Exhibition visit: 53 young Korean artists at the Bargehouse

Fifty three young Korean artists in one place, 2010’s 4482 exhibition is its third and biggest ever incarnation. The initiative’s name is drawn from the UK’s and South Korea’s international dialling codes (+44 and +82 respectively) and focuses on young Korean artistic talent based in the London area. In many cases the artists are students, but in others they have settled down to live in the UK. The idea had its first incarnation in New Malden in 2007, and moved to the Bargehouse in the OXO Tower wharf with 40 artists in October 2008. The location works well, with plenty of space for installations, and this year’s show was again at the riverside location. Such venues don’t come cheap though, and the exhibition only lasts for 3 or 4 days. If you’re someone who likes coming back to an exhibition to revisit particular works which caught your eye the first time round, you have to move quickly with 4482.

As in last year’s exhibition, there is a wide variety of art forms on view, including video work, sculpture, painting, photography and installation art. It is always good to see some familiar artists – for example Daehun Kwon‘s imaginative and hypnotically compelling shadow sculptures and Ayoung Kim‘s photographic reconstructions of gory newspaper stories have exhibited from the first show. Other regulars on the London art scene are Sang Yoon Yoon‘s oils expressing feelings of solitude and rejection; Gunwoo Shin‘s metal reliefs conjuring up sometimes nightmarish mental landscapes (one of them calls to mind the gruesome bin bag in Takashi Miike’s Audition); Luca Sang-jun Kim‘s vibrantly layered abstracts whose paintwork is the visual equivalent of the ringing of a brass bell; and Chan-hyo Bae‘s photographs depicting the (male) artist in elaborate historical or fairy-tale (female) costume.

It’s also equally pleasurable to see some new faces. So in this brief review, which cannot possibly do justice to so many artists and the wide range of work on display, I’m focusing on the work of artists who have struck me for the first time.

Still from video work by Jihye Park
Still from video work by Jihye Park

I confess to not being a natural fan of video art. It always seems to me that asking a viewer to give a certain amount of time to a viewing, when it might mean nothing to him, is asking too much. I’m sure I’ve seen some of Jihye Park’s work before, and not registered much. But this time was different. An almost naked white man – almost unhealthily white – reclines languorously on a chaise longue, a blanket strategically placed to avoid embarrassment. A young Korean woman is caressing him possessively, kissing him, almost worshipping him, as he reclines motionless and emotionless. Is this every man’s fantasy, being so adored by an exotic Asian? If subject doesn’t seem to be particularly enjoying it, he doesn’t appear to be hating every moment either: he is not displaying any reaction at all. We wonder what is going on here: are the two people lovers? There seems to be no passion, certainly no arousal on the part of the man. If not lovers, what other reason has brought them together into this situation? The woman seems to be enjoying herself more than the man. Who is exploiting whom?

In a second scene, the man is fully clothed, in black. Directly facing the camera, he seems to be kneeling or sitting, hands behind his back, perhaps tied there? Again, the Korean woman – long, rather unkempt hair, white dress, like the ghost from the Japanese horror movie The Ring. Is he a prisoner? Again, who is exploiting whom? Our initial assumption that the white male is exploiting the oriental female may not be right. The viewer is not told the answer, but then with some works there is no definitive answer.

Detail of installation by JooHee Hwang
Detail of installation by JooHee Hwang

In the same darkened room was an installation by JooHee Hwang: a large black box, illuminated from within, pierced with small peep-holes, only big enough for you to look through with one eye. Inside, a small model of a chicly dressed woman, standing in a corridor of hoops. To the side, a small male figure looked on. Through the peep holes you could only see parts of the scene at a time. It was like a psychedelic set from a 1960s movie by Seijun Suzuki or The Prisoner. What was going on was not clear, but certainly there were several layers of voyeurism involved.

Joo-hee Chun: Blessing
Joo-hee Chun: Blessing

Onwards to more restful work, and an artist new to the Korean Art scene in London. Joo-hee Chun trained at Winchester college of art, and this was her first London showing, with three paintings from her “Blessing” series. Chun, a committed Christian, paints as her spirit (or The Spirit) guides her, with layer upon layer of abstract and seemingly random calligraphy. The different layers are translucent, allowing the viewer to see the prayers building up over time. The whole is remarkably peaceful to look at, recalling the 1970s series of monochrome paintings Écriture by Park Seobo.

Jungju Yoon: Communion
Jungju Yoon: Communion

Continuing the religious theme, Jungu Yoon had a panel of nine paintings made out of red wine and canvas entitled “Communion”. The result was slightly reminiscent of the Turin Shroud.

Jae Yeon Chung: Love Letters in Hyde Park
Jae Yeon Chung: Love Letters in Hyde Park

Another set of works best viewed as a whole was Jae Yeon Chung’s poignant, one-sided collection of emails sent from an infatuated English language teacher to his elusive and uninterested Korean girlfriend. Were the emails really sent? Do people bare their innermost thoughts in an email which can be forwarded and copied so readily? If they were real, what brutal, vindictive artistic instinct prompted the recipient to blow them up into massive panels and display them first in Hyde Park and then in the Bargehouse at this exhibition? Plenty of food for thought.

Seungpyo Hong: The Man without Shoes (Urinary Bladder)
Seungpyo Hong: The Man without Shoes (Urinary Bladder)

There was also plenty of humour. We have seen Seungpyo Hong’s Heath Robinson contraptions before, at the KCC Supervisions exhibition in December 2009, and they are always entertaining. But in the same room was a sculpture by Chinwook Kim which was attracting a lot of attention: a male figure, standing on a set of bathroom scales, gloomily looking at the weight depicted therein. But this was not any male figure: the ornate paisley tattoos suggested that this man was a tough guy, a gangster. But the forlorn slump in his shoulders cried out that even the toughest guy can be vain about his body image.

Chinwook Kim: Gangster on bathroom scales
Chinwook Kim: Gangster on bathroom scales
Soonhak Kwon: Wonderwall
Soonhak Kwon: Wonderwall

And with all the interesting work on display, there was one work which was deliberately minimalist: Soonhak Kwon’s ultra-high-resolution photographs of a gallery wall just after the closing of an exhibition: the grain of the paint was almost tactile; you reached out to peel the blue-tak off the surface of the image, but of course it was just a photograph – “A photograph with no subject, yet a subject itself; the nothing becomes something, and vice versa,” explains the artist in the 4482 catalogue.

In fact one of the strengths of the exhibition was that many of the artists were present – if you could find them in the bustle of the opening reception. So if you couldn’t immediately engage with a work, a quick conversation with its creator at least was able to clarify the artist’s intentions and help you get closer to it.

To marshal 53 artists into one brief exhibition is a huge organisational achievement. With such a variety of work on display no common theme can be discernible other than diversity – which means that there is always going to be work that is going to appeal to someone. It is to be hoped that 4482 is now a regular fixture of the Korean artistic scene in London, giving us the chance to see the wealth of Korean talent coming through the art colleges.

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