With the high profile exhibition of Chinese art having just opened at the Hayward Gallery, let’s not forget that there was an equally significant exhibition of contemporary Korean art at the privately funded Saatchi Gallery earlier this summer. Like many exhibitions, Korean Eye 2012 was one which needed to be visited several times. It was simply too vast to take in at one viewing. And while many of the artists were already well-known to the regular follower of Korean art in London, there are always new artists to discover, and new things to see in familiar artists.
For example, Yee Sookyoung is not new to the London art scene: her Translated Vase series – sculptures made out of discarded broken blue and white ceramic fragments – were shown in an old Deptford police station and a Bloomsbury Gallery in 2009, but the sculptures on show in the first gallery in the Saatchi show were on an altogether different scale, and were accompanied by a series of large drawings in cinnabar on paper entitled Flame. The subjects of the drawings seemed to be drawn from myth, fable and religion – a completely different side to the artist that had not been on show in London before.
Also in the same room were photographs by Hong Seung-hee. Initially these looked like muted black and white paintings, but in fact they are clay sculptures of domestic interiors in which household objects are sinking under their own overbearing weight down into the quicksand-like floor, leaving creases as they sag and ooze down the wall. The resulting photographs radiate a sense of cartoon-like depression.
In the second room of the exhibition were the lenticular paintings of Bae Joon-sung, which also appeared in Korean Eye 2010. Bae plays with multiple levels of viewing and voyeurism: we look at a Korean woman in a French public art gallery, who is looking at Orientalist paintings. As we move round the gallery, we find the woman depicted in the painting becomes nude thanks to the lenticular technology. In another work, Bae paints a Roman sculpture of a nude hermaphrodite looking at an orientalist painting of a Korean odalisque in a Turkish harem.
In the same room was Debbie Han‘s Battle of Conception (2004 – 2010): 32 celadon ceramic busts of Venus, set out as if to start a chess game. On one side of the table the figures have their facial features blurred, while on the other the noses (a differentiator between the western and oriental face) and other facial features are exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness.
For me, the highlight of the whole show was the room given over to a Cho Duck-hyun project. His painstaking pencil and charcoal drawings which are designed to look like old black and white photographs play with the concepts of documentary history.
Cho’s work was last seen at Asia House in early 2007, in a tribute to Sir Peter Wakefield. The project in the Korean Eye show was devoted to Korean fashion designer Nora Noh (노라노). Noh, whose original name was Noh Myung-Ja (노명자), was born in 1928 in the Japanese colonial period. She got married at an early age to avoid being taken by the Japanese to serve as a sexual slave in a military “Comfort Station”. She left for the US in 1949 and later returned to Korea, bringing new fashions to a conservative country.
The installation plays with mirror images, fragmented composite photographs of Noh’s wedding, and like the Peter Wakefield collection has fun with a wedding dress which escapes from the picture frame.
Another pleasant surprise in the exhibition was on the top floor: the huge photographic compositions of Lee Jiyen. The two larger works were laborious collages, the prints literally cut and pasted into the patterns you see on the finished work. The interweaving patterns have an organic look, like the fibres in a muscle or threads in a textile.
Other works in the exhibition showed a meticulous attention to detail, from the iconic hyper-realist study of Mother Theresa by Kang Hyung-koo (painted on a flat aluminium surface),
via Lee Kwang-ho‘s frighteningly detailed close-ups of cacti, producing images which look like a tangled mass of caterpillers,
to the obsessive focus on women’s hair in the work of Oh Jeong-il, who used a single-strand brush the better to paint individual strands of hair.
Spread over twelve separate galleries on three floors, this was the biggest exhibition of Korean art ever to have taken place in the UK. There was plenty, almost too much, to enjoy. More photographs are below (click on any one for a slide show). Or see the complete set of artists with representative works on the Korean Eye website.