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Korean Eye: anything but ordinary

Jennifer Barclay pays a quick visit to the varied exhibition of contemporary Korean art at the Saatchi Gallery

Korean Eye was founded by David Ciclitira, who became a fan of contemporary Korean art when visiting South Korea on business, and decided to bring an exhibition to the UK for the first time last year. As an admirer of the South Korean art scene, he hunted in vain for a book that brought together the current stars, and unable to find one, he created the Korean Eye book also, on sale at this year’s exhibition which lasts only until 21 July.

Kim Hyun-soo: Breik, 2008
Kim Hyun-soo: Breik, 2008

The theme is ‘Fantastic Ordinary’, and I’m afraid I failed to discover the reason behind the name. But it’s well worth a half an hour’s visit. Most striking, I think, were the sculptures by Kim Hyun Soo of ‘Dryad and Young Dryad’ (2008). In Greek mythology, the dryad is a nymph or divinity of the woods. Kim’s interpretation shows realistic life-size figures of some creature half human, half deer, and naked to the hairless skin made lifelike with veins and human elbows, made from polyester resin. Accompanying these is a child with human hair and deer horns, which he is breaking off. Fantastic: yes. Ordinary? No.

Gwon Osang
Gwon Osang. Clockwise from foreground: Fuse (2007-8), Harpers Bazaar (2008), Metabo (2009)

Almost as arresting, iconic and beautiful were the shiny human figures by Gwon Osang: a tall woman in a pose reminiscent of an Ancient Egypt; a woman with a chain saw and an inquisitive expression; a man in motor-racing gear and helmet, curled almost in foetal position. No explanatory commentary was offered.

Two views of the same work by Bae Joon Sung
Two views of the same work by Bae Joon Sung: clothed or naked?

Other noteworthy pieces were the paintings by Bae Joon Sung, whose ‘Costume of Painter Kiss’ appeared at the Korean Cultural Centre in the brilliant show ‘Good Morning Mr Nam June Paik’ in 2008. Bae’s trick is to insert panels in the painting that change depending on the angle of viewing, so demure classic figures in draped robes transform into naked, sexy girls. The titles always sound a little lost in translation, and I wonder if Bae is too much of a one-trick pony, but there’s no denying the pieces are good fun.

Ji Yong-ho
Ji Yong-ho: Minotaur

Hong Young In’s embroidery works were unfathomable to me but interesting; Kim Dong Yoo’s homages to Warhol seemed unnecessary, but Park Eun Young’s Dali-esque ‘Brainwash’ was worth seeing, and Ji Yong-ho’s minotaur and shark made from old tyres really worked. On the whole, the Korean Eye exhibition stood out as far more valuable than much else in the gallery, except perhaps the building itself, a gorgeous space that makes the most of natural light and exposed old brickwork. There’s no advertising to draw visitors to this section of the gallery, but plenty of people seemed to have made their way up to the second floor and I hope they came away with their eyes opened to the fun and creativity in contemporary Korean art.

Korean Eye 2: Fantastic Ordinary runs on the top floor of the Saatchi Gallery, off Kings Road, until July 18th

Saatchi Gallery
The Saatchi Gallery, off London's Kings Road


One thought on “Korean Eye: anything but ordinary

  1. Thanks for the review, Jen

    I’m with you on Kim Dong Yoo’s pop art portraits – they leave me relatively cold. In their defence, they clearly take a lot of work: all those tiny faces of Lady Di which in aggregate make up the Queen’s face are individually painted. From a distance I assumed they were a bunch of near-identical photos stuck together.

    The one-trick pony, like you, I find fun and interesting. Apparently his early work was less hi-tech. He used to paint the clothed portraits on a plastic film which you had to lift up in order to see the naked portraits underneath. Very voyeuristic. When I visited the show there was one viewer who was walking very slowly along the Bae Joon Sung works filming them with her iPhone to get a video of the clothes coming on and off.

    I loved the little dryad, almost in tears as he gazes at his broken antler. He seemed to be uncomfortable with the antlers, but equally uncomfortable with having broken them: something to do with not wanting to enter puberty?

    I couldn’t really figure out the Dali-esque stuff, but I enjoyed the Chinook helicopter erecting the “Welcoem to Korea” sign at the back of the North Korean 50 Won note. Jeon Joon Ho is one video artist I don’t mind spending time with. Others I never know whether the time spent is going to be worth it.

    Overall I much preferred this year’s exhibition to the chaotic but rich jumble that was Moon Generation last year. There was just about a theme connecting the works in this show – though with six curators that must have been a tall order. Plus, it’s good to see Bae Chan-hyo’s fairy-tale self-portraits in high-profile company: looks like he’s made it.

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