Woojung Chun’s library of mysteries

LKL completes its coverage of Korean artists at the Venice Biennale.

Woojung Chun: Library. Installation view © Daniele Nalesso
Woojung Chun: Library. Installation view © Daniele Nalesso

If you browse the shopping streets of Venice, among the numerous tourist outlets selling carnival masks, murano glass and designer clothes, you might find one or two shops selling well-crafted model book-cases: too big for your average dolls house, but nevertheless covetable. Something you appreciate for itself, for the feeling it engenders — of comfort, reassurance and civility.

Woojung Chun, detail from globe in Library (2009). Image © Daniele Nalesso
Woojung Chun, detail from globe in Library (2009). Image © Daniele Nalesso

Echoing some of these feelings is Woojung Chun’s Library installation, in a darkened room off the end of Garibaldi Street. As your eyes adjust to the lack of light, you see what at first sight seems to be a traditional library from an indeterminate past century, with full-sized versions of the dark wooden bookcases you can find in the shops. A couple of globes stand in the centre of the room. Around them are arranged the seven bookcases. But the orbs are not conventional maps of the world, and there are no books in the bookcases. Instead, there are meticulously crafted objects, Heath Robinson contraptions, mobiles and surreal constructions, giving a feeling of Magritte to the installation.

Image © Daniele Nalesso
Image © Daniele Nalesso
Globe from Woojung Chun Library. Image: LKL
Globe from Woojung Chun Library. Image: LKL

Your typical antique globe comes from an age when Western Europe was embarking on a century of exploration and discovery, leading to new ideas, new wealth, and new nations to dominate. They delineate those parts of the world which are known, and those that are terrae incognitae, where be dragons.

With Chun’s globes, everything is unknown. One of them is like a three-dimensional model for a Cluedo board, with rooms mysteriously labelled as “Dog Keepers Lounge” or “Sybyl’s Salon”. You are drawn in to trace a route through the tiny doors, wondering if this is a maze to be solved. The other orb is decorated with enough strange alchemical symbols and creatures to populate a whole library of Dan Brown novels. What does it all mean?

Normally when entering a library you expect to find answers available in the resources therein; or, browsing and cross-referencing from one book to another you eventually find resolution. In Chun’s library, those assumptions are turned on their heads. Whichever way you turn, what initially seems familiar becomes alien, and you begin to wonder why you felt comfortable in the first place.

What happens if you sit on that chair? Image © Daniele Nalesso
What happens if you sit on that chair? Image © Daniele Nalesso

Some of the objects in the cases are intriguing and amusing: a system of boxes, string and pulleys forms a complex contraption whose purpose is arcane; and a beautifully-engineered model of a chair suspended in a curving corridor of brass hoops took me back to my childhood and the TV programme Joe 90 (above).

Others are surreal: the chest of drawers with roots growing out of the base; or the black and white photographs of faces whose mouths are swallowing an endless string of letters and numbers.

And some are puzzling or even disturbing: tiny heads rest at uneasy angles; or a plaster nude figure lies curled up, foetus-like, with his back towards you. What is it cowering from? Is it asleep? Is it a Holbeinesque memento mori?

Instead of answers, you leave the room with a head full of questions. The darkened space with the subdued lighting gives a feeling of peace, but the mind is disturbed by its inability to resolve the questions raised by the puzzles with which it is presented. It is, however, a strangely satisfying experience.

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