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Guerrilla artists take on the establishment

Lee Sanghyun: Peach Blossom Paradise and Streaming Water from 'Nine Clouds Dream', 2007 (detail). At Christies
Lee Sanghyun: Peach Blossom Paradise and Streaming Water from ‘Nine Clouds Dream’, 2007 (detail). At Christie’s

In the north-east extremities of the City, on the fringes of bohemian Hoxton, is I-MYU, a small gallery on the first floor of a shared block. You need to ring the doorbell to gain admittance. Since its opening nearly two years ago, I-MYU has been championing the cause of Korean artists. Im Jeongae and Yu Eunbok have brought over artists from Seoul, and also provided an outlet for Korean artists in London to show their work. One of the things which makes I-MYU stand out from the ad-hoc exhibitions which pop up in different galleries throughout London is their insistence on having some helpful commentary on their artists’ work. They know their artists and are happy to talk about their work.

Some of I-MYU’s artists are now graduating to the bigger galleries, and indeed a couple of them currently have works for sale at Christie’s and the Korean Eye: Moon Generation event at Saatchi / Phillips de Pury. So, before looking at the current I-MYU show, let’s take a look at the experiences on offer at the high-profile venues further west.

Moon Generation has a high-concept curatorial statement, but to the man in the street it looks like an essay which is desperately trying to draw connections between particular artists where none exist. Claiming the Moon as a symbol of the East, the essay subdivides the exhibition “into categories reflecting each artist’s interpretation – ‘Moon Hunters’, ‘Moon Reflection’ and ‘Moon Configuration’ – under the overarching theme of an eclipse.” But as if to admit defeat, the essay did not manage to shoehorn all the artists into these classifications. The Christie’s Distinctively Korean collection has no such pretensions, but with a thoughtful introductory essay by curator Kang Seungwan and intelligent hanging in the exhibition space the display is a remarkably satisfying artistic experience. The mixture of works from the Distinctively British and Distinctively Japanese sales allowed a level of balance and counterpoint between the works as you moved around the gallery.

Kim Jong-ku: Landscape (2007) (detail)
Kim Jong-ku: Landscape (2007) (detail). At Christie’s

The monochrome, minimalist images of Min Byung-hun and Kim Jong-ku were placed close together, while on the next wall the glorious digitally enhanced colour dominated, with works by Kim Joon, Koh Sang-woo and the whimsical computer-game fantasy of Lee Sang-hyun. Opposite, completely dominating the room, was Kim In-sook’s laborious work Saturday Night, 3 years in the making, epic on a Gursky scale. It got the most attention of all the photographs in the room, as people looked at it from afar, appreciating the kaleidoscoping colours, and then went up close to examine the murky goings-on in each of the hotel rooms.

Kim In-sook: Saturday Night (2007). (Detail). At Christies
Kim In-sook: Saturday Night (2007). (Detail). At Christie’s

Lee Jung’s grey landscape looking over into the hills of North Korea (below) was opposite Bae Bien-u’s misty and mystic grey pines – which in turn were next to a misty and mystic grey Buddhist monk (Japanese); an unreal Battersea power station (British) was placed next to Back Seung-woo’s surreal image of the taken in Aiins World theme park (below); a reconstruction of the Lady of Shallott near a Hackey housing estate (British) placed next to Jung Yeon-doo’s fantastically staged Location (below). Altogether, a well though-out hanging of many quality works, and if I were fortunate enough to have a big fat chequebook with a bottomless account to go with it, I could imagine it seeing some use at the Christie’s auction.

The works on show in the Saatchi gallery, though arguably given enough physical space, jostle noisily with each other, offering little in the way of discussion or conversation. Walking through the exhibits, you feel as if you are in Namdaemun market, assaulted from all sides with conflicting sights and sounds. What does Jeon Joon-ho’s rotting corpse holding a digital picture of a crucifixion have in common with Lee Dong-wook’s samurai sword with an unusual handle – apart from the trivial similarity that they are both in glass display cases? Lee Hyung-koo’s trademark white Homo Animatus dissolves into the background, suspended as it is from a white ceiling rather than against the dramatic black background which normally offsets his work. Lee Yong-baek’s plastic fish are placed next to Park Jung-hyuk’s nightmarish orgiastic tableau; Whang Inkie’s two-dimensial lego landscape clashes with Koh Myung-keun’s semi-transparent buddhist photo-sculpture. Choi Tae-hoon’s placid metal sculpture of a tree in an inverted pyramid is placed next to Yoon Jong-seok’s painting of a couple of vests folded in the shape of a pistol. What is one supposed to make of it all?

