South Korea has received a crash course in modernity in recent years. Through Japanese occupation, the Korean war, democratisation, industrialisation and globalisation, Korea has had to adapt, and fast. High rises now abound throughout the otherwise romantic landscape of majestic, pine covered mountains populated with sprinklings of traditional slope roofed, wooden homes. One imagines Korea of yesteryear as a tranquil culture, full of ritual and spirituality; worlds apart from present day, glitzy uptown Gangnam in Seoul. Here, shiny suited business men are dwarfed by commanding, shimmering glass buildings to the soundtrack of bubblegum K-pop. It’s no wonder, in a country which has gone through such rapid development, a high volume of contemporary Korean art deals with the oft conflicting relationship between the past and the present. However, as curator Tom Woo’s latest efforts at HADA Contemporary display, the relationship need not be fraught, but one that can inform a promising future.
In Embracing the Void a partnership with the Albemarle Gallery in Mayfair, Woo has put together a show of five influential, contemporary Korean artists. Each make use of a philosophical or physical ‘void’ in their works to express a compromise of intrinsic human spirituality, central to traditional Korean Buddhist teaching, via modern life.
Moon Beom uses a physical void to relay a timeless human spirituality which transcends boundaries of past and present/ reality and fiction. Moon paints large, monochromatic, abstracted landscapes which reference traditional Korean landscapes in their form. The abstract shapes are reminiscent of billowing clouds or wonderful rock formations; an altogether alluring invitation into the ethereal pictorial space, where stark lines of Modernism have been rejected. However, evocation of tradition seems to go hand in hand with modernity as alluded to by use of bright, monochromatic colours.
Like Moon, Lee Jinhan enters into a discourse on space with a rejection of traditional landscape painting. However, unlike Moon’s works, Lee makes use of many colours in any one painting and employs an almost frantic manipulation of paint. Where Moon depicts abstract, yet undeniably ‘earthy’ forms, Lee completely abandons any reference to form in favour of indulgent expressions of pigment on canvas. They are joyous compositions made up of swirls, drips and both smooth and rough brushwork. However, upon closer inspection, the works prove to be carefully compositioned, as one’s eye is drawn carefully around, and into the colourful depth of the painting. Lee merges traditional perspective with expressionist abstractions, referencing relationships to space in a developed world.
Gwon Osan meanwhile, is preoccupied with the transformation of two dimensional into three dimensional spaces. Shiny fly speck photos are joined to forge traditional, sculptural, three dimensional figures. He references contemporary distractions such as fashion, cosmetic surgery and branding, and merges the traditional artform of sculpture with modern photography techniques. In this show, ‘Bazaar,’ (2008), is notable for its glamorous but unrealistically elongated representation of a woman who could be striding down a catwalk. However, where Moon unites past and present in a hopeful future, Gwon’s message seems to be less optimistic.
Jeong Myoungjo paints hyper-realist, almost life sized depictions of women in sumptuous traditional Korean attire. The women, backs always turned on the viewer, hang suspended in pictorial voids of flat and often black backgrounds. Whilst each silk thread, enameled hair pin and glossy strand of hair is depicted in a shiny reality reminiscent of the Old Masters, the message is not so uplifting. The faceless figures speak of Korean women’s status, which remains bound by tradition despite modernisation within the Hermit Kingdom. The figures are silent, immobile, suspended in time and space, and defined only by their clothing.
Zen Buddhism, (once very popular in Korea), with the essence of achieving enlightenment via seeking one’s untainted character at it’s core, is key to understanding Je Baak’s contribution to the show. Baak has used his own, as well as found, films of fair rides. Like Jeong’s characterless figures, Baak’s nightmarish rides are suspended in a black void. He has spliced images together, giving the appearance of a kaleidoscope formation, or amoeba, and slowed the movements of the rides down so that they take on unstable and inverse meanings. The exhilaratingly fast rides are slowed to a painful and never-ending loop, warning of the meaningless distractions of modern life.
Embracing the Void showcases five artists with five individual and highly stylised methods of communicating a similar message. Each manipulate space in their works to comment on the impact modern life has on our fundamental human spirituality. Gwon, Jeong and Baak warn more of the compromise which our spirituality encounters by way of present day preoccupations. Moon and Lee, on the other hand, ask us to embrace both the past and present to inform a positive future. The works have a timeless essence, meaning their messages will resonate far into the future. They are complimented by the Enrico Robusti paintings upstairs in the Arbemarle Gallery which have cramped, awkward compositions and harrowing subject matter. Step out of the hustle bustle of the streets of Mayfair, leave your modern day worries at the door and take time too, to reflect.
All images courtesy of HADA Contemporary and the artist. Embracing the Void continues at HADA Contemporary at the Albemarle Gallery, 49 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4JR until 25 June 2011.