection (2006) and Jeong-Hwa Choi in his plastic suspended sculptures, such as Green, (2006) which is comprised of fluorescent green baskets, with a look of production line aesthetics, joined together to form an elegant, stupa like chandelier.
This juxtaposition of contemporary materials with traditionally “oriental” subject matter is also present in Choi’s motor generated Lotus (2006); two waterproof lotus flowers whose “pond” is actually a pre-fabricated concrete rooftop, which can be unexpectedly spotted from a window of one of the first floor exhibition rooms.
Yong-Baek Lee’s In-between (2006) provides a similarly astonishing visual impact. A mirrored box stands at knee level and at first seems to offer nothing but the viewer’s own distorted reflection, until a religiously iconic head transmogrifying from Buddha to Jesus, flies forwards from within the far side of the box then disappears, before reappearing again, in a continual flux of celestial confusion. In-between raises possible questions of religious indigeneity and mutability caused by international movements and globalisation. It challenges Western preconceptions of Eastern countries’ religions and thus traditionalisms, as Christianity has been recorded to be South Korea’s predominant religion1. Lee’s work is housed at basement level, alongside the impressive and challenging multi-media installations of Youngjin Kim and Beom Kim.
Beom Kim’s montage of hundreds of Korean newsreader clips, assimilates a seemingly coherent monologue of the newsreader on the surface, but quickly it becomes clear that the content of what they are saying is banal. This questions the repetitiveness and absurdity of news based dialogue and how the mass media plays an authoritative role in constructing the audience’s knowledge of the “world”. Next to Kim’s work is Kyuchul Ahn’s Abandoned Doors (2006), a small house, into which you can enter, made from unused wooden doors, discarded during the 60s and 70s in Korea, an era which is sometimes viewed as lost within its transitory quest for industrialisation. Like Sora Kim’s Runaway (2006) poem/music installation, consisting (post-performance) of books, taken from the Asia House collection, stacked face-up on shelves; the scale and interactive aspect of the works welcome the viewer to engage empathetically with the histories in question. It also raises an awareness of the well needed current concerns of integrating environmentalism into art works.
Yeongdoo Jung’s photographs and paintings, Wonderland (2004), which occupy the main room on the first floor, offer a charming passage into the childhood psyche. Each colourful drawing of a favourite story or daily experience of the child artists (below left) is elaborately reproduced in the form of a staged photograph by Jung (below right). The attention to detail in the transliterated photographs emphasises the imaginations of the children and provokes a nostalgic glimpse into the viewer’s own forgotten interpretations of life. Jung’s work nicely compliments and assimilates the general “wonderland” theme of the exhibition2.
At Through the Looking Glass, Korean art is not reduced, as it sometimes is, to an overview of its own “Korean identity” or “Korean-ness”; an approach which simplifies and generalises Korean art, confining it to a periphery. The British viewer’s vision of Korea as a country as seen through the “Looking Glass” is as diverse and inconclusive a statement on Korean culture as a British art show, such as The Turner Prize, is to British culture. It is an enlightening, educational and eclectic opening for contemporary Korean art works in Britain, not a crude guide to Korea’s history and traditionalism as traced through their modern art scene. Jiyoon Lee has allowed for open interpretations of the art works by using a wide range of artists and little accompanying written analysis. The visitor is invited to experience and explore the art works comfortably, without needing prior knowledge of art or of Korea. Upon magnification there will be elements visible of Korea’s traditional “wonders” within the exhibition but it is also edifying of contemporary Korean lifestyles. The degree of multi-dimensionality experienced during the journey of Through the Looking Glass, depends on who’s holding the looking glass, how carefully they gaze and at what angle they choose to hold it.
- Official exhibition website with images and artist biographies.
- “According to a 1995 social statistics survey, 50.7 percent of Koreans follow a specific religious faith. Buddhists number 10,321,0123 or 45.6 percent of the religious population; Protestants 8,760,336 or 38.7 percent; Catholics 2,950,730 or 13.1 percent; and Confucianists 210,927 or 0.9 percent,” The Korean Embassy, http://www.asianinfo.org/asianinfo/korea/pro-religion.htm
- The full set of Jung’s Wonderland images are on his website here