Korea, Manchester and the International Art Triennial

ATM08 logoBeccy Kennedy reports

Britain’s first Triennial of Asian Art launched earlier this month, when a gaggle of global art goers gathered in the grandiose foyer and atrium of Manchester Art Gallery to preview the outstanding art installations from Korea. Of the five Asian countries selected by galleries in Manchester: China, India, Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, the largest gallery chose striking art works by Korean artists, Gwon Osang and Choe U-ram.

Yamaha - Osang GwonUpon entering the foyer of Manchester Art Gallery, Gwon Osang’s shiny photo montaged life sized figures greet the visitor wearing their casual clothes and animated poses, as they stand, on their plinths on either side of the staircase. Gwon visited Manchester last year and was inspired by a performance by Mancunian musician, Graham Massey, so decided to model a Styrofoam sculpture on him, YAMAHA (left), commissioned by Manchester Art Gallery. Gwon, who is interested in how body language and hand gestures alternate between cultures, worked one to one with Massey to produce a ‘glocal’ cultural creation, uniting Mancunian cultural chic with the typically careful craftsmanship of a contemporary Korean artist. YAMAHA stands opposite Control (bottom), a young Korean male, complimenting and contrasting Massey, clad in similarly casual gear but with a puzzlingly different pose. Gwon covers his figures with hundreds of snap shots of the model which include every separate part of the figure’s body, fused together on the surface of the sculpture to form a holistic yet slightly disjointed visual assimilation. Does this signify the complexity of our human biological mechanisms and the similarity of our genetic makeup across nations? Or, perhaps it represents the fractured and hyper-realistic nature of our identity formations in an increasingly media orientated globe.

Choe U-ramSimilarly surreal in outlook, are two mechanized metallic organisms from Choe U-ram’s extraordinary animal empire (right). Urbanus Male and Urbanus Female (below) co-habit the upper echelon of the gallery’s atrium. Suspended from the roof, like dinosaur skeletons, the two fictional creatures move interactively at regular intervals, catching the viewer unaware. Visitors have reportedly fallen in love with the robotic romance of these silver skinned structures, whose particular habitation requirements and personalities are described in the accompanying labeling. Not dissimilar in theme and style to Lee Hyungkoo’s faux-scientific sculptures, Choe creates creatures from naturalistic looking shapes, whose intangible familiarity is juxtaposed with the familiar intangibility of museum and mass media reduced science. Lee and Choe share this thoughtful mix of contemporary cultural commentation and stunning workmanship. Lee’s sculptures were the focus of the Venice Biennial 2007, and here, Choe’s works were the feature within the space for the opening speeches of Asia Triennial Manchester.

Choe U-ram: Urbanus Female (photo: Caroline Bradley)

Choe U-ram: Urbanus Female (photo: Caroline Bradley)

Control - Osang GwonThe Tri/biennial phenomenon has been shaping and been shaped by the international contemporary art scene, increasingly, over the past twenty years. Art critics are sceptical of the ‘pick a country’ approach to representing global art, or curatorial themes which aim to characterize a particular continent or nation’s cultural attributes. Asia Triennial Manchester 08, organised by the Asian arts agency Shisha, aimed to keep the artistic themes open, around the issue of ‘protest’ reflecting how individual artists use dissent in their work. Perhaps, this protest is also manifested within Shisha’s own autonomic approach to the triennial, as they have decentralised the omnipotent chief curator’s voice and gaze, and offered the microphone and magnifying glass to a range of curators, artists and members of the public, through a number of educational events and symposia. Issues such as the global/local have been explored at Castlefield Gallery’s ATM08 symposia series, whilst questions of the commercialisation and labelling of ‘Asian Art’ were raised at the Shisha / Manchester Metropolitan University conference on 4th April, ‘Protest: Reflections and Revolutions,’ by academics such as S. Sayid and Hou Hanru.

Asia Triennial Manchester has traversed the difficulties raised by the prescriptive visual documentation of ‘Asian Art,’ partly through its own self categorisation as an ‘Asia Triennial’, rather than a Triennial of ‘the Asian.’ The latter term, could instigate crude and undignified issues of ‘compare and contrast’ between Asian countries and ultimately suggest an outdated notion of nation or continent. Gwon Osang’s and Choe U-ram’s installations suggest they work as global artists, using global materials and inter-cultural or supernatural subject matter. Their themes, styles and techniques descend the neat narratives of national difference and highlight the plethora of issues encountered and aroused by artists from Korea.

Control - Osang Gwon (detail)

Gwon Osang will also present a solo exhibition at Manchester Art Gallery from 21 June – 21 September 2008.

Urbanus Male and Urbanus Female will exhibited in the gallery’s atrium space from 5 April to 21 September 2008.

Beccy Kennedy is a course leader for the Asia Triennial Manchester related course, ‘An Introduction to Contemporary Asian Art’ at Cornerhouse, Manchester. On 18 June, Beccy will lecture on issues of Colonial Modernity and post-modernity in 20thC art from Korea, and on 25 June, she will explore the contemporary implications of Socialist Realist poster art in DPRK (North Korea).

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