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Pseudo-scientist inventing reality: a visit to Lee Hyung-koo’s work at the Venice Biennale 2007

Korean Pavillion 2007

Lee Hyungkoo: The Homo Species
Korean Pavillion, 52nd Venice Biennale, 10 June – 21 November 2007

In a Biennale dominated by the theme of war, AIDS, destruction and desolation, it was comforting to find some of the country pavillions conforming to national stereotypes. The French pavillion dissected a love letter written by a rather callous man terminating a relationship with his mistress. The British pavillion, as befits a nation of shopkeepers, used the event as an opportunity for retail therapy: outside was a stall selling Tracy Emin memorabilia — shopping bags and stick-on tattoos. The Koreans? Plastic surgery, obviously.

Lee Hyungkoo’s work in the Korean pavillion was influenced by his sense of physical inferiority when studying abroad in the US, surrounded by so many physically “superior” Caucasians. So one strand in Lee’s work explored the magnification or distortion of various body parts — eyes, mouth, fingers — though not with the scalpel.

In the iconic image which went with the show (top and bottom of this post), Lee created a glass helmet which distorts the size of the eyes and mouth. This helmet is displayed in one of the exhibits: a disturbing, starkly white “operating theatre” which contains other grotesque contraptions designed to magnify or otherwise modify the appearance of the body.

There was an accompanying video (no exhibition at the Biennale was complete without an LCD screen or two) which demonstrated the use of some of these implements with both live human and skeletal body parts, as well as providing some site-specific resonance by having a white-suited glass-helmeted actor roaming the alleys and canals of Venice in search of it was not clear what. But the video provided one link between Lee’s exploration of the proportions of the human body and his playing with the skeletal form.

The link is tenuous, and although the brief notes in the catalogue suggest another link:

The deformed faces of the Helmet series are not so far from the cartoon characters of the Animatus series.

Bunny Cranium from Lee Hyungkoo's Animatus series
Bunny Cranium from Lee Hyungkoo’s Animatus series

The two halves of the exhibition did not convincingly meet in the middle. The closest we came to a juncture was a skeletal Bugs Bunny cranium, with classic cartoon teeth and enlarged cartoon eyes.

In his creation of skeletal forms of western cartoon characters, Lee’s work can perhaps be compared with the playful archaeological projects of Cho Duck-hyun who buries artifacts only to excavate them later, creating a pseudo history around the artifacts. Lee is a pseudo-palaeontologist, creating and arranging partial and whole skeletons of cartoon characters.

The skeleton fragments were displayed in the middle gallery, the bones laid out as if in a natural history museum, together with some pseudo-scientific tools. The bones were unidentifiable as being from any particular creature – except for said bunny cranium. But in the main exhibition space was the installation which most visitors will take home in their memories: a fossilised Tom and Jerry chase scene – a variation on the Wile E Coyote and Road Runner installation displayed in London’s Union Gallery last year.

As Ahn Soyeon notes in her commentary1, it’s interesting that although Korea is becoming noted as an exporter of animation, it’s American cartoon characters which are the theme of his work. Maybe the Koreans should learn a lesson from the nearby British pavillion: a skeletal Tom and Jerry T-shirt would sell much better than a Tracy Emin note pad.


Lee Hyungkoo - Helmet

  1. The title of this post – Pseudo-scientist inventing reality – is in fact the title of Ahn Soyeon’s brief essay. The title was too good not to re-use []

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