London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

We look forward to lunchtime

An assessment of “Good Morning, Mr Paik Nam June”
Korean Cultural Centre, UK, 1 Feb – 2 Mar, Mon-Fri 9:30 – 5:30

It must be a very attractive prospect to be offered the job of curating a prestigious exhibition at the high-profile launch of a cultural centre. Having a blank canvas to work on certainly must be appealing. But the flip side of the deal is that, when you only know the exhibition space from the designer’s drawing board rather than in real life you are working with rather an unknown quantity. And when the inevitable nightmare comes, and you are trying to hang the show as builders struggle to finish the job, you must start to wonder if you were wise to take the job on.

The objectives of the exhibition are laudible. Anchored around three single-channel video works by Korea’s best-known modern artist internationally, Nam June Paik, is a kaleidoscopic view of work by other Korean artists, both established and emerging.

Unfortunately the space is not ideal for the works being displayed. Most importantly, with three or four video works playing simultaneously in close proximity, inevitably the sound from one work floats around the corner or over the top of the partition to distract you as you are trying to focus on another. Another shortcoming: one work is shown on multiple screens facing Northumberland Avenue, of course to attract the passing punter. In order to view the work from inside the Centre you are forced up against the window. Viewing the screens so close I was reminded why it was that I never once considered buying a plasma TV: the picture is just too fuzzy. This was partly the fault of the video work itself (which included some poor quality satellite broadcasting), but the reproduction on the LCD screens was noticeably better.

And just to get all my gripes about the physical aspects of the exhibition out of my system, one work is hung in so profoundly unsympathetic a position as to almost deny its point. The large format black and white photograph of a bamboo forest by Kim Daesoo encourages you to stand in front of it and contemplate its peacefulness. The notes accompanying the exhibition highlight the work’s links to the traditional style of Eastern painting: black ink on paper. But as you look at the work, more than anything else you see, reflected in the glass, the noisy day-glo red of the wall behind you, the semi-naked cellist in one of the video works, and the free-standing screen with boldly-coloured cartoon characters.

Daesoo KIM – Bamboo Field, 2003, Gelatin silver print, 120 x 160 cm, (right) in not a very sympathetic environment

Thus the exhibition, intentionally or not, reproduces the liveliness of a busy street in Seoul, where you are not permitted to stand and contemplate, but instead are jostled every which way by your fellow human beings and are assaulted by different noises and sensations from all sides.

As for the works themselves, there are certainly some high-profile and talented artists represented. The headline artist is of course Nam June Paik. One of the works on show appeared to be his 1984 project Good Morning Mr Orwell: a global simultaneous broadcast marking the beginning of the ominous year. Live from Seoul came a broadcast of a shaman blessing a satellite, perfectly encapsulating one of the strand of the Korean national branding: cutting edge but still retaining traditions. The obligatory not terribly illuminating interview follows.

The challenge I find with video work is that while you know fairly quickly whether a painting is going to interest you, with a video you’ve pretty much got to watch it all the way through to figure out whether it’s got anything to say. And when you’re constrained to a quick visit to a show at lunchtime, and the three video works interfere with each other aurally, it’s pretty difficult to work out whether it’s worth your while investing the time with them. However, there seemed to be a lot of cellos involved.

Of the remaining work my own particular favourite is by one of the more senior Koreans artists, Song Soonam, a pair of colourful flower paintings inspired by the folk-art genre. Song is a long-established artist, and earlier in his career was known for experimenting with more monochrome literati-style ink painting. But this was not the occasion for a retrospective of his work and development.

The exhibition spans a wide range of themes: aspects of Division are explored by Atta Kim’s 8-hour exposure photograph of the DMZ (a seemingly tranquil landscape, but with a barbed-wire fence in the foreground), by Kim Jiwon’s Mendrami (shown last year at Asia House) and a still from Lee Yongbaek’s prowling Angel Soldier (shown last year at the Circuit Diagram show). Aspects of the female form are explored by Debbie Han’s Three Graces (recently shown at I-MYU), Yoon Miyeon’s hybrid Korean / western Elizabethan queen; and the voyeuristic Costume of Painter Kiss by Bae Junsung, which, viewed from one angle is a classical western-style painting of an embrace (strangely situated in front of what seems to be an altar), while viewed from another the male of the couple disappears and the female is naked.

The accompanying notes are helpful and informative1 and certainly make us want to explore some of the artists further.

Inevitably though, in setting a particular work in a horizontal context (setting it beside that of many other artists) the vertical context (placing the work in the development of the particular artist’s career) is lost, and we are faced with a pick-and-mix hors d’oeuvre rather than a satisfying meal. But it has certainly whetted the appetite for more in-depth explorations.

To have launched the KCC with a show that is an outstanding success would have left nowhere to go. As it is, what we have is a selection of interesting and varied work, and we can look forward to future exhibitions which have the luxury of working with a finished space.


  1. it is flattering to see some of LKL’s own language creeping in to the description of the work of one of the artists []

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