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Korea at the Venice Biennale 2007: Lee Hyungkoo — The Homo Species

Details of Korea’s participation in this year’s Biennale:

Hyungkoo Lee: The Home Species

Korean Pavilion, Venice, 10 June – 21 November 2007

Hyungkoo Lee: Altering Facial Features with H-WR (2007)
Hyungkoo Lee: Altering Facial Features with H-WR (2007)

Curator’s Introduction

The starting point of curating this exhibition was to reconsider the geopolitical and cultural specificities of the national pavilion system at the Venice Biennale. Since Belgium had its own exclusive exhibition space at the 7th Venice Biennale in 1907, the national pavilion system has attracted many countries with its strong point of autonomy from the main exhibition. Powered by nationalistic pursuits after cultural supremacy of the national pavilion award, the number of participating nations has been steadily increased to the extent that more than 70 countries are supposed to present their own national exhibitions at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

This realistic overview suggests that national exhibitions are essentially different from the main exhibition of the Venice Biennale, which aims at a conflux of the newest artistic experiments developed in various areas. It is noteworthy that the US and other Western countries have historically shown their own star-players’ solo exhibitions to reinforce their national images and cultural identities.

Another challenge at the Venice Biennale is looking for the survival guide in the vast sea of visual information. The Venice Biennale is such a world-famous elephantine art show – covering the national pavilions around Giardini di Castello and the main exhibition at the Italian Pavilion and Arsenale as well as other associated exhibitions beyond the Venice Biennale – as it almost exceed the limit of human capacity to receive information through numerous artworks at once. Not to be neglected among the deluge of images, it is the key point to offer the audience an impressive visual and intellectual experience with proper choice and concentration.

Under the knotty condition of carrying out a national exhibition and with the limited space of about 200 square meters, the 2007 Korean Pavilion proposes a solo show for the first time. Avoiding the safe and easy way to choose an established artist as a national representative, Korean Pavilion bets upon an emerging and promising artist who has the potential to grow more in the international art scene from now on, who can connect his or her own experiences to contemporary cultural discourse in general as well as local cultural specificity.

Hyungkoo Lee, the selected artist of the Korean Pavilion, started his career with making self-transforming devices to overcome his ‘undersize complex’ as an Asian man while studying in the US. Exploring optical possibilities of body contortion according to traditional physiognomy as well as contemporary standard of beauty, he extends his concern to exaggerated bodies of imaginary cartoon characters to invent their fossil bones in a pseudo-medical and quasi-archaeological way. His works not only propose an original model of the post-human society, which is one of major issue in contemporary cultural discourse, but also powerfully supposes mutual reversibility between the real and the simulacra.

Acknowledging cultural complex of South Korea as an economic center and cultural periphery at once, Hyungkoo Lee challenges the very psychological entanglement through smart manipulation of the reality compelling global standards with a wonderful performance between acceptance and rejection, identification and differentiation. Zanily but keenly, he appropriates art as subversive means to deconstruct the actual reality and reconstruct other possible realities.

Hyungkoo Lee: Homo Animatus (2004)
Hyungkoo Lee: Homo Animatus (2004)


Hyungkoo Lee, trained as a sculptor at Hong-ik University (Seoul, BFA) and Yale University (New Haven, MFA), has been deeply engrossed in the subject of human body, to the extent of attempting to make a body composition out of chicken bones in his early days. Beyond representation into invention, he explores the current conflicts between mutually incompatible domains – such as reality and hypothesis, substance and image, history and fiction, science and imagination – in the so-called postmodern era. While his approach is analytic and logical, he also claims himself as an artisan-sculptor based on the belief in the value of manual labor.

Presenting such an ingenious works as The Objectuals and Animatus series since 2002, Hyungkoo Lee has drawn wide attention from the local and international art scene. The Objectuals, his early works which drastically transforms either a particular part or the entire body through optical devices, literary objectifies the non-objective world – including the human beings. Although the cold impersonal laboratory and its quasi-experimental contrivances looking like torture instruments suggest cynical and cruel objectuality, this series pursue humane wit and humor through phrenological investigation on the human body. Hyungkoo Lee proposes a provisional answer to the post-human issues, which encompass health and beauty, power and violence, sexuality and race, technology and simulation, with his own sharp and original interpretation.

The exaggerated human body in The Objectuals steps forward cartoon characters, the deformed and personified bodies which express each personality and its superpower and immortality. Hyungkoo Lee reconstructs imaginary cartoon characters into three-dimensional skeletons in a pseudo-archaeological approach, to make fiction into history. The resulted Animatus series, attributed to the tradition of Pop Art, can be seen as the epitome of simulation in providing plausible physical reference and zoological names to fictional characters.