Yi Hwan-kwon: Jangdockdae (2008). At Phillips de Pury / Saatchi
Yi Hwan-kwon: Jangdockdae (2008). At Phillips de Pury / Saatchi

The most attention-grabbing exhibit, Yi Hwan-kwon’s distorted human figures which had everyone looking at them from different angles to see if they looked normal from one particular direction, could be a metaphor for the exhibition as a whole. Whichever way you looked at the work, you couldn’t resolve the sculptures into a view which was harmonious or relaxing to the eye, but it was nevertheless intriguing.

A canny investor will undoubtedly identify a buying opportunity at Phillips, but this will probably be based on pre-existing knowledge of the artist’s oeuvre. When there is such a smorgasbord of work on offer, with little to place individual works in the context of a particular artist’s output, and little to join the dots between the artists, a casual buyer will not be reaching for the credit card. It is reported that the exhibition, as originally planned, was going to have half a dozen works by a smaller number of artists, which would have been a preferable approach. But no doubt the intense difficulty of selecting the lucky artists in such a competitive world, and in an exhibition with public sponsorship, led to the shortlist becoming a longlist. As a result, the strength of the exhibition is the way it represents Korea itself: vibrant, energetic and passionate on the one hand, but also a little chaotic, bemusing and in need of interpretation.

Korean Old Pop Montage

The Jack comes to grief somewhere in London. 27 June 2009
The Jack comes to grief somewhere in London. 27 June 2009

Vibrant and energetic are also adjectives which could be used of the exhibition at I-MYU. Also anarchic, fun and ironic. Min Byung Jic’s extended curatorial essay that goes with the exhibition gives a good overview of what the artists are trying to achieve. This is not about the ‘old’ Korean pop art, the essay opens, controversially. I say “controversially” because the images on offer definitely belong to the pop art conventions. The essay itself is worth a read, but don’t get too hung up on it. Go and enjoy the art instead.

The Jack (Shin Il-seop) is part performance artist, part painter, as well as being an underground musician. One of the most amusing exhibits in the show was a mythical cartoon life-story of the rabbit-headed anti-hero. A messianic figure, resurrected to become a disciple in strange shaman-buddhist order, attacked and blinded by a jealous George W Bush, abducted from Baekdu-san by hostile space aliens, subjected to brain experimentation, with the result that now he’s, well, pretty crap really. Last seen being beaten up by bunny girls on the streets of London. He takes a pet toy dog for walks and ends up in scrapes. Is it art? Who cares. It’s rather fun, and probably has some deep meaning to it. Would you like one of his creations on your wall? Why not.

Kang Young-min: Voyeur
Kang Young-min: Voyeur

Similarly the other two artists. The heart-shaped hero of Kang Young-min’s works, somewhat cartoon like, appears in many guises – trapped helplessly in a spider’s web, flying a tubby jet, in intensive care in hospital. Like The Jack, Kang’s character is that of a loser, but one with attitude.

Kim Ki-Yong: Dummy
Kim Ki-Yong: Dummy

Kim Ki-Yong’s obsession is with dummies – crash test dummies, or ventriloquist’s dolls. Kim is also a curator and a critic. His work possibly tells less of a story than Kang or The Jack. His energetic paintings of table-football dummies recall the style of Lichtenstein, but somehow never get beyond the image to say anything more. But put together with the work of the other artists, the exhibition as a whole gives plenty of enjoyment.

So, full marks to Christie’s and to I-MYU for constructing collections which work well together. Good marks to Phillips de Pury for bringing together some interesting artists, but somehow we need more than that.

Christie’s Distinctively Korean sale is on 1 July 2009
Phillips de Pury’s Moon Generation exhibition finishes on July 5
I-MYU’s Korean Old Pop exhibition finishes on 18 July

2 thoughts on “Guerrilla artists take on the establishment

  1. i want a print of the kim insook hotel photo *sigh*
    seriously … will there or are there prints available??

    (i cant afford the original)

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