The work of Hyungkoo Lee is regarded as the result of performances since his own body is the starting point of his work. In this sense, the staged laboratory is a kind of mobile studio for his work. As his laboratory and performance in the exhibition reveals the bases of his work and at the same time shading illusions on the boundary between art and pseudo-science, he conjures up an ironical authenticity in a quasi-pseudo mode.


Korean Pavilion constructed as the last national pavilion located in Giardini di Castello since 1995, has a rather small space of 200 square meters divided into complicated segments with circular, rectangular, and twisted partitions. Such incongruent spaces are unified with transparent glass walls through which the inside confronts with the outside. To make use of the specific architectural condition, recent commissioners of Korean pavilion have opened the given space up to the outer environments to make the entire exhibition space look rich and spacious.

The 2007 exhibition, however, switches over to a simple and concentrated space, completely isolated from nature. The resulted artificial space consists of two opposite black and white domains, staged as the emblematic places of human intelligence: natural history museum and medical laboratory, one for preserving the past and the other for predicting the future. This strategic choice makes it possible for the audiences, who unwittingly have encounters with nature between several national pavilions in the Giardini park, to refresh themselves and to fully appreciate the artworks’ presence through the uncanny and unnatural space.

Impressive artificial lightning, strictly coordinated to exclude unnecessary and conflicting elements from the audiences’ view and to spotlight the artworks, is another factor to make the exhibition space coherent and effective. Beyond reality into the past and the future, Korean pavilion would provide a virtual time travel in Venice.


Soyeon AhnSoyeon Ahn, born in 1961, Seoul, studied French literature (BA) and art history (MA) at Ewha Womans University, Seoul, and was trained at l’Ecole Nationale du Patrimoine in France. She started her career as Curator at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, from 1986, and currently she is Chief Curator of Leeum, Samsung Museum of Art, Seoul. She curated more than twenty exhibitions in museum-scale including Young Artists in Korea (1987), Groping Youth (1992), and ArtSpectrum (2001, 2003, 2006), which focused on discovering young generation in Korean art; several solo exhibitions including Joseph Beuys: Drawings and Objects (1991), Pistoletto through the Mirror (1994), Park Soo-Keun (1999), Worlds of Nam June Paik (2000), Lee Bul (2002), Matthew Barney: Drawing Restraint (2005); and some collaborative exhibitions with Asian curators such as Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (1996, 1999) and My Home is Yours, Your Home is Mine (2000). She also suggested new points of view in contemporary art through the exhibitions Contemporary Art in Transition(1997), Mind Space (2003) and Symptom of Adolescence (2006), among others.


Lee HyungkooHyungkoo Lee
Born in Pohang, Korea, 1969; MFA at Yale University, School of Art (New Haven, USA, 2002); BFA at Hongik University, College of Fine Arts (Seoul, Korea, 1998)

Solo Exhibitions
Animatus, Arario Gallery (Cheonan, Korea, 2006); The Objectuals, Sungkok Art Museum (Seoul, Korea, 2004)

Group Exhibitions
Alllooksame?, ArtChinaKoreaJapanArt, Fondazione Sandretto re Rebaudengo (Turin, Italy, 2006); Give Me Shelter, Union Project (London, UK, 2006); ArtSpectrum, Leeum (Seoul, Korea, 2006); Visions of the Body, Seoul Museum of Art (Seoul, Korea, 2005); Young Artists from Korea, China and Japan, National Museum of Contemporary Art (Gwacheon, Korea, 2004); The Joan Mitchell Foundation 2002 & 2003 MFA Grant Recipiants, Cue Art Foundation Gallery (New York City, USA, 2004); The 5th Open Studio Exhibition, Ssamzie Space (Seoul, Korea, 2004); Out the Window: Spaces of Distraction, Project Space Zip (Seoul, Korea, 2004); Out the Window: Spaces of Distraction, Japan Foundatiom Forum (Tokyo, Japan, 2004); Fake & Fantasy, Art Center Nabi (Seoul, Korea, 2003); Energy, Project Space Zip (Seoul, Korea, 2003); Beauty, Sungkok Art Museum (Seoul, Korea, 2003); Pleasure Factory, Seoul Museum of Art (Seoul, Korea, 2003); MFA Thesis Exhibition, Yale University School of Art (New Haven, USA, 2002); The Wight Biennial, New Wight Gallery, UCLA (Los Angeles, USA, 2001)

Residency & Fellowship 
Ssamzie Space Studio Program (Seoul, Korea, 2003); Joan Mitchell Foundation Award (2002); Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (Skowhegan, USA, 2001)

(automatically generated) Read LKL’s review of this event here.

